As the longtime drummer behind Elvis Presley, D.J. Fontana was a seminal force in the development of rock & roll, joining guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black in the supporting cast of some of the most enduring and influential records ever created. Bridging the gap between the swing of the big band drummers and the raw power of their British Invasion counterparts, Fontana was explosive yet efficient, establishing the rhythmic foundation upon which successive generations of popular music is built. No less an authority than the Band's Levon Helm once stated "Elvis and Scotty and Bill were making good music, but it wasn't rock & roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it."
Born Dominic Joseph Fontana in Shreveport, LA, on March 15, 1931, he first earned notice drumming behind T. Tommy Cutrer, a radio personality with Shreveport station KCIJ who moonlighted as a country singer. Fontana also played local nightclubs and strip joints, and in 1953 was named the house drummer of The Louisiana Hayride, the legendary radio showcase broadcast each Saturday evening from Shreveport's Municipal Auditorium. So not to offend country purists, he was forced to perform from behind the stage curtain. Fontana remained out of sight on October 16, 1954, when he backed Presley, Moore, and Black during their first Hayride appearance. Fontana was the first drummer ever to back Presley on-stage, steadfastly avoiding his cymbals and playing only the backbeat in order to best complement the music.
Although audience response was mixed, Hayride producers invited Presley for a return engagement the following month. This time Fontana performed in front of the curtain, and when Presley's stage gyrations sent the mostly young, mostly female crowd into screaming fits, the singer was offered a 12-month contract with the program. At the end of their Louisiana Hayride tenure in November 1955, Moore and Black convinced Presley to add Fontana to the lineup full-time, and after the RCA label acquired the singer's recording contract from Sun Records, Fontana cut his first studio session on January 10, 1956, backing Presley on five songs, including his million-selling breakthrough hit, "Heartbreak Hotel." Fontana's résumé is remarkable by any standard: he remained with Elvis for 14 years, playing on more than 400 songs and close to 50 recording sessions across a 12-year span, among them landmark hits including "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," and "Jailhouse Rock."
All the King's Men Although Moore and Black walked out on Presley in 1958 in response to a royalty dispute with manager Colonel Tom Parker, Fontana remained with the organization. Moore eventually returned to the fold, and in late 1965 both men served as pallbearers at Black's funeral. Moore and Fontana also backed Presley during his legendary 1968 NBC television comeback special, effectively serving as a security blanket against the singer's apprehensions about returning to lean, mean rock & roll following so many years of bloated Hollywood pap. Fontana finally cut ties with Presley once and for all in early 1969. He, Moore, and longtime backing vocalists the Jordanaires balked at Parker's latest salary offer, and when the Colonel called their bluff, quickly assembling a new backing crew, it was all over. Fontana settled in Nashville to pursue a session career, and in the years to follow he played on records headlined by Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings. In 1983 Fontana published his memoirs, D.J. Fontana Remembers Elvis, and in August 1997 -- the 20th anniversary of Presley's death -- he and Moore reunited for All the King's Men, a Grammy-winning collection featuring cameos by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, fellow guitar great Jeff Beck, and members of the Band.
1 - Deuce And A Quarter
Featuring, Guest – Keith Richards, The Band
2 - I Told You So
Featuring, Guest – The Mavericks
3 - Locked Up In The State Of Illinois
Featuring, Guest – The Bodeans
4 - Goin Back To Memphis
Featuring, Guest – Bill Black Combo
5 - I'm Gonna Strangle You Shortly
Featuring, Guest – Joe Ely, Lee Rocker
6 - Bad Little Girl
Featuring, Guest – Cheap Trick
7 - Soulmates
Featuring, Guest – Ronnie McDowell, The Jordanaires
8 - Hot Enough For You
Featuring, Guest – Lee Rocker, Steve Earle
9 - Strange Love
Featuring, Guest – Joe Louis Walker
10 - Is All Of This For Me?
