Elvis Presley Drummer D.J. Fontana Dies at 87
D.J. Fontana, the last remaining member of Elvis Presley's original group, "passed away in his sleep" on Wednesday night, his son David Fontana confirmed on Facebook.
Fontana, who played drums with Presley from 1954-68, was 87 years old. "He was very comfortable with no pain," David Fontana added. "We ask for privacy at this time. Thank you for your love and prayers."
Dominic Joseph Fontana, who was born March 15, 1931, in Shreveport, La., played on Presley's most important and well-known recordings – including "Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Don't Be Cruel." He followed jazz drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, rather than country guys. That offbeat feel immediately piqued Presley's interest.
They met by chance in Fontana's hometown, where he was backing country artists like Webb Pierce and Faron Young as the house drummer at the Louisiana Hayride. Word was already spreading about this amazing new talent.
"They sent Elvis' records from Memphis. I thought the sound was really incredible," Fontana told the Tennessean in 1984. "It was really different. When Elvis, [guitarist] Scotty Moore and [bassist] Bill Black came down as a trio, Scotty approached me about drumming with them. We ran through about two or three songs backstage, including 'That's All Right, Mama.'"
Something immediately clicked. Presley's nascent trio became his most famous group.
Fontana memorably appeared with Elvis on the The Ed Sullivan Show – Presley's gyrations to Fontana's lightning-quick drum fills sent the audience into squeals of ecstasy – and supported him through the legendary '68 Comeback Special. Later career highlights included a stint backing Ringo Starr on 1970's Beaucoup of Blues. Fontana was joined on those sessions by a who's who of sessions aces from his adopted hometown of Nashville.
Fontana and Moore reunited for 1997's All the King's Men, an all-star outing that also featured Jeff Beck, Levon Helm, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Moore and Fontana subsequently backed Paul McCartney for a rollicking 2001 update of "That's All Right, Mama."
Already a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Fontana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. He credited a straightforward approach to music making for all of those successes.
"I learned the value of simplicity at the Hayride," Fontana says in Craig Morrison's 1996 book Go Cat Go! "I heard Scotty and Bill and Elvis one night, and knew that I couldn't mess up that sound. That's why I always play what I feel. If that won't work, I just won't do it again. I think the simple approach comes from my hearing so much big band music. I mixed it with rockabilly."