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Bill Rotella, Son Of Frank Sinatra Songwriter Johnny Rotella, Reflects On Their Careers

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Q: When did you decide to enter the music field?

A: I didn’t consider music as anything other than “fun” until I was in college. While in college I started jamming with friends and a got a taste of the stage, studio and the road. I began thinking about songwriting and performing more seriously at that point.

Q: How old were you when you started? Did you even think of music as a business at all then?

A: I began playing drums at the age of 10 then guitar at 17. My father got me some pretty cool drum instructors. I enjoyed the drums, still do, but I didn’t want to read music. I really wanted to just play music. Guitar was easier to practice because I could take it to the beach, work, friends' houses, etc., and it is a far better instrument to write songs. And, my family is full of musicians, east coast and west coast. My father, Johnny Rotella, my uncle Jerry Gray and my sister Geri Rotter-Rotella were doing well and I just followed the calling.

Q: Where did you perform live back then?

A: My first real successful gigs were at the Pub at CSUN (Cal State University Northridge). Man, that place exploded when I brought my Southern Rock band in there. Then we became regulars at The Palomino Club in North Hollywood. We actually set the house attendance record for an unsigned band. We would pack that place. But we played everywhere. Colleges, amusement parks, resorts, clubs, private parties, summer festivals: you name it, we played it.

Q: You were a member of the country-rock band Baywood, which had a regional following in Southern California. How did the group form and why did you guys split up?

A: I met singer Ronny Lee when I was jammin’ at a party. He jumped in on a couple songs and, man, his voice was, and still is, amazing. The “chemistry” was good, we liked the same music, very little ego got in the way, and he dug my songwriting. We formed a trio with another good singer Michael Gussin, and we three did some gigs. Then Ronny and I split from that trio because we wanted to do more Southern Rock. Ronny and I formed Baywood.

I began using great friend and songwriter Clete Keith as a co-writer and Ronny and I used different band members until James “Sparks” Sinclair (pedal steel), Stewart Marsh (lead guitar), Marty Fera (drums), and Bill Hurlbut (bass) joined the band. That was a good band. After a few great rockin’ years our manager thought he could get us a record deal if we went a little more mainstream. So we dropped the pedal steel and added keyboards and we morphed away from Southern Rock to pop/rock (a huge regret of mine to this day). However, we were quickly signed to a production deal and recorded an album with Pat Glasser who produced Night Ranger. It seemed like we were on our way but the record was never released. We were disappointed and frustrated. We changed our name but we never really got the Baywood “swagger.” Good music. Great band. But we got a little too polished. I preferred the raw sound of Baywood. The band members soon went different ways. But we got together and did a few reunion jams a few years ago. It was great to see the guys, great to play that music again, and great to see so many friends and fans from yesteryear come out to relive that special time in all our lives.

Q: Do you find that the music industry is more difficult to manage now than in your days with Baywood?

A: The glaring difference was the amount of clubs that supported live music. Baywood played so many clubs. There isn’t nearly the same amount of live music rooms now. And the industry has changed so much. Physical merchandise is not as important. You can download music so easily now. Getting signed isn’t as important. You can network through social media and develop a fan base and promote yourself. The times they are a changin' for sure.

Q: How did Dakota get together and how would you compare that to Baywood?

A: When Baywood disbanded I kept gigging with different players until I found a great lead guitarist and vocalist named Kirk Evans. He was “retired” at age 30. I pulled him off his couch and forced him to join the new band I had just formed. He and I shared lead vocals and we added drummer Dave Casanova, who is also a great lead vocalist. We had three lead vocalists and then a fourth when bassist Rino Marino joined the band. That band had a great run. We were great on the road and in the studio. Some bands are often good at one or the other. We signed endorsement deals with Budweiser, Fender, GHS, Yamaha and did a bunch of shows in Finland and Sweden. Dakota was a cool, similar to Baywood in terms of great chemistry, great musicians and good songs but different because Dakota had four lead vocalists compared to Baywood who had a front man, a lead singer. And Baywood had the phenomenal sounds of “Sparks” Sinclair on pedal steel. That alone sets the two bands worlds apart.

Q: You went solo with Gates of Change. What was that experience like, being liberated from an actual band?

A: When Dakota’s time was up I began playing guitar a bit differently. I started playing more acoustic guitar and flamenco guitar and became more of a singer/songwriter than lead singer-band leader. It was only natural to record a solo record. I still used some of my band members from both Baywood and Dakota on both my solo records and some might be tracking with me on my third solo CD that is now in production. I record with Kevin Fisher who writes for and produces many artists (Rascal Flatts, Sara Evans, Uncle Kracker). He has a good little studio. Good sounds.

Q: How do you feel you have evolved creatively from your earlier work to your latest solo effort, All Roads Lead Home?

A: All Roads Lead Home was a bit of a return to my earlier Baywood sound. Actually the song “Back At It Again” is about the Baywood reunion. When I began recording the record a year later “Sparks” Sinclair couldn’t make it out from Pennsylvania so I was forced to look for another steel guitarist. I found Bob “Boo” Bernstein. A New Jersey Jewish cat that you would swear was from Nashville! What a great guy and talent. That record was fun. Each song tells a story.

Q: I'm sorry to hear about the passing of your father, Frank Sinatra songwriter Johnny Rotella. What kind of impact did your dad have on your lyrical skills and musicianship?

A: Yeah losing him was pretty hard. He has left a void for sure. He lived big until the day he died at nearly 94. He wrote a song for my mother a month before he died! It’s amazing how he drank life. I learned more by watching him than anything else. He was as passionate about music as a man can get. He was an exceptional musician, writer, sideman, and leader. He practiced constantly, listened to music all the time, went to hear “the guys” in clubs and was persistent in getting his music in people’s hands. He wrote for Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, and so many others. Recently I have been doing a lot of solo gigs and I took a couple of Sinatra and Dean Martin songs and gave them a twist. He enjoyed “coaching” me in his 90s! When he had something to say, I listened. One of my greatest life chapters was going back home to live with him when he was 91. When I returned from my studio sessions we’d listen to the tracks together. He loved listening, making suggestions and sippin’ a martini, just one. The man was a straight arrow. I learned a lot from him, not just music. I also learned about moderation, commitment, and devotion to family.

Q: Did you ever meet Frank Sinatra?

A: No, I never did. But on the anniversary of his death my dad asked me to drive him to palm Springs to visit his grave site. My dad loved Frank. I “met” Frank then.

Q: What are your plans for the future in terms of your musical career?

A: I’m recording new songs now, and I’m adding some new instruments to my music. Actually this CD will contain a couple of instrumental pieces. I still perform over 100 times a year, and I will continue to do live gigs. I suspect this coming year will find my songs in some music supervisor’s hands or some publisher’s ears. My dad will be orchestrating that from above.

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