Featuring, Guest – Tracy Nelson
11 - Unsung Heroes
Featuring, Guest – Jeff Beck, Ron Wood
Modern Drummer Magazine June 2018
Elvis Presley’s D.J. Fontana
“I knew Elvis was different by his clothes and his actions on stage. I said, ‘The boy’s got something. What it is, I don’t know.’ The first show at the Louisiana Hayride was kind of lukewarm. It was a country-oriented crowd, and they weren’t quite used to what he was doing. They weren’t ready for it. After the second or third time, that changed and we had kids coming in. But it was a gradual thing. We didn’t really know it for a couple of years. We knew we were getting bigger crowds, but we didn’t know exactly how big he was. I don’t think he knew, because we were always going from one town to the next. We didn’t have the chance to hear any critics, although we knew the security had gotten tight. But we really didn’t know that he had become so famous. We didn’t pay attention to it, because we were there every day. We were all still traveling in a car, and it wasn’t any big deal to us.”
Whether it was a big deal to D.J. Fontana or not was unimportant; Elvis Presley was a big deal around the world. From his music—that unique blend of blues, country, and rock ’n’ roll—to his persona and the sensuality he evoked at the mere wiggle of his hips, Elvis satisfied the dreams of millions.
Fontana came in contact with Presley while he was a staff drummer for the Louisiana Hayride country music radio show. D.J. worked the show with Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black, and was then asked to join the band. To D.J. it was a decent playing job. Little did he know that Elvis would go on to be dubbed the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, or that the drum chair he occupied would become one of the most coveted in all of musical history. D.J. would soon supply the backbeat to such Elvis classics as “My Baby Left Me,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” D.J.’s memory is hazy on the details of specific recordings, but he easily recalls anecdotes about life with Elvis, and certainly has his share of observations and impressions of the man and his music.
D.J.: Elvis was a nice man. He was sick for the last few years [of his life]. It’s a shame that nobody would take enough time with him to try to help him, but Elvis was the kind of guy you could not help unless he wanted you to. You couldn’t tell him anything. You had to suggest things and plant them in his mind, so he’d think about it for two or three days until he thought it was his idea.
MD: Did he do that musically too?
D.J.: No, he knew exactly what he wanted there. You couldn’t tell him anything about that. He had a keen ear for songs. He knew what was commercial, I guess. That’s the way he cut them.
MD: A recent HBO special about Elvis’s 1968 TV special made clear what a sense of humor Elvis had.
D.J.: The man had a fantastic sense of humor. People don’t know that. People thought he was serious all the time, but he wasn’t. He’d pull something on you or you’d pull something on him. You’d think he’d forgotten about it, and six months later, he’d get you back.
MD: Do you remember the very first time you met Elvis and what you thought?
D.J.: Yeah. It was 1955, down at the Louisiana Hayride. That’s really where he got his first show. I’d heard the records, because I’d gone down there to talk to the management of the station and the booking agent. They played his records and said, “We’re thinking about bringing this kid in. Listen to this record and see what you think.” I heard it and I thought it was great. The sound was so raw that you knew it was real. It had that tight echo. The guitar was echoed; everything was. It sounded like it was five or six pieces, but it was only three pieces. I said, “My God, those guys are really good. What they’re doing is great.” They came into town. Scotty Moore, who was the guitar player, was kind of like a road manager. I was like working staff, but back then they didn’t use a lot of drums. It was a country show, so very few of the country acts would even use me. When Elvis came in, he and Scotty asked me if I’d work, and I said, “Well, I’ve heard your records, but we need to go into the dressing room and talk about it a little bit.” It was a little guitar… Scotty had his Echoplex and Bill had his bass. They said, “Let’s go out there and try it.” Just by chance, it worked. They had used some other guys in Memphis while they were working some small clubs, but it just didn’t work. It’s one of those things. After I heard the song once or twice, I thought, They’ve got such a unique sound, so why clutter it up? I’ll just get in the back, play a backbeat, and stay out of their way. Even back then, Elvis wanted you to catch every leg movement, so you’d have to play like you were working a strip act.
MD: Which you had done.
D.J.: Right. That probably made it easier for me. I would just catch everything—whenever he’d move his arms, fingers, legs…
MD: What would he want when he moved his arm?
D.J.: A cymbal crash, a tom-tom—something noisy. He never did say that’s what he wanted, but when he did it, it hit me automatically that he wanted me to underscore that with him. I just tried it and it worked. He’d look around and say, “That’s good.” So I was just lucky to get with him. I happened to be there.
MD: Obviously you also had something he wanted.
DJF: I guess so. I hadn’t been playing that long, so maybe that’s the reason.
MD: How long had you been playing?
