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"Mr Big," a mainstay of countless Command and Time recordings, and one of the most prolific and respected studio musicians of the post-World War Two era.
Ironically, Mottola only started learning to play the guitar by accident. He'd originally wanted to play the saxophone, but when he was told he was too young to take the bus by himself to the teacher's house in Newark, his father offered to teach him guitar at home instead.
He played guitar through high school, where he met a number of classmates with whom he would work professionally as a musician. He and Al Caiola became friends and played in a group modelled on Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's Hot Club Quintet. Mottola and Al Viola also played together as teens on Jersey City radio station WAAT, where he also first became acquainted with a young singer named Frank Sinatra. When his friend George Paxton got a job with George Hall's orchestra, he convinced Hall to hire Mottola, and together they played with a group of young talents that included Johnnie Guarneri on piano and Nick Fatool on drums. Mottola's first recorded performance was with Hall, backing singer Dolly Dawn on the single, "Shine."
In 1941, Mottola, who never cared much for touring, auditioned for and was hired into the CBS radio studio orchestra in New York. There he worked with Raymond Scott and performed again with Frank Sinatra, until Sinatra left and was replaced by Perry Como. Mottola continued to work closely with Como, becoming his arranger when Como got his own TV variety show in the 1950s.
Back in the late 1940s, when networks were desparate for material, he even hosted his own fifteen-minute show, a musical variety spot called "Face the Music." He also performed in the studio bands for the "Sid Caesar Comedy Hour" and "Sing Along with Mitch." Skitch Henderson hired him as one of the original members of the band for the "Tonight Show," and he remained with the show until the late 1960s.
One of his most notable accomplishments was the score for the early CBS suspense anthology series, "Danger." Director Yul Brynner (soon to switch roles and make his big splash as the lead in "The King and I") invited Mottola to devise an original score for the show. Brynner was impressed by the effectiveness of Anton Karas' zither score for The Third Man and wanted Mottola to come up with something similar.
The theme Mottola came up with was simple but effective: a single repeated note, interrupted by a dramatic chord when a dagger struck a fence on camera. According to John Burlingame's account in his book, TV's Biggest Hits, "Musicians began referring to it as 'the "Danger" chord,' or 'the Tony Mottola chord.'"
Brynner, and his successor, Sidney Lumet, liked the music so much he insisted Mottola write and perform an original score for each episode. Even for a pro like Mottola, it was quite a challenge. He had, on average, less than three days to go from watching a run-through rehearsal to being ready to perform live behind camera. Sitting in a booth next to the control room, he watched the action on a monitor while wearing a special headset with the dialogue in one ear and the director's cues in the other. Since his hands were busy playing, he had to memorize his parts beforehand.
On one episode, in 1953, he even appeared on screen, playing the part of a bandleader, sprinting back to the booth between his scenes. Interest in Mottola's music led his old friend, George Paxton, to entice him to write a folio of pieces from the show for guitar, and MGM's record division even hired him to record the theme and a half-dozen other numbers for a 10-inch LP. The album earned Mottola a spot in the record books as the first original soundtrack album from a television show. Mottola later reprised the theme on his earliest album for Enoch Light's Command label.
Light had known Mottola from the New York studio scene, and he had been particularly impressed by a distinctive album Mottola and Caiola recorded with Johnny Mathis, titled, Open Fire, Warm Guitars. The soft and subtle sound of Mathis singing with only the two guitarists as back-up stood out from the lush orchestral settings common for singers at the time, and Light wanted to reproduce and improve upon it using his superb recording techniques.
The two men quickly established a close professional and personal relationship. Even though most of the music Light released on his Command label was brassy, percussive, and showy, he had a tremendous respect for Mottola's more delicate guitar work. As fellow guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli put it, "His sound was very warm, tender and expressive. He never hit a bad note in his life." Many of Mottola's albums on Command and Light's successor label, Project 3, feature him on acoustic guitar with just a spare rhythm section as back-up.
Mottola went on to record over 30 albums on Command and Project 3, more than even the prolific Dick Hyman. Before Light died in 1978, he asked specifically to have Mottola perform at his memorial service. Mottola chose a medley of the Lennon-McCartney song, "Yesterday," and "Yesterdays," the Jerome Kern tune, that he had recorded for Light on the Project 3 album, Superstar Guitar.
Even though Sinatra long used Al Viola as his guitarist in his touring bands, he never lost his admiration for Mottola's work, and when Viola retired from touring in 1980, Mottola was his first pick. Mottola and his wife Mitzi traveled with Sinatra, who gave Mottola a solo spot in each show and often sang alongside him as a duo. "In my humble view," said longtime Sinatra associate Vince Falcone, "Tony was the quintessential guitar player for Sinatra." He backed Sinatra solo on the beautiful song, "It's Sunday" for a rare 1983 single on Warner Brothers. The same year, he recorded his last album for the Project 3 label, a Sinatra tribute titled, All the Way that featured long-time colleagues Dick Hyman, Irv Cottler, Pizzarelli, and Urbie Green. He performed with Sinatra at Carnegie Hall in 1988 and then, for the last time together, at the White House for President Reagan.
Even after retiring completely, he continued to play the guitar almost every day. "He felt music kept his mind sharp," said his son, Tony (Jr.). He died from complications due to a stroke and double pneumonia.
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