Nashville Cats: Salute to Session Player D.J. Fontana

October 22, 2011
D.J. Fontana accumulated a variety of experiences as a drummer before Elvis Presley asked him to join his band, the Blue Moon Boys, in August 1955. Fontana’s decision to join them resulted in his becoming one of the most celebrated musicians in American music history.

As a teen growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, Fontana performed in rock and country combos, and he provided backup for the diverse acts who appeared on the Louisiana Hayride radio show in the early 1950s, when he was the show’s staff drummer.

“Elvis wanted me to catch every move he made,” Fontana said at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as an honoree of the museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, a quarterly program celebrating musicians who played an integral role in country music history.

The band’s other musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, “played the rhythm more than I did,” Fontana said, explaining that his job was to play fills and to add accents to Presley’s stage moves.

In his youth, Fontana was inspired by big band drummers Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Don Lamond, who was the drummer in Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd band before becoming a fixture in the musical ensemble for TV’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

After joining Presley’s band, Fontana bought his classic drum kit, with its famous calfskin front, from a musical store in Houston. The owner, a jazz drummer himself, had only one kit with a twenty-inch bass drum, smaller than the others in the store. Fontana talked him into selling it even though the owner used it for his own gigs.

Not only did the smaller bass drum fit Fontana’s style, it made traveling easier, at least in the early part of Presley’s career. “We were driving to shows in one car-all of us, instruments and all,” Fontana said, explaining that the car belonged to guitarist Scotty Moore’s wife, since the musicians (including Presley) couldn’t yet afford a big car of their own.

Fontana first played with Presley on the Louisiana Hayride on October 16, 1954, as a staff player for the radio show. Because shows like the Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry were hesitant to include drums, Fontana had to perform behind a curtain on that night.

The drummer said the sound of the Blue Moon Boys was “so unique,” he wasn’t sure they needed his drumming. But Presley insisted, so Fontana added some light brush work on his snare drum as the band performed. “I felt like I might be in the way, but it worked out fine,” Fontana said.

As Presley continued to appear regularly on the Hayride, he requested that Fontana play onstage with him without a curtain between them. At first, Hayride management allowed him to appear out front with just a snare, but with time he was able to set up his entire drum kit within view of the audience.

“We can give you credit with bringing the drummer from outside the curtain,” said Bill Lloyd, host of the Nashville Cats series, who interviewed Fontana for the ninety-minute program. Fontana responded, “Well, I guess so.”

In 1955, Presley coaxed Fontana away from the Hayride to become a member of his band [JO1] . Back then, Presley and his boys barely made enough money to cover hotel room and gasoline expenses. Many of the shows were outdoors, Fontana said, and they performed most often in East Texas, the first region to regularly book Presley’s shows outside of Memphis.

Fontana began recording with Presley when he switched to RCA Records from Sun Records in 1956. The first session, which included “Heartbreak Hotel,” took place in a recording studio on McGavock Street in Nashville. After that, the band recorded in New York, Los Angeles, and RCA Studio B in Nashville.

Lloyd played several early Presley songs displaying Fontana’s drum style, including “My Baby Left Me.” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Baby I Don’t Care.”

Fontana and the other musicians initially joined Presley in California performing in movies and soundtracks. Asked about his Hollywood work, Fontana said flatly, “I didn’t like it.” He eventually stopped appearing in films, only flying to Los Angeles to perform with Presley, Moore, and Black on the film soundtracks.

The Hollywood bands also used other musicians to expand on Presley’s core sound, but Fontana didn’t find that disconcerting. He enjoyed making music with California studio musicians and didn’t find it difficult to merge styles. “If you play good, you play good, that’s it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. These were studio guys, and they were the best.”

Later, on Nashville recordings, Fontana was joined by Nashville studio drummer Buddy Harman to create a bigger, more complex rhythmic sound. Here too, Fontana enjoyed both the sound and the challenge of working in a bigger band.

When Presley joined the U.S. Army, Fontana filled his time with other gigs, including touring with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. In fact, Fontana said, when he first heard Vincent singing “Be-Bop-a-Lula” on the radio, he thought it was Presley. “Me and Scotty thought, ‘What’s he doing recording without us,’” Fontana said with a laugh. “We were mad.”

When Presley returned from the military, Fontana joined him on his comeback performance on the Frank Sinatra Show on network TV. He continued to play on the soundtracks of Presley’s Hollywood films up to the famous return to live television performing on the 1968 program Singer Presents ELVIS, which received rave reviews. It included a stripped-down segment where Presley performed with Fontana and Moore in what Presley described as “the way we used to do it.”

As Presley focused on making movies, Fontana played recording dates in Nashville, backing several country stars. Because of his reputation as Presley’s drummer, Fontana also was invited to play on recordings by George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, and other rockers and pop stars.

For a long time, guitarist Scotty Moore concentrated on managing his own recording studio rather than performing or recording. But at some point Moore joined Fontana in playing with other performers or going on tours, especially in Europe. The work included recording an album called All the King’s Men, with guests Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Levon Helm, the Mavericks, Tracy Nelson, and Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones.

“You’ve had a chance to work with just about everybody, it seems,” Lloyd said. He also mentioned Fontana’s autobiography, The Beat Behind the King.

In 2009, Fontana and bassist Bill Black were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Scotty Moore had previously been inducted in 2002. “I’m proud of that,” Fontana said. “It’s a great honor.”

-Michael McCall