D.J.: Probably two or three years. I’d been working cocktail lounges with trios—bass, drums, and piano or organ. It was mostly popish material, with a small amount of jazz-type tunes—not the heavy jazz, but jazzy. I started at those clubs and of course worked the strip joints. I was about fifteen then. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be in the clubs. I had to join the union, and that was a biggie, but the cops never bothered me and nobody ever said anything to me. I just did it. I’d get off about 3 in the morning, which made it hard at school the next day.
MD: What prompted you to take up the drums initially?
D.J.: I had a cousin in Shreveport who played drums. I’d go to his house, where he’d have the drums set up, and he’d play along with the records. I thought that was really something! I’d go just about every day after school. I was hardly playing then, but I was watching. He had a fantastic sense of time, which is the basic thing I was amazed at. Of course, in the late ’40s they were listening to Stan Kenton, Woody Herman—the big band stuff. Every time there was a big band in town, we’d run and see them, and just watch people. I guess that’s how we learned how to play.
MD: Did you have any lessons?
D.J.: I was in the high school band and took lessons back then. We had a teacher, J.B. Mullins, who was the damnedest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. He played all the instruments, but drums were his thing. He could just drop the sticks and they’d move. It was mostly in his fingers. You hardly ever saw his wrists move at all.
MD: What kinds of things did Mr. Mullins teach you?
D.J.: The basic rudiments—which I’ve forgotten—how to hold the sticks, to read a little bit. I’ve forgotten that too. Back then you had to play in the concert band. Then during football season, you played in the marching band. I was in the ROTC band—the drum & bugle corps thing. Every day we’d bring down the flag and play “Taps.” It was good training.
MD: Did you practice a lot at home?
D.J.: Back then I did. I was really into it.
MD: Did you have a set?
D.J.: No. Mostly I practiced on my pillows. You can play on the table, but the stick gets a natural bounce. On a pillow, you have to do it with your hands and your arms. That’s what he taught us. He said a practice pad was fine, but with the pillow you have to do it.
MD: Were you only into big band at the time?
D.J.: At that time, yes. I’d only listen to big band and Dixieland. I wasn’t into country until I started at the Hayride. I had to learn that. That’s a different thing altogether.
MD: How did that differ for you? What did you do to learn that?
D.J.: I just listened, played, and stayed out of the way. Country things are simpler. You don’t have to play any fills because that actually throws the singers off. They’re used to rhythm guitars, a bass player, maybe a lead guitar and a steel guitar, but they’re not used to hearing a lot of drums. So I had to play as simple as I could, with a stick and a brush.
MD: After playing big band music, was playing country frustrating to you at first?
D.J.: No, no. You learn from all of them. I don’t care what kind of music it is, you’ll still learn something. It taught me to play cleaner and, again, to stay out of the way. If they wanted a solo, they’d say, “D.J., play one.” But they were singing a song, so I learned to stay out of their way and just complement them.
MD: Tell us about the Louisiana Hayride.
D.J.: It was in Shreveport, Louisiana. At one time it was a 50,000-watt station and they had a Saturday night show, like the Grand Ole Opry does now. In fact, most of the stars that were on the Hayride eventually ended up in Nashville. I worked with Jim Reeves for a while, Jim Ed Brown — the Browns — and Bill Carlisle. Slim Whitman, Webb Pierce, and Faron Young were there for a while. They all eventually moved here because this is a bigger market. The Grand Ole Opry was the biggie, and the Hayride was the second biggest one. So they’d do one or two records, and then they’d all move up here. But at one time or another, everybody was on that Hayride. It was a jumping on and jumping off spot. It got to be a big show. Sometimes I’d go out on the road with a performer from the Hayride who would book little clubs or fair dates. The Hayride is still going on, although they’ve moved it. It’s still live, but with real local acts. At one time they were thinking about bringing a bunch of guys in who live here now and doing a reunion show, but they’ve never gotten it together. I’d like to do that.
MD: How did you hook up with the Hayride originally?
D.J.: I knew a lot of the musicians because we were all in the same small town. They decided the Hayride needed a drummer, and they’d heard my name from the other musicians. So they called to ask if I wanted to work there. I said, “Why not?” I wasn’t doing anything. At first they didn’t really want a drumset on the stage at all. The first week, they wanted to put me behind a curtain. Working with country stars, you really have to watch their feet, their hands, and everything they do. I said, “That ain’t gonna work. I can’t see what these guys are going to do.” I told them I couldn’t do that anymore. Then they let me on stage with a snare drum, a stick, and a brush. It was a gradual thing where I put the bass drum in, and I’d slip something in every Saturday night. Pretty soon I had the whole set, which wasn’t a very big set anyhow. It was a small tom, floor tom, bass drum, snare drum, a cymbal, and that’s about it.
