Drummer D.J. Fontana was a rockabilly icon at a time when country music was cutting drums completely.
For fourteen years he was the pulse at the center of Elvis Presley’s music. Together they recorded hundreds of songs and blew audiences away with rollicking, fun-loving, informal jams.
D.J. Fontana was hired in 1955 as Elvis Presley’s drummer, expanding the group to a four-piece and becoming the first rockabilly drummer in the bargain.
At the time, Fontana was the house drummer for the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show out of Shreveport, LA, and he backed up Presley and bandmates Bill Black and Scotty Moore when they came to play. It worked so well he was asked to join the group a few months later.
As a drummer, Fontana’s laid-back, straight-ahead style ideally suited Presley, Black and Moore, complementing rather than overwhelming their sound. “I just learned how to stay out of their way and let them do what they had to,” Fontana noted in a 1987 interview. “It sounded better to me that way.” His influences were mainly big-band jazz drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.
Fontana remained with Presley throughout the Fifties. During the Sixties, when Presley turned his attention to movie-making, Fontana was still present at many of his Nashville recording sessions. Fontana also did session work for others in the Sixties. He and Scotty Moore both appeared at Presley’s side on his landmark Christmas 1968 TV special. It was the King’s celebrated comeback from B-movie purgatory and re-embrace of rock and roll. The highlight was an unscripted hootenanny during which the old bandmates revisited vintage rockabilly highlights and shared reminiscences from the Fifties. In retrospect, this “informal segment” was Unplugged about twenty years before MTV came up with that name and format.
Despite an offer in 1969 to join Presley’s band in Las Vegas, Fontana and Moore never played with their old boss again. Fontana last saw Presley in the mid-Seventies, while he was recording in Nashville.
Revered as rockabilly icons, Moore and Fontana reunited to cut an album—with assistance from famous fans like the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards—entitled All the King’s Men, released in 1997. Fontana and Moore also backed Paul McCartney on a remake of “That’s All Right” for the 2000 release, Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records.
Inductee: D.J. Fontana (drums; born March 15, 1931, died June 14, 2018)