Sitting with his TV Jones custom archtop, exploring “Unit 7” – the tune made famous by Cannonball Adderley and Wes Montgomery – Thom Rotella says, “For years, I played everything in octaves – even scales. I actually had to re-learn how to play single-string lines and at first I was really lost. And even today, I’ve never heard anyone play octaves that isn’t reminiscent of Wes, who is my hero.”
But Rotella is nothing if not comprehensive. For instance, his Storyline and Out of the Blues albums present seriously creative arrangements of standards and originals while his chart-topping smooth-jazz releases offer hip renditions of feel-good drive music.
Rotella grew up in Niagara Falls and experienced a circuitous road on his way to what has become a remarkable career. At age 10, he studied guitar with John Morell, who also taught a young Tommy Tedesco.
“I was surrounded by all these photos of Tommy,” Rotella says. “Every time I’d go to my lesson I’d hear about him. One day, John said, ‘You went through the first book faster than anyone I ever had. But then Tommy Tedesco took the longest.’ (laughs) Anyway, when buying records I’d always look for Tommy’s name. So even then I knew that someday I was going to California to be a guitar player.”
Rotella kept at it throughout high school before eventually hitting the road for professional seasoning with various lounge bands. But as his career path developed, he wisely stopped long enough at the Berklee School of Music to study with heavyweights Bill Leavitt and Gary Burton, who helped educate and conceptualize what the young artist needed.
After more equivocation and consultation from other mentors and masters, Rotella decided to realize his dream of settling in L.A. There in the early ’70s, he played in two or three rehearsal bands every day, gathered contacts, and did whatever was necessary to establish his visibility.
“I think I met every guitar player in L.A. but Tommy Tedesco,” he laughs. “But I didn’t want to contact Tommy despite my dad relentlessly encouraging me to do so. I wanted to make it on my own.”
But fate stepped in. Rotella’s dad happened to play golf with Tedesco when the guitarist returned to Niagara Falls for a visit.
“After their round, Dad told me, ‘Here’s his phone number, he wants you to call.’ So I called, and found out I was living around the corner from him. Tommy said, ‘What are you doing right now? Come over.’ How could I not? The guy’s a legend. I knock on the door and he answers wrapped up in a big towel. He asks me to list all of players I’d met and says, ‘So you know everybody in town but me.’ Then he asked me to play something.
“Soon after, he arranged for me to accompany him to several studio dates so I could see firsthand what he did. But perhaps more important, he invited me to Sunday dinner with the family. I went, and never really left. I became the fourth Tedesco brother.”
Rotella went on to establish a career as a first-call session player. In addition to studio dates for television shows, movies, jingles, and TV commercials, his long string of studio sessions included playing on hit records for any number of artists.
Today, Rotella is very focused on straight-ahead and smooth jazz for his Street Talk label.
“I still do ‘Family Guy’ and ‘American Dad’ with Walter Murphy, which has been happening for nearly 20 years. That’s a good, basic gig, and I’ve been creating my albums, library music, TV commercials, and of course playing sessions and gigging with a live band that features Walter’s horn charts. Also, people will send me tracks to play on, but, basically, I’ve been working on my jazz stuff, both straight-ahead and smooth jazz, and just learning how to play better.”
“In 2019, Chris Standring offered to produce some material to get me onto the smooth-jazz format. He promised me a hit, and the first single with him, ‘Eddie’s Ready,’ an homage to Eddie Harris, went to #1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz charts. We followed with two singles every year, all charting in the Top 20, including a #3 with ‘Street Talk.’
“In February, I’ll release a compilation of singles from the last four years and new tracks. It’ll be called Say Hey! and will coincide with the next single release.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.