MD: Did you ever add anything to your setup?
D.J.: No. I still have three or four pieces. That’s enough. First of all, I’m too lazy to set up a whole rack of tom-toms and all that stuff. You can only play one or two at a time, bass drum, snare drum, and sock pedal, unless you want to be a soloist. I’m not fast enough to be a soloist.
My son plays drums, and boy, he has an acre of stuff. He’s twenty-six and plays with a country band. But they carry everything these days—their own sound, their own mic’s. Back then we didn’t have any mic’s. We didn’t have anything. It was just set up, play, and go home.
MD: In your day, being a musician was not an accepted profession.
D.J.: It took me two years to talk my parents into buying me a set of drums. Finally they bought a little set. It cost them about $150, which was a lot of money back then. It was a used set, and I played on that for a long time. Then I loaned it to a guy one night, and darn if the club didn’t burn down—drums and all. I never did see a penny. Then I got another little set, but I don’t remember what they were. When I went to work with Elvis, I got this set of Gretsch. We didn’t have much room, so I got a 22″ bass, a small tom-tom, and a floor tom, which was about all we could carry.
MD: You didn’t change that setup later on, when Elvis wanted a bigger sound?
D.J.: You can play just as much on three as you can on six or eight. When he went to Vegas and hired other people, they had big drumsets. Elvis wanted us to go, but I hadn’t been in town long and I wanted to stay here. The guitar player, Scotty, owned a recording studio, so it was hard for him to get away. And the singing group, the Jordanaires, had about thirty or forty sessions. They couldn’t leave their clients here just to do that one show in Vegas. So we decided not to go.
MD: In the early days you were driving to gigs in a car, and then it became a big thing. Was it difficult to be like a family member and then suddenly like a corporation?
D.J.: It never was with Elvis. I left in ’68 and ’69, and it wasn’t that hectic. The security got terrible as he got bigger, and it got to where we couldn’t even get into the buildings. We’d always go out in the afternoon and set up. I’d have drums on my shoulders and the guy would say, “What do you want?” I’d say, “We’re the band,” and the guy would say, “How do I know?” We’d have to wait until the Colonel [Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker] or someone would come in. After a while they had to give us backstage passes.
MD: But weren’t you spending less time as a unit? You weren’t still traveling in a car, were you?
D.J.: Up until then we were. Elvis didn’t like to fly, and if we did fly, we’d all fly together. We had private planes and such, but he didn’t like to fly at all. We had a couple of close calls. We were in Amarillo, Texas, one night and we had to be in Nashville to record. They hired this pilot. I don’t know where they got him from. By the time we got here, the radio went out and he said, “Now, you guys look for planes. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, and I can’t talk through the radio.” When we got into Nashville, the landing gear wouldn’t go down. He spent thirty minutes cranking that thing down, and we were all nervous wrecks.
After that first experience flying, Elvis said, “If we can’t drive to the shows, we’re just not going.” So in ’56 or ’57, we were going to Hawaii and he took a ship. He wasn’t about to fly across the water. We told him we’d fly over. We called the airport that morning, and they said they couldn’t take our equipment, so we said we couldn’t go. We missed that flight even though we had reservations on it, and that plane crashed. We were lucky. The next morning we went. But they had radioed the ship to look out for this crashed plane and Elvis heard about it. He assumed it was us and almost had a heart attack, until he found out that we’d missed that plane.
MD: Is that one of the reasons why you never went to Europe?
D.J.: Probably. Elvis said that if we couldn’t take a boat or a car, we just weren’t going.
MD: Let’s talk about the recording situation.
