Johnny Rotella, Songwriter for Frank Sinatra, Dies at 93
The accomplished woodwind player and session player also worked with Benny Goodman, Johnny Mercer, Earle Hagen, Neil Diamond and Steely Dan
Johnny Rotella, an accomplished instrumentalist and songwriter who wrote the Frank Sinatra standard “Nothing but the Best” and recorded with Neil Diamond, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan and others, has died. He was 93.
Rotella, a highly sought-after session man who played with marquee artists in thousands of studio sessions for TV and film projects, died peacefully in his sleep on Sept. 11 in Van Nuys, Calif., according to his son, Shout! Factory vp sales John Rotella.
Rotella, a master of the clarinet, saxophone and flute, played with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman’s big bands, was featured on the twin altos with the Billy Vaughn Orchestra and worked in many sessions with top-notch composer/arrangers Jimmie Haskell, Earle Hagen and Buddy Baker.
Rotella was a band regular on the 1970s CBS variety series The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and contributed to TV’s I Spy and the first two Godfather films. He played in the orchestra for Broadway shows and Los Angeles theater productions.
With more than 60 years of experience, Rotella wrote more than 200 songs, some of which were recorded by Dean Martin, Doris Day, Rosemarie Clooney and Tony Bennett. Films that feature his work include That’s My Boy (2012), Hope Springs (2012) and Jersey Boys (2014).
“Nothing but the Best,” first recorded for the 1962 album Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass, also served as the title track of the 2008 compilation album of Sinatra songs for his Reprise label. It was released in 2008 on the 10-year anniversary of the singer’s death.
Rotella teamed with such well-known lyricists as Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Ray Gilbert, Sidney Clare, Abbey Lincoln, Franz Steininger and Jerry Gladstone, with many of those collaborations featured on the “Nothing but the Best” set.
“He was not only a gifted songwriter but also a renowned musician and raconteur,” Kathy Spanberger, president and COO for the Anglo-American region of Peermusic, said in a statement. “I will miss the lunches … I had with Johnny because we got to sit back and listen to the wonderful stories of the days he worked with the greats in our business, including Sinatra, Goodman and [Glenn] Miller.”
Born in Jersey City, N.J., Rotella began his career in his teens, playing clarinet and saxophone with many bands.
During World War II, he was stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey with the 389th Army Service Forces Band, and during visits to New York City, he studied with the finest teachers: Simeon Bellison on clarinet, Joe Allard on saxophone and Victor Goldring on flute.
After his military service, Rotella joined Raymond Scott’s band in New York and later, the bands of Goodman and Dorsey. On a trip to California with Goodman, he decided to make Hollywood his home and worked as a studio woodwind player.
He played in the reed section with Jerry Gray (arranger for Artie Shaw and chief arranger for the Glenn Miller Orchestra) on Club 15 — a daily CBS Radio show fthat featured Bob Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, The Modernaires and Jo Stafford — and on all of Gray’s albums.
Rotella became a member of ASCAP in 1954 and was instrumental in helping establish the Musicians Guild in the early 1960s. He studied the Schillinger System of Musical Composition with Franklyn Marks, the longtime composer for Disney films.
Survivors also include Ann, his wife of nearly 67 years; children Geraldine, Joanne, John, Bill and Mary; grandchildren Jessica, John, Brianna, David, Danielle, Mia and Mason; and great-grandchildren Viola and Miles.
A visitation will be held at 7 p.m. on Sept. 23 at Mission Hills (Calif.) Catholic Mortuary, with funeral services to take place at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24 at Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in North Hollywood.
Watch Rotella perform on his 90th birthday party below: