Long­time Elvis Pres­ley drum­mer D.J. Fon­tana dies


D.J. Fon­tana, a rock ‘n’ roll pi­o­neer who rose from strip joints in his na­tive Shreve­port, Louisiana to the heights of mu­si­cal his­tory as Elvis Pres­ley’s first and long­time drum­mer, has died at 87, his wife said Thursday.

Karen Fon­tana told The As­so­ci­ated Press that her hus­band died in his sleep in Nashville Wednesday night. She said he had been suf­fer­ing com­pli­ca­tions from break­ing his hip in 2016.

“He was loved by every­body all over the world. He treated every­body like every­body was his friend,” she said.

Pres­ley’s for­mer wife, Priscilla Pres­ley, is­sued a state­ment call­ing him “a tremen­dously ta­lented mu­si­cian and a won­der­ful man.”

Fon­tana, a mem­ber of the Rock Hall of Fame, was the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of Elvis’ orig­i­nal core of mu­si­cians. He met Pres­ley and the oth­ers on the Louisiana Hayride, a pop­u­lar and in­flu­en­tial ra­dio and TV coun­try mu­sic pro­gram based in Shreve­port. Fon­tana, the staff drum­mer, asked to join his group for a ses­sion broad­cast in Oc­to­ber 1954.

A re­gional act at the time, the 19-year-old Pres­ley had been record­ing and tour­ing since the sum­mer with guitarist Scotty Moore and bas­sist Bill Black, the mu­si­cians Sun Records founder Sam Phillips brought in af­ter Elvis turned up at the Mem­phis, Ten­nessee-based la­bel’s stu­dio.

“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 was miss­ing some­thing cru­cial.

“Elvis and Scotty and Bill were mak­ing good mu­sic, but it wasn’t rock n’ roll un­til D.J. put the back­beat into it,” the Band’s Levon Helm told The As­so­ci­ated Press in 2004.

Elvis re­turned of­ten to the Hayride, and in 1955 Fon­tana be­came a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the group, work­ing with Pres­ley through much of the 1960s.

In­flu­enced by such big band drum­mers as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Fon­tana was ad­mired by Helm, Ringo Starr, Max Wein­berg and many oth­ers for his power, speed and steadi­ness, which he honed dur­ing his time with the Hayride.

“I heard Scotty and Bill and Elvis one night and knew that I couldn’t mess up that sound,” Fon­tana later said. “I think the sim­ple ap­proach comes from my hear­ing so much big band mu­sic. I mixed it with rock­a­billy.”

Fon­tana was there for Pres­ley’s ex­tra­or­di­nary first wave of suc­cess, from such hit sin­gles as “Hound Dog” and “Jail­house Rock” to his in­creas­ingly fren­zied live shows and hip-shak­ing appearances on “The Ed Sul­li­van Show” and other TV pro­grams.

He played on many of the In this 2004 file photo, long­time Elvis Pres­ley drum­mer D.J. Fon­tana per­forms at the 50th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion con­cert of Elvis Pres­ley’s first per­for­mance at the Louisiana Hayride in Sherve­port, La. Fon­tana, the drum­mer who helped launch rock ‘n’ roll as Elvis Pres­ley’s side­man, has died at 87, his wife said Thursday.

sound­tracks - and was oc­ca­sion­ally seen on cam­era - for Pres­ley’s movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

He was on the “come­back” Christ­mas TV spe­cial of 1968 that fea­tured Pres­ley and fel­low mu­si­cians jam­ming on a tiny stage be­fore a stu­dio au­di­ence, with Fon­tana keep­ing time on a gui­tar case. Widely cited for re­viv­ing Pres­ley’s ca­reer, that show was his first live per­for­mance in years and the last time Moore and Fon­tana worked with Elvis, who died in 1977.

“Elvis would al­ways want to go back and talk about the early days when there were four of us in a car, Me, Scotty, Bill and Him­self,” Fon­tana later told the fan site Elvis Aus­tralia.

“And he told me one day, he said ‘You know, I wish I wasn’t Elvis.’ And that struck me funny - even back then. You know he kinda wanted to get away for a while. I think he should have re­tired for about 7 or 8 years, and then come back - you know. And then he might still be with us.”

Fon­tana also played on Starr’s solo al­bum “Beau­coups of Blues,” and worked with coun­try artist Webb Pierce and rock­a­billy star Gene Vincent, among oth­ers. More re­cently, he and Moore were joined by Helm, Keith Richards and other guests for the 1997 Pres­ley trib­ute al­bum “All the King’s Men.”

In 2000, he played on Paul Mc­Cart­ney’s cover of an early Pres­ley hit, “That’s All Right.”

Born in 1931, Do­minic Joseph Fon­tana be­gan play­ing drums as a teen in his high school march­ing band and would jam with his cousin while lis­ten­ing to big band record­ings.

By his early 20s he was per­form­ing at strip joints and spend­ing enough time around the Hayride that he was hired full­time, al­though at first he was asked to play be­hind a cur­tain be­cause drums were scorned by coun­try au­di­ences.


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