D.J.: In the later years, we did a lot of stuff here in Nashville, but before that we were going to New York quite a bit because Elvis was doing those television shows. While we were in New York we’d stop and do recording sessions. It was the same thing, basically, although the studio in New York wasn’t quite as warm. The New York scene didn’t feel good. I don’t even remember the songs we cut, but it just didn’t seem as comfortable doing it the New York way. Then we went to California and they were trying to do it the Hollywood way. They’d put us on a soundstage like a football field, and we were supposed to play. We tried that one day at Paramount or MGM. They put baffles and everything up, so we finally had a room about this size, but it still wasn’t comfortable. They finally started doing it at Radio Recorders, which was just about the size we needed. We did most of the soundtracks there. Elvis wouldn’t even go on a soundstage. It was just too big, because he wanted the vocal group right on top of him and the band right next to him. It just wasn’t comfortable working half a mile away. Of course, they wanted separation, but with us together, there wasn’t a lot they could do about it. They had what they had, and that was it. But that’s the way Elvis recorded, and they weren’t going to change him. So he’d say he was sick that day and go home. We knew something was wrong. When they would suggest going to Radio Recorders, he’d say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” but he’d get sick.
MD: So you preferred to record in Nashville.
D.J.: Yeah. We started coming here a few years later. I don’t remember what year it was or what songs we recorded, but he was comfortable here in Nashville. He knew a lot of the musicians, because by then we were augmenting the band and getting different players in. Elvis was comfortable with that bunch. If he didn’t know everybody, he just wouldn’t feel comfortable. You wouldn’t say anything to him because you were afraid to. He had too much power. He didn’t push that power, but he had it. If something was wrong, he’d let you casually know about it with a couple of sly remarks, or he’d get sick.
He was a nice man, though. A lot of times we’d go out to California to record and he’d say, “Are you guys making any money?” We’d say, “No, Elvis, the session is going too fast.” And he’d say, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take a lunch break in a minute.” And he’d be gone for two or three hours. He’d come back at 3 or 4 and ask, “You guys make any money yet?” I’d say, “Yeah, we got two or three hundred made,” and he’d say, “We might as well get started. What do you think?”
MD: Is there any specific session that sticks out in your mind?
D.J.: Basically they were all the same. When we recorded here, they’d call us for 6 p.m., usually on Sunday nights. He’d come in from Memphis or wherever at 12 p.m. or 1 a.m., but we were still getting paid. We didn’t care when he came in. He was just a night person. If he didn’t feel like coming in until 1 a.m., fine. We’d wait until he got ready. Then we were worn out, and he was ready to go. He probably slept until 10 p.m. So we’d work until 5 or 6 a.m. But he worked hard when he worked. When he felt like playing, that was the end of it. You couldn’t get him to do anything. He’d piddle around, he’d goof off and he’d make mistakes, on purpose I think. We went to Hollywood one time to do some soundtracks, and we went in at 9 or 10 in the morning. By 6 or 7 that night, we didn’t have that first song. Nothing was going, so at about 8 he said, “Boys, this just ain’t happening. We ain’t got nothing. I ain’t singing good. None of us is doing anything right. Let’s go home.” We went home, came back the next morning, and everything went fine.
MD: How much of a perfectionist was Elvis?
D.J.: He knew what he wanted in his own mind, and he played just enough piano, just enough guitar, just enough bass, and just enough drums where he could tell you and show you what he wanted if he had to.
MD: So sometimes he showed you things on drums?
D.J.: If it was something he really wanted, he wouldn’t say, “Play this,” but “Can you play this?”
MD: Did you see a lot of changes in recording?
D.J.: As they got more equipment in the studio, it became a little bit better. We could fix stuff, and if we wanted to overdub a tambourine we could.
MD: Did you ever overdub?
D.J.: Sometimes cowbells and such, but usually we’d do the drums and all that live. Elvis wouldn’t go for that. He wanted everything right on top of him. He just got into overdubbing in the last few years. He hated to overdub. He just wasn’t comfortable doing it.
MD: On “Don’t Be Cruel” you played a guitar case.
DJF: Somebody had made Elvis a leather case for his rhythm guitar, and it had a heck of a sound. We were always looking for something to put on the records, so we were playing around one day and he said, “Try the back of this guitar case.” Why not? It worked. I popped it with one hand and used a stick in my other hand. It was a big record and nobody could figure out that sound. You still can’t get that sound anywhere else because of that leather guitar case. We tried to duplicate that sound a million times, but we couldn’t do it.
MD: That’s what you used on the ’68 TV special. I guess you weren’t too particular about equipment, were you?
D.J.: I never was. You can play everything on one little snare drum or a guitar case if you have to. The reason for that was that the stage was real small, and the drums just didn’t look good on camera.
