National News

D.J. Fontana, 87, Elvis Presley’s Longtime Drummer, Is Dead

Posted June 14, 2018 11:37 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 11:39 p.m. EDT

D.J. Fontana, whose simple but forceful drumming behind Elvis Presley helped to shape the early sound of rock ‘n’ roll, died Wednesday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his son David, who said Fontana had been in poor health since breaking his hip in a fall last year.

Fontana was the first drummer in Presley’s band and played with him for 14 years, from Presley’s earliest days in the national spotlight through the 1968 television special, called simply “Elvis,” that was widely hailed as Presley’s return to form. He backed Presley on more than 450 recordings, including hits like “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “It’s Now or Never,” and was seen playing with him in the movies “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “G.I. Blues.”

He was later an in-demand studio musician in Nashville.

Fontana’s entree into rock history came by way of his job as a member of the band on “Louisiana Hayride,” a popular country-music radio show broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana.

Presley, then at the beginning of his career, appeared on the show in October 1954 with his backing band, which at the time consisted of just two musicians: Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on double bass. Fontana played with the band on that broadcast, and the next year he became a permanent member.

Presley’s blend of country, blues and other elements was already distinctive. The addition of Fontana’s powerful drumming raised it to a new level.

“Elvis and Scotty and Bill were making good music,” drummer and singer Levon Helm said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2004, “but it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it.”

In its early days, the band played mostly the country music circuit, where guitars, mandolins and fiddles dominated and drummers were generally shunned. On early television appearances — including Presley’s first, on the television version of “Louisiana Hayride” in 1955 — Fontana was hidden behind a curtain, his drums heard but not seen.

By the time Presley made his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” in September 1956, a performance seen by 60 million viewers, the drums were in plain sight — and Presley was well on his way to becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

While Presley’s star rose, his band remained on a fixed salary, causing increasing dissension. In a joint interview with The Memphis Press-Scimitar in late 1956, his three sidemen said they were being paid $200 a week when on tour (the article called that “good money for sidemen”) and $100 a week the rest of the time. They added that Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, had permitted them to supplement their income by recording without Presley.

But according to “Last Train to Memphis,” Peter Guralnick’s Presley biography, Black and Moore were not happy about their compensation. In September 1957 they approached Fontana with a letter demanding what would have been their first raise in two years. He refused to sign it, saying he had been treated fairly according to the terms under which he was hired.

During the recording of songs for the movie “King Creole” in 1958, Black and Moore were replaced by Nashville session players.

Presley was drafted into the Army in 1958 and did little touring after his discharge in 1960. But Fontana continued to work with him in the recording studio.

Black died in 1965, Moore in 2016 and Presley in 1977.

Dominic Joseph Fontana was born in Shreveport on March 15, 1931, to Lena (Lewis) and Sam Fontana. His father owned a grocery store. D.J. Fontana’s early influences were big-band drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and he played in local strip clubs and served in the Army in Korea before joining the “Hayride” band.

“I heard Scotty and Bill and Elvis one night and knew that I couldn’t mess up that sound,” he said in recalling his introduction to Presley’s music. “I think the simple approach comes from my hearing so much big-band music. I mixed it with rockabilly.”

Fontana worked with Presley through his comeback TV special in December 1968. The show, widely praised, presented Presley informally in a jam-session setting, with Moore once again on guitar and Fontana beating out the rhythm with his drumsticks on a closed guitar case.

But with Presley using increasingly bigger ensembles for his records and his appearances in Las Vegas, Fontana no longer felt he belonged, and the two parted ways. They never worked together again.

Fontana worked steadily after that as a session drummer in Nashville, recording with Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Steve Earle and others. On occasion he reunited with Moore. In 1998 the two received a Nashville Music Award for the song “Going Back to Memphis” from their album “All the King’s Men”; in 2001 they backed Paul McCartney on the Presley hit “That’s All Right,” a track on the various-artists album “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records.”

In 2009, Fontana, along with Black, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the sideman category. (Moore had been inducted in 2000.) He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame the same year.

Fontana’s marriage to Barbara Tullier ended in divorce. In 1999 he married Karen Arrington, with whom he lived in Antioch, Tennessee. In addition to her and his son David, he is survived by another son, Jeff, and 10 grandchildren.

In an interview for the website Elvis Information Network in 2010, Fontana remembered Presley as “a nice guy” who “always treated people like he wanted to be treated.”

“You know, we worked hard,” he added. “We just tried to cut good records. But we knew that if it wasn’t for Elvis, we wouldn’t have done anything.”