Longtime Elvis Presley drummer D.J. Fontana passed away in Nashville on June 13; he was 87.
Born in 1931, Dominic Joseph Fontana began playing drums in the high school marching and by his early 20s, was playing strip clubs in his native Shreveport, LA, before making musical history as Elvis Presley’s first and longtime drummer; Fontana helped pave the way for the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
Fontana and Presley met on “The Louisiana Hayride,” where Fontana was the in-house drummer on the popular and influential radio and TV country music program. It was there, for Elvis’s first performance, that he asked to join Presley’s group for a broadcast in October 1954. At the time, the 19-year-old Presley had been working with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, the musicians recommended by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. The Blue Moon Boys, as they called themselves, had been playing a blend of blues, pop and country that was unique at the time, but, “It wasn’t rock n’ roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it,” remarked Levon Helm.
“The Hayride” had Presley back a number of times and in 1955 D.J. became a permanent member of the group and worked steadily with Elvis throughout the ‘60s.
Citing big-band drummers such as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa as his influences, Fontana was admired by Helm, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and many others for his combination of power, speed and steady groove. A Beatles fan as well, Fontana also played on Starr’s solo album Beaucoups Of Blues and in 2000 and played on Paul McCartney’s cover of an early Presley hit, “That’s All Right.
Fontana can be heard on the hit singles “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” to name a few, as well as having played on many of the soundtracks from Presley films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but for anyone that saw Elvis live, it was D.J.’s dynamic performances onstage that captivated audiences and sealed the deal–it took more than just a great drummer to back up the King and garner his own attention. Often linked to reviving Presley’s career, the Comeback Show was his first live performance in years and the last time Moore and Fontana worked with Elvis, who died in 1977.