DJ Fontana with Elvis
MD: I couldn’t quite tell what the case was propped up on.
D.J.: Right on my knees. I had a stick and a brush. But our feet stomping really was wiping everything out. The amps and mic’s were picking everything up, so they said, “Boys, next time we do this, don’t pat as hard.” That put us at a strain because we didn’t have a bass drum.
MD: You were using calf- and goatskin heads on your drums.
D.J.: I had goatskin heads. To me they had a better sound. They would flap and get loose, so with the snare drum, I’d let it sit under the hot lights of the dressing room or the stage until we got ready to go on. That would pull the head tighter, because by the time the show was over, they might have dropped. There weren’t a lot of plastic heads around.
MD: Did you eventually start using the plastic heads?
D.J.: Yeah. I still don’t like them. They sound fake to me. I grew up on skin heads, so I’m used to them. I don’t use them anymore; it’s too much trouble and calfskins are hard to find. I think they have a fatter sound, though. My bass drum head was real cowhide. It wasn’t just a skin head. The hair was still on the head. That deadened that bass drum, naturally. It was a little bit thicker. So I put a timpani head, which was a skin head too, on the batter side to liven it up. I didn’t have to have any mufflers or anything.
MD: Did the microphone situation and such change radically in the studio?
D.J.: Yeah, we got more separation. They’d put Elvis in a booth and the singers in another booth. They’d baffle all the drums and the guitars. I think when you do that, you lose it. What worked with him was spontaneous. Even when he was cutting a song in the studio, he’d jump around. We’d watch his hands and know where he was going. As long as we were watching him—if he wanted to rush the bridge, let’s go, just do it. He didn’t care as long as it didn’t get ridiculous. If we’d get back into the verse and he wanted it quieter, he’d let us know with his hands or something.
MD: I assume you never worked with click tracks.
D.J.: Oh, no. It wasn’t that technical. I don’t think Elvis would have cut like that. It’s too precise. He didn’t work precisely. He’d just do what he wanted to do, and if he wanted to rush the bridge, he would.
MD: What about the opening of “My Baby Left Me,” which starts with the drums. Whose idea was that?
D.J.: That was mine. I wanted to cut up that day. Elvis wanted something on the front of it, so I just started playing that thing. “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” has a big, long, open-roll type thing on the end where I just kept playing. I said, “Boys, here goes my job. He’s going to fire me.” We got through with the take and he said, “Why did you do that?” I said, “Hell, I don’t know. I just felt like it needed a button on the end of it just to close the door.” He said, “Well, I like that. Leave it.” They wanted to do it again and he said no. If it felt good to him, he didn’t care what happened.
MD: Were there any one-takers?
D.J.: Not usually. The problem back then was that it was mono. They didn’t have any tracks to work with, so it had to be there, because you couldn’t go back later and say, “Let me fix that.” We couldn’t because everything was on the same track. Everything had to be like Elvis wanted it, but once he heard it, he’d say, “That’s it. Leave it alone.” Even if the producer said, “Maybe we need another one,” he’d say, “No, we don’t need another one. That’s what I want.” He knew what he wanted.
MD: If he knew just what he wanted, how creative were you allowed to be?
D.J.: We could do what we wanted. Anything we wanted to play was fine. If he didn’t like it or it didn’t fit for what he wanted to hear, he’d say, “Can we change that? Try something else.” Basically, he wanted it real simple.
MD: Do you have any favorite tracks?
D.J.: No. I don’t really listen to that stuff too much. I’ve got all the records. “Hound Dog,” of course, was a good track. “Jailhouse Rock” was a good track, “Wear My Ring”—just different things. I was playing a little hard on some of them. “Ready Teddy” and some of those things like that where everybody was a little looser and we had more fun are the tracks I like. As far as a favorite, no. We just kind of did them all alike.
MD: Whose idea was “Hound Dog”?
D.J.: We went to Las Vegas in ’56, and Freddie Bell & the Bellboys were doing it. They were a group out of Chicago and they were hot in Vegas at the time. They played that song, and since we only did one or two shows, we went by every night to listen to them. They were playing the arrangement we finally put on record.
