D.J. Fontana, Elvis Presley Drummer, Dies at 87

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D.J. Fontana, the drummer who helped launch rock ‘n’ roll as Elvis Presley’s sideman, has died at 87, his wife said Thursday.  Karen Fontana told the Associated Press that her husband died in his sleep in Nashville on Wednesday night. She said he had been suffering complications from breaking his hip in 2016.

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

 

Fontana rose from strip joints in his native Shreveport, Louisiana, to the heights of musical history as Presley’s first and longtime drummer. They met 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 AP 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.

 

 

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

 

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

 

Presley’s Sun Records contract was purchased by RCA Victor late in 1955, when he became a sensation around the country and beyond.

 

During an interview with Elvis Australia, Fontana recalled a 1957 show at a Canadian football stadium, when Presley did his best to honor the owners’ wishes to keep the crowd off the grass and away from the stage.

 

“So Elvis came on, did a few songs, and said: ‘We’d like for you to get back in your seats,’ which they did, very orderly — until the last song, and here they come again,” Fontana explained.

 

“Elvis left the stage, and here we were with 20,000 people! The stage turned over, but we finally got all the equipment in the car, which was right behind the stage. The car was surrounded by kids, and they were shaking the car.”

Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photographs are Courtesy:  AP
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