Monday 15 October 2018

Elvis Presley's drummer DJ Fontana dies aged 87

Elvis in his 1968 NBC comeback special, wearing a black leather jumpsuit
Elvis in his 1968 NBC comeback special, wearing a black leather jumpsuit

Adrian Sainz and Hillel Italie

DJ Fontana, the drummer who helped launch rock 'n' roll as Elvis Presley's sideman, has died at 87, his wife said.

Karen Fontana said he died in his sleep in Nashville on Wednesday night after 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.

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 programme 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-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 DJ put the backbeat into it," The Band's Levon Helm said in 2004.

Presley returned often to the Hayride, and in 1955 Fontana became a permanent member of the group, working with him 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 programmes.

He played on many of the 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, the comeback 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 seven or eight 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 teenager 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 joints 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 and he became a sensation around the country, and beyond.

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