We went to New York and Elvis said, “Do you guys remember how that group did that record?” It was a real good show tune. That’s actually where we got the idea. We had heard the song a long time before, though. Somebody had put it out on a subsidiary of the Mercury label, but it was done as a waltz. Elvis listened to everything. He was into blues and listened to gospel and a lot of black artists — T-Bone Walker, Jr. Walker. I think he combined the gospel with the black music to get what he got. He could sing almost anything he took a notion to. He had that much talent. Then he even got into listening to Caruso. He listened to everything. I went to his house one night and he had a jukebox on the patio by the pool. There wasn’t one of his records on it. I said, “Gee, Elvis, you don’t have a record of yours on this jukebox.” He said, “I hear my stuff all the time.” He had all kinds of songs on there, though, from country to pop to rock, and some classical.
MD: Backtracking a little, when Elvis went into the army, you went with Gene Vincent for a while.
D.J.: Yeah. Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.
MD: That was a whole different ballgame for you, wasn’t it?
D.J.: He’d draw 1,000 to 1,500 people per show. He had a good band and a lot of good songs, but they were always getting themselves into trouble. I said, “One of these days they’re going to lock me up with these guys.” I got to Dallas and said, “Please, Gene, don’t ever call me again. I like you and all the guys in the band, but I just can’t take it.” When we went to Canada I was afraid that we’d get up there and they’d never let us back across the border. They were doing all kinds of things, and if I was with them, they would blame me for doing those things too. fun.
We were called raucous and boisterous, but we never tore up anybody’s property. We didn’t do it at home, so we didn’t do it in hotels. And we wouldn’t dare do it with Elvis. It would look bad for him, so we were pretty neat, really. We wore jackets and bow ties, and we were never loud like the press said. If we messed up something, we’d put it back. Sometimes we’d get a little boisterous and put beds out in the halls, but we’d put them back. There was one night when we took the bed out of the room and put it in the other room. Then we called the bellboy up and said, “There’s no bed in this room.” He came in the door and said, “I guess there isn’t. Let me go downstairs and check.” He went downstairs, and we put the beds back in the room. He came back and I said, “The bed’s here now.” We drove the guy crazy. That went on for a couple of hours. Elvis, Scotty, Bill, and I all got the bed out of the room and put it back. We didn’t tear up anything, but we had
MD: When you played live, how could you hear anything with all the chaos going on?
D.J.: We couldn’t hear. Back then we didn’t have the monitors they have now. We didn’t have anything. We had Scotty, Bill, myself, and 40,000 people out there. You really couldn’t hear anybody. We’d just have to watch Elvis’ rear end, his arms, and his feet to tell exactly where he was in the song. He conducted with his rear end. When we were at the Cotton Bowl, Elvis had this long cord, and he went from the middle of the fifty-yard line, where our stage was, to the fence, which had to be fifty or sixty yards away. We just kept watching him. We were doing the last song, “Hound Dog,” and he was just all over the place. How we knew where he was in the song is beyond me, but when he walked back, he was where he was supposed to be and we were there too. It was sheer luck. But we had to watch him every minute, because we never knew what he was going to do next.
MD: Did he basically play the songs the same way every night?
D.J.: Yeah, but there was no order. Of course when he got to Vegas, he had to have some kind of order.
MD: Although, Larrie Londin, who did some shows in the later years, said there was never any kind of order.
D.J.: I don’t know how conductors did it with an orchestra. Elvis never did anything like he was supposed to. We never knew what he was going to start with, although we knew that “Hound Dog” was the end. That’s all we knew.
MD: That must have kept you on your toes.
D.J.: Yeah, it did. We’d have to watch him every minute. You never get lazy doing that. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not. He could feel the audience. He’d watch them, and if things weren’t going right, he’d switch tunes around and do different things to get them on his side. He’d finally get them. He had the audience pretty well figured out.
MD: How much live playing was there?
D.J.: We worked pretty hard from the time that he started up until he went into the army. Then he got out, went to Florida, did the Frank Sinatra show, and finished up doing a picture. After that, there wasn’t a whole lot at all.
MD: How did you feel when Elvis brought Buddy Harman in?
D.J.: That was fine. Buddy is a good friend of mine. It got to the point where one guy couldn’t play it all.
