ELVIS' DRUMMER TO ROLL INTO LOCAL NIGHTCLUB
D.J. FONTANA DRESSES UP MANY OF THE KING'S HITS
There's this great little drum part in Elvis Presley's 1956 classic "Hound Dog" that really rocks. It's right before the guitar solo, and it's actually just a little fill. But the drums sound so driving and so authoritative, it's always been one of my favorite moments in the entire Presley catalogue.
That piece - as well as the drum parts on many of Presley's greatest hits - were played by D.J. Fontana. And it's Fontana who will perform tonight at The Woodlands Inn & Resort in Plains Township as part of The Elvis Birthday Tribute show.
Not surprisingly, Fontana's memories of his work with The King are fond ones.
"I was always impressed with what a gentleman he was," says Fontana in an interview with The Times Leader, when asked to share his favorite Elvis story. "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 is from Louisiana, first met Elvis in 1954. Presley, a then-unknown performer who was touring through Louisiana and sharing the bill with several other acts, was offered Fontana's services by the promoters for the gig.
"I just happened to be there to play if some of the guys wanted drums," recalls Fontana. "It was kind of an accident. I stayed with him, off and on, for years."
Fontana's work with Presley through the next decade was more on than off. In addition to many of Presley's film soundtracks, he played drums on early classics such as "Don't Be Cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel" "All Shook Up," and "Jailhouse Rock." He also played with Presley on all of his early TV appearances, including programs with Milton Berle, Steve Allen and his 1956 milestone performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Fontana's last appearance with Presley occurred at what is now considered the finest performance of The King's career- the 1968 NBC television special best known as the "'68 Comeback Special."
In 1997, Fontana teamed up with original Presley guitarist Scotty Moore for the release of "All The King's Men," a rockabilly flavored CD which featured guest appearances by Keith Richards, The Band, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Steve Earle and The Jordanaires. Fontana, who names Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa among his influences, says 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 says. "You're in there to cut a good record. Of course, Elvis always hoped they were hits, but we all strived for the same thing - to do the best job we could and get the best record we could."
Although Presley is most widely regarded as a marvelous vocalist, rather than as a skilled musician or songwriter, Fontana says Elvis knew the studio well and essentially served as his own producer.
"He was the final word," says 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."
Fontana says that although he never performed with Presley again after the 1968 TV special, the two remained friends until the singer's death in 1977. He says he first began taking part in Presley tribute shows around 1978 and is impressed with some of the impersonators - particularly those like tonight's Elvis, local singer Shawn Klush, who he'll join on stage.
"It's keeping the music alive," says Fontana. "They've always been successful with a lot of people....
"Everybody has a good time."