Music News & Reviews

Guitarist Toty Viola, with accountant Sue Cosper's help, jazzes up the wine scene

Guitarist Toty Viola plays at the Lido Restaurant at Dolphin Bay in Shell Beach.
Guitarist Toty Viola plays at the Lido Restaurant at Dolphin Bay in Shell Beach. Joe Johnston 2010

When Sue Cosper saw Toty Viola perform while vacationing in Florida, she figured his jazz music would be a perfect fit for the Central Coast winery scene. But the 57-year-old certified public accountant had no idea then that she would eventually become Viola’s promoter.

“I’m not a sales person,” she said. “I’m a numbers cruncher.”

Still, Viola’s music inspired her so much, she felt compelled to help bring the native Italian to her hometown.“I hadn’t really followed music or allowed music to be a part of my life for a long time,” said Cosper, who later told Viola: “You brought music back in my life.”

While Viola’s arrival here occurred under unusual circumstances, it wasn’t the first time he’d made a life-changing move. But this one helped reinvigorate a career once stalled by a 10-year funk.

Musical roots

Viola was born in Palermo, a historic seaside city in Sicily. His father, an accordion player, got into music after hearing an American military band play on the streets during World War II. Years later, Toty, along with his father and brother Franco, would play to small crowds around their Sicilian neighborhood to help support the family.

“We are poor,” Viola said, describing his family’s thoughts. “But we are rich with music because everybody’s a musician.”

As an adult, Viola continued to perform during the evenings while working at the local unemployment office during the day. The plush hotel where he performed often saw famous guests, such as Tom Cruise, Al Pacino and Richard Gere. It was while playing at the Village Igiea hotel that he met George Benson, the Grammy-winning jazz guitarist from America.

Although Palermo is a notable culture center, Viola had long dreamed of performing jazz in America, like Benson. So after 17 years as a government employee, he decided to move to America and become a full-time musician.

“At 40 years old, I changed my life,” he said.

Viola’s brother Franco had been the first in the family to make the trip. (His sister and parents followed.) When the city of Detroit sought an Italian musician to perform at a local Italian culture center, the Palermo mayor’s office recommended Franco, a piano player.

“When he came to perform at this event at the local Italian culture center, he stepped in and played at a local restaurant, and the owner really liked him and said, ‘I’d love for you to play here,’ ” said Mary Ann Gualtieri, Viola’s wife.

A little later, Viola followed, immigrating as “an artist of extraordinary ability,” thanks to letters of recommendation from Benson, Tim Hauser of Manhattan Transfer and Bob Flanigan from the Four Freshmen — all people he met while performing in Italy.

After settling in Detroit, his first gig was at the prestigious Detroit Montreaux Jazz Festival. While in Detroit, he also met Gualtieri, whose parents were from Italy.

“I was supposed to teach him how to speak English, and he was going to teach me how to sing,” she said. “I (still) don’t sing, and he speaks limited English.”

The couple later moved to Florida, where Viola helped care for his ailing mother. One day, he received a call from Benson, who had just heard one of Viola’s songs.

“He said, ‘We’ve got to talk because I want to play your song on my next CD,’ ” Viola said. “It was like I won the lottery.”

Viola’s jazz guitar — which he plays primarily with his thumb instead of a pick — is the kind of soft, easy-listening music Benson is known for.

Viola, who idolized Benson, saw it as a dream opportunity, which made it especially hard when Benson called later to announce that the album’s producer had decided to drop the song.

The news was a stunning blow to Viola, who fell into a musical funk.

“I’m a very sensitive musician,” he said. “I thought, ‘God, you give me this beautiful gift, but why do I not accomplish anything with my music?’ ”

After the incident, he decided, he would only play guitar to put food on the table.

“When I first met him, he had a guitar in his arms all the time, and he composed a lot of music in a short period of time,” Gualtieri said. “And from that day he never picked up the guitar other than to go to work. He lost his passion.”

It continued that way for 10 years, until an accordion player and piano salesman named Al Rinaldi saw Viola perform one night. With Rinaldi’s encouragement — and money — Viola recorded a studio album, “Jazzissimo,” which helped Viola restore his enthusiasm for music.

“It put the fire back in him,” Gualtieri said. “And I saw him for the first time after so many years wake up in the middle of the night and start playing the guitar.”

Not long after that, Viola met Cosper, and another big, motivating change was in the works. Cosper was wrapping up a visit to Florida on Dec. 1, 2008, when her friends persuaded her to go out one final time.

“It was my last night in Florida before we flew out the next day,” she said. “I was really not in the mood to go to dinner that night. I wanted to stay home and pack.”

The friends went to the Tuscan Grill in Fort Lauderdale. And while there, they saw Viola prepare for his set.

“When he finally got up and started to play, I said, ‘Oh my God — this guy is wonderful!’ ”

When he was finished, she made a simple suggestion. “I said, ‘You need to move to the California wine country.’ ”

Viola’s music, she said, was a perfect fit for wineries, which tend to favor easy-listening acts. Intrigued by the possibilities, Viola and his wife visited the Central Coast for the first time last summer.

“When we agreed that they would come out to California for a vacation, I said, ‘Let me make a few phone calls,’ ” Cosper said.

While she had hoped to line up some gigs, she had no experience promoting musicians. So she Googled “How to get a gig,” and she learned how to put a promotional package together. Then she started making calls to venues.

“I just really hustled,” she said, filling two weeks with gigs.

Though it was hard work, Cosper said she also enjoyed it.

“If I thought I could make a living at it, it would be great to be a music promoter and a music manager,” said Cosper, whose Pismo Beach house overlooks the ocean. “But I probably make a little more money doing what I’m doing.”

Viola visited again in October. And by December, he and his family had relocated.

Now he’s performing often, including regular gigs at Lido Restaurant in Shell Beach and Giancarlo’s in Morro Bay. Meanwhile, Viola and his wife have become close friends with Cosper, who lost her sister and parents in recent years.

“They feel like family to me,” she said.

While the recession makes lining up gigs a challenge, Cosper plans to continue promoting Viola’s career.

“With Toty’s talent, my enthusiasm and a few fans, we’re hoping to make a go of it,” she said.