D.J.: Well, it was mainly the movie things. There was no way one drummer could play everything they wanted on that record. It wasn’t that it was complicated, because nothing Elvis did was complicated, but it had to be a bigger sound. We’re probably one of the first bands who used two drummers, but Elvis always liked drums. Like I told you, he always wanted you to catch everything. It just got to the point where one drummer couldn’t do it all. Buddy and I were friends. It was like a talk-through thing: “What do you want to play, Buddy? I’ll play rhythm here and you fill here.”
MD: Did you play the foundation while he played the fills?
D.J.: Most of the time. I always wanted to be the backbeat. Sometimes we’d swap around. It got to the point on the movie tracks where it was three or four people. We had to have timpani, cowbells, tambourines, conga drums, and timbales, so sometimes we used Bernie Mathieson, who was from the big orchestra at Paramount. He played all the percussion stuff. We’d also use Hal Blaine. It depended on what was needed visually, according to what was on the film.
MD: You weren’t crazy about actually being in the movies.
MD: Did you like it at first?
D.J.: The first movie I did I enjoyed. It was something I hadn’t done before. That was Loving You. Then we did four or five, and it began to be a job. It was get up at 5 in the morning, go through the gate at 7, do make up, put on uniforms or whatever, stand around until noon, take an hour lunch break, stand around until 4:30, film thirty seconds, and go home. That was every day. But you had to be there, and that got old. We’d have to be gone eight, ten, or fifteen weeks at a time. We finally told Elvis that we would just come out and do the tracks. “You’re the actor; we’re not actors. We’re uncomfortable. Let us go home.” He said, “Fine, as long as you guys come out and do the tracks, I’m happy.” We enjoyed the first few of them — King Creole, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and one more I can’t remember.
MD: Who came up with the drum part to “Jailhouse Rock”?
D.J.: Scotty and I, but it was another visual situation. They had to have it in the movie. There was a scene where convicts were breaking rocks and they had to have the sound to match. So Scotty and I were piddling around and just lucked out on that lick. When you do pictures, you don’t have to worry about commercial records so much; you have to worry about how it’s going to look. So they would suggest something to us, and then we’d come up with something from working together. We lucked out a lot of times.
MD: When you stopped working with Elvis, what did you do?
D.J.: I stayed in town here and did recordings.
MD: That’s when you worked with Ringo?
D.J.: Yeah, I did an album with Ringo Starr. It’s a good album. [Beaucoups of Blues] t was Buddy and me on drums.
MD: Did Ringo play drums on that album?
D.J.: We were sitting around one night just kind of jamming and he asked, “Do you mind if I play?” I said, “Are you crazy?” He sat down and played — just jammed. One was eighteen or nineteen minutes long and one was twenty-some-odd minutes. He has the finest conception of tempo that I’ve ever heard in my life. He laid down a beat and you could not move him! I love that. I play the backbeat kind of like that, I guess. I never was fancy.
MD: Did you do any other interesting projects after Elvis?
D.J.: Not really. They all became alike after a while. They would call me for a session, and I would just go in and do it.
MD: It must have felt anticlimactic after Elvis.
DJF: Yeah, it was kind of downhill. But I enjoyed that Ringo Starr album, because I had heard the Beatles and heard him play. I really wanted to do that album. I enjoy playing still, but not as much as I used to. I would like to play more, but for the last four or five years there have been so many good players in town and maybe my style is out right now. There are some kids who are playing some really good things. Maybe I’m just too lazy.
MD: Are there any acts you’d like to play with?
D.J.: Not really. I wouldn’t mind working with Springsteen — to sit in on one tune maybe — just to see if I could do that. That would be fun. That’s probably the only one. That would make my day. A few years back, I had the chance to sit in with Jerry Lee Lewis and I had a good time. I’ve known Jerry for twenty-five or thirty years. One night we were working somewhere together, and I asked if I could just play a couple of songs. I must have played an hour. Carl Perkins is another I would like to sit in with for just one song. Those are the only guys, really.
MD: Any particular highlights that come to mind?
D.J.: We’ve been talking here for quite a while, and the things that come to my mind are how we had fun, the people, and the sessions. It all kind of ties in together and flows after a while. There are no highlights because everything was a highlight with Elvis.
By Associated Press
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 on Wednesday night. She said he’d 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 Fontana “a tremendously talented musician and a wonderful man.”
D.J. Fontana at the Town and Country Club in London in 1988.
1981 DJ Fontana Remembers Elvis by D.J. Fontana with photos and text
(DJ's memory is known as poor, so bare with him).