Hiding behind a Salem Street go-go bar is a one-of-a-kind music studio frequented by undisputed icons of jazz, blues and rock history.
The latest project coming from Showplace Music Studios and Music Production is a video documentary of the legendary “Jersey Guitar Mafia,” a group of Garden State guitar heroes that got their name from Rock Hall of Fame member and fellow Jersey resident Les Paul for their domination of session work in the 1950s and '60s.
The kingpin of the group, Bucky Pizzarelli, is well-known to Morris County jazz fans for his frequent appearances in the area, most recently at the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival last month. Pizzarelli, 87, also has a national profile, having played at the White House, with Benny Goodman and serving as the longtime guitarist for The Tonight Show band on NBC. But his resume is rivaled by fellow Guitar Mafia members Lou Pallo, 77, who spent 30 years playing in the Les Paul Trio, and Al Caiola, 93, who not only played with Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, among countless others, but produced the guitar riffs of the famous Bonanza TV theme song.
The kid of the group is Frank Vignola, 47, who has played with Ringo Starr and Madonna, among others, and joined Pizzarelli's Guitar Summit group last month in Morristown.
In 2011, this quartet of guitar goodfellas assembled at Showplace to record their first official “Jersey Guitar Mafia” CD of songs, which focused on Italian favorites such as “Volare” and “O Sole Mio” and was released in 2011 on the Showplace label.
On Thursday, they gathered again at Calandra's Mediterranean Grill at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Fairfield for two shows that were captured on video for the coming documentary. The sold-out shows attracted many of their longtime fans along with some other guitar virtuosos, who waited at the restaurant's bar for a chance to sit in.
Award-winning producer and lifelong Morristown resident Ben Elliott is the man behind the music coming out of Showplace since 1991. The Showplace started out as a nightclub concert venue that featured headline bands in the 1970s and '80s.
“I used to go to a lot of shows there,” Elliott told The Daily Record of Parsippany. “The size of the venue versus what the bands were costing got out of control, so they decided to make a studio. They knew me and I was working in New York at the time, so we became partners. I put in the studio and ran it.”
Elliott's million-dollar transformation of the back half of the building included both state-of-the-art digital equipment and his extensive collection of vintage recording equipment, which proved popular with many jazz and bluesmen coming through New York.
“We get a lot of business from New York because we're a large room and I'm used to recording the old-school way, with everybody recording together,” he said. “We have a grand piano and a Hammond B-3 (organ). We get a lot of real musicians who need a big space and aren't that interested in overdubbing, although we do overdub. A lot of times we don't even use headphones. They set up just like they are playing in a living room.”
The musicians he has lured to Dover included Eric Clapton, Steve Miller and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who Elliott recorded for a Grammy-winning tribute to Hank Williams.
“Keith has been here many times,” Elliott said.
Other notable musicians came to Showplace for an all-star musical tribute to Les Paul, “Thank You Les,” another of Elliott's collaborations with Montville resident Joni Forte. Those sessions were released on CD and vinyl in 2012.
“We decided to reinvent ourselves a few years ago and brought Joni in as a partner, and started doing documentaries of these legendary acts,” Elliott said.
Forte, who met Elliott through her work with the late blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin and had worked extensively with Pallo, came up with the idea of formally assembling the Jersey Guitar Mafia for the first time.
“Joni came up with the idea, why don't we do an Italian record?” Pallo said. “It was a great idea and oh my gosh, the studio at the Showplace is unbelievable.”
“Jersey Guitar Mafia” was recorded in just one day.
“The beauty is, when we get in a younger crowd, they record a song in two, three days,” Forte said. “These guys came in, we gave them antipasto and some wine, and they recorded 11 songs in a day. We were stunned, but that's why they're the Jersey Guitar Mafia, because these session guys are boom, boom, boom. They have no egos, they look at each other, they go ‘you, me, you, you,’ boom boom and it's done.”
Forte also arranged for video recording of the session, along with interviews with the artists talking about the old days in anticipation of a companion video documentary. They've already been successful in that arena with a 2012 DVD documentary of Thank You Les, which also aired nationally on PBS and included a who's who of rock guitarists including Slash, Steve Miller and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
“Everybody came out for that,” Forte said.
A screening of Thank You Les is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Montville Township Public Library, with Elliott, Forte and Pallo in attendance. Updates on the release of the Jersey Guitar Mafia documentary can be found at jerseyguitarmafia.com.