Talking music with one of the King's Men

An interview with D.J. Fontana

Back in '90s, at least once every few weeks, I found myself interviewing a rock star. I was the music columnist at The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre at the time, and because the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre market seemed to be a stop on most major concert tours, and because most of my interviews were being carried on the national entertainment wire, rock stars were calling all the time. Billy Joel. Steven Tyler. Eddie Van Halen. David Bowie. Ray Charles. Jon Bon Jovi. Don Henley. I was fortunate enough to chat with all of them about music. And even though I was often a big fan of some of the people I interviewed, I never got starstruck or overly excited about it. It was my job - a job that was fun and that I grateful for - but also one that I took seriously. The most important thing to me about interviewing a rock star was making sure that the interview resulted in a good story for the newspaper.

Still, that didn't mean there weren't a few times when I was a little bit more anxious to make that call. And on one occasion, in January of 1999, this was particularily true. And that's because I was scheduled to interview one of the King's Men. I was scheduled to interview the longtime drummer of one Elvis Aaron Presley.

I was scheduled to interview D.J. Fontana.

He was not the household name that had been accompanying a lot of my articles at that time, but to me, this one was special. Hanging out at a local tavern one night a day or two before our scheduled chat, my friends - who were not accustomed to hearing me even talk about my work that much - seemed surprised over my enthusiasm for this particular interview.

"You guys don't understand," I said. "I'm more excited about this than I would be to be talking to somebody like Eddie Vedder."

With that, I was met with somewhat of a puzzled look.

"This guy played with ELVIS," I said. "Hound Dog. Heartbreak Hotel. Jailhouse Rock. He played on all of them."

At that point, I think they actually started to get it. Fontana, in fact, played on more than 450 Elvis songs. He also played with Presley on all of his early TV appearances, including his 1956 milestone performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and one that is considered to be one the finest performances of his career - the 1968 NBC television special best known as the "'68 Comeback Special."

And D.J. Fontana - who was coming to Wilkes-Barre as part of an Elvis tribute show - gave me a very good interview.

"I was always impressed with what a gentleman he was," he said, when I asked him to share his favorite Elvis memory. "He was always kind to people. He always spoke with 'yes, ma'am,' 'no, sir,' 'thank you very much.' He was always polite. As he got bigger, he didn't have to be. But that's the way he was taught when he was a little boy, so he never got rid of that attitude."

Fontana, who named Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa among his influences, told me that it never occurred to him when he was recording Presley's early hits that he was also securing his place as one of rock 'n' roll's pioneering drummers.

"You don't think about those things," he said. "You're in there to cut a good record. Of course, Elvis always hoped they were hits, but we were all striving for the same thing - to do the best job we could and get the best record we could."

Getting the best record they could. Those words carried a lot of weight coming from a man who essentially helped form rock and roll. And it was when he talked about making those records - and Elvis' role in their production - that Fontana offered the most insight. Though Presley was widely regarded as a marvelous vocalist, his role with his own recordings was not, for the most part, one of a musician or songwriter. But Fontana told me that Elvis knew the nuances of a recording studio very well and essentially served as his own producer.

"He was the final word," said Fontana. "He knew what he wanted to hear. We had producers - guys that I called clock-watchers. They'd sit behind the sound board and go 'Oh yeah, Elvis, that's two minutes and 15 seconds,' but's that about all they ever said. Elvis would do it until he was satisfied and say 'That's the one I'm taking.' He was usually right."

It remains, to this day, one of my favorite interviews.

My chat with D.J. Fontana was done on the phone, but when he came to town a few days later, I was able to meet him in person. By that time, the story from our interview had already been published in the paper and I was able to give him a copy. He was also kind enough to sign a copy for me and pose for a picture. Though he talked during our interview about Elvis always being a gentleman and of his politeness, I found the same to be true of Mr. Fontana, who is now 82 and whose legendary work has not been limited to recording with Elvis. With the "All The King's Men" project, he worked with people such as Keith Richards, Levon Helm and Jeff Beck. Just a few years after I did the interview, he played with Paul McCartney. And in recognition for his work, he has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sidemen category.

Over the past few years, I've posted quite a few of my old newspaper interviews with rock stars on YouTube. And with my friends and I currently planning a trip to Graceland, and with the music of Elvis frequently filling my home, I thought I'd share a few excerpts my interview with D.J. Fontana. You can listen to them on the link above.

"I'm a big Elvis fan," I say at one point during our conversation. "It's really a pleasure to talk to you."

Indeed it was. It's not everyday that you get to talk music with someone who was in the room when pop culture was forever changed and who had a role in that change. It's not everyday that you get to talk with someone that worked with Elvis, so often, for more nearly 15 years.

It's not everyday that you get to talk with one of the King's Men.