Thom Rotella -- a Niagara Falls success story

Norma Higgs

“I remember it like it was yesterday ... I’m eight years old and my buddy, Rich and I are looking through the basement window of Mount Carmel Church (Niagara Falls) where there’s a dance going on. I see this multi-headed monster, with arms flailing and all this sound and energy blasting me, and people dancing ... it was the first time I saw a live band and I said to myself, man I gotta be a part of this!

— Thom Rotella


Another talented jazz guitarist, Thom Rotella, was born April 13, 1951 in Niagara Falls, surrounded by a very musical family. It goes without saying that he started at an early age as the ones we already learned about did. When he was 6 years old he started playing for the fun of it on his grandfather’s guitar, and moved on to serious lessons at the age of 10. During his teen years he played rock’n roll but soon discovered jazz through the recordings of Wes Montgomery.

According to his biography, “he attended Ithaca College as a classical guitar major, and while at Berklee College he studied under Gary Burton (1970-1972).” Rotella left Berklee to tour with a lounge band and then moved to Los Angeles where he mentored under Tommy Tedesco, the legendary studio guitarist and soon became a top call studio musician.

After a few years of this type of work he began to miss live performing, so in 1980 he moved to New York. He continued in studio work but also had more opportunities for live performance. During this time, he was “discovered” by a pioneer digital recording company, Digital Music Products, and he made three CDs (1987-90) all of which found a world-wide market, as they received extensive radio play. By 1988 he grew tired of New York and moved back to Los Angeles. During 1996 he recorded a Christmas album for Telarc which led to a signing with that label and the recording “Can’t Stop” in 1997. This led to the top radio hit “What’s the Story.”

Speaking of stories, Rotella wrote and performed the score for the movie “Altos” as well as various TV shows such as “Ellen DeGeneres”, “Extra”, “Sex and the City” and “China Beach”. Television commercials got his attention as he created original music for Cadillac, Goodyear, Chevrolet and Taco Bell. Thom also played his guitar on “The Simpsons”, “Family Guy”, “American Dad”, “The Tonight Show” and the “Tracey Ullman Show”. He performed on various movie soundtracks as well, including “Ted”, “Ted 2”, “Same Time Next Year”, “The God’s Must be Crazy, “Rumblefish”, and “Mississippi Masala.”

His recordings were well received, personally and commercially as well as critically, but his live shows had become an exciting attraction due to his smooth jazz performances. In 1998, Rotella and his band — Chris Rhyne on keyboard, Vail Johnson on bass, Michael Lington, on saxophone, Land Richards on drums and percussionist, Arno Lucas — were part of some of the best attended radio station festival celebrations for the Oasis in Dallas, KIFM in San Diego and Santa Rosa’s KIZY; the Newport beach Jazz Festival and the 94.7 the Wave stage at Taste of Orange County, among others.

I found a quote from Thom showing his love for playing ‘live.’ “There is nothing more fun than playing live,” Rotella says, “because I’m able to get an instantaneous response to what we’re doing as a band and to see how that moves people emotionally. The interplay between these musicians is incredible, and always leads to surprises, taking tunes to places that were unscripted, previously unexplored, bringing our music to a whole new level. It’s very inspiring.”

Thom became well known and performed and recorded with a wide variety of well known artists both in jazz and pop music. He’s worked with Rick Braun, Doc Powell, Stanley Turrentine, Kirk Whalum, Tom Scott, Eric Marienthal, Bob Mamet, Michael Paulo, Gerald Albright and Gregg Karukas,as well as pop stars Donna Summer, Cher, The Beach Boys, Lionel Ritchie, Bette Midler and last but not least, Frank Sinatra.

He took a hiatus for a while but returned to the scene in 2002 with a “homage” to Wes Montgomery, titled “A Day in The Life”. That was followed by a jazz release, “Out of the Blues” in 2007 and another Christmas CD, “12” in 2012”.

According to an online biography he is currently working on a new jazz CD and is collaborating with composer Walter Murphy and continues performing playing live for the instantaneous response. Rumor has it he may be in town for the 2019 Niagara Falls Music Hall of Fame event on Oct. 13 at the Rapids Theater. Save the date.  


Contact Norma Higgs by email at

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