When Baton Rouge’s all-instrumental band Rondo Hatton performs, the group’s members are often asked: Which one of you guys is Rondo?
Bruce Lamb, a guitar-playing veteran of the Baton Rouge and Austin music scenes, tells curious listeners that, although Rondo rehearses with the band, he never manages to make a gig.
Drummer Chad Solomon, emcee for Rondo Hatton shows, adds to the mystery by introducing the four-piece band as the Rondo Hatton Quintet.
“Occasionally, we even put an empty chair center stage,” Johnny Rossetti, the band’s other guitarist, added last week as he sat at a patio table at Chelsea’s Cafe. “A chair with a mic in front of it. Yeah, Rondo didn’t show again. Don’t know what we’re gonna do with the guy.”
In reality, and in the tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Hootie and the Blowfish and the more recent Eli Young Band, there is no Rondo Hatton in the Rondo Hatton band.
Bill Boelens, legendary local music fan and rotating host of Dirty Rice, a Saturday night radio show on Lafayette’s KRVS-FM, christened the band Rondo Hatton. Boelens got the name from a bootlegged Frank Zappa concert recording in which Zappa introduces himself as Rondo Hatton.
“They needed a name,” Boelens, producer of the band’s CD debut, explained. “I threw that out and it stuck.”
“Before we even rehearsed, we were talking about names,” Rossetti said. “And Bill says 'Rondo Hatton.’ “
While the name Rondo Hatton is obscure to many, horror movie fanatics know that Hatton was a disfigured actor whose burgeoning horror movie stardom ended with his heart attack-induced death at 51 in 1946.
“So it just turned out to be a cool thing,” Rossetti said of Boelens’ suggestion. “With the graphics, pictures of Rondo, it’s perfect.”
Being an instrumental band, Rondo Hatton naturally plays surf-rock music of the kind identified with the Ventures, Dick Dale, the Pyramids, the Chantays and the Trashmen.
It was Lamb who decided that Baton Rouge needed an all-instrumental band. He’s always played surf-rock instrumentals as well as an eclectic range of other styles.
“I have no problem playing a Slim Harpo song and following it with ?Pipeline,’ “ Lamb said. “It’s all good music.”
“Look,” Boelens said. “John and Bruce are the two best all-around guitar players in Baton Rouge that I’ve heard. I mean they can play anything.”
In addition to surf rock, Rondo Hatton plays blues, rhythm-and-blues, tiki torch light music, Latin mood music, spy-movie music, original compositions and, perhaps Lamb and Rossetti’s favorite of them all, polka.
“A lot of these old songs we play,” Rossetti said, “like 'Walk Don’t Run,’ the kids have heard them in a million movie soundtracks and TV commercials. They say, 'Hey, y’all do that Pulp Fiction music.’ They don’t know much about these songs, but they go, 'Yeah, that’s cool,’ and hit the dance floor. It’s all about dancers. If the dancers love you, you’re in.”
Rossetti and Lamb have a vast history of music making in south Louisiana, extending through more than four decades. Rossetti’s played traditional country and Cajun music, swamp pop as well as blues with Slim Harpo band member Rudy Richard. He’s also longtime stage manager for the Thursday night blues jams at Phil Brady’s Bar and Grill.
Lamb’s bands include retro-country band the Jitters, rhythm-and-blues bands the Vibratones and the Circuit Breakers and Austin roots music groups the Gulf Coast Playboys and Los Pinkeys.
Mature musicians that they are, the members of Rondo Hatton aren’t particularly physical entertainers.
“We’re not stage diving or dressing crazy,” Rossetti said. “So we have some Christmas lights and Hawaiian girl backdrops and just make it fun. A lot of the musicians I play with, they take everything way serious. But fun is the No. 1 thing for Rondo Hatton.”