D.J. FONTANA (By Colin Kilgour)
Born Dominic Joseph Fontana, 15 March 1931, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA
D.J. Fontana was a staff drummer in 1953 on the famous Louisiana Hayride. Prior to that he had played his drums for a Shreveport radio station studio band. It was whilst working the Hayride in 1954 D.J. that met Elvis. They formed a common bond of friendship and admiration for each other's talents. D.J. joined Elvis' group full-time in August 1955 augmenting the sounds of Scotty Moore and Bill Black as Elvis' original band. D.J. was the man behind the beat for the groundbreaking first 14 years of Presley's career (albeit post the 'Sun era') and played on some 400 RCA cuts with him spread across close on 50 recording sessions between 1956 - 68 (see listing in separate follow on post). He left the band in 1969 to become a session musician in Nashville.
Popular opinion has it that D.J. was first heard on "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" and then on other Sun recordings by Elvis. Fontana has stated however that he did not play on any of Elvis' Sun recordings.
Regarding "I'm Left, YRSG" - Jorgensen's Recording Sessions book has local high school teenager (James) Jimmie Lott on drums thereby providing percussion for the first time on a Presley session in early March '55. This song was cut both as a slow blues (no drums) and up-tempo country style (the master) with Lott.
The skins man at Sun was Dean Beard's drummer Johnny Bernero who never received credit for playing on such items as I Forgot To Remember To Forget, Trying To Get To You, You're A Heartbreaker, When It Rains ....
Johnny Bernero first recorded with the Blue Moon Boys on 11 July 1955 on 'I Forgot .... ' and 'Trying To Get To You'. From the same session, 'Mystery Train' didn't need no drummer!! As we know that Spiritual Entity developed a life entirely of its own ......... witness The Pelvis' joyous whoop of unrestrained joy at the end. And that train's still rolling, some fifty years on.
There really isn't a lot of information available on D.J. I don't have access to his own books so to an extent I've added here (courtesy of a few extracts from Scotty's autobiography) to my recent piece on the Guitar Man. The two men's' lives were very much intertwined and the two stories complement each other. As did D.J. and Scotty.
Following their 'failure' at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, just two weeks later on Oct. 16, 1954 Elvis, Scotty and Bill played the Louisiana Hayride, broadcast each Saturday night from Shreveport Municipal Auditorium.
The one big difference was the addition of drummer D. J. Fontana (*behind* the curtain!).
A few days before the show D. J. was asked to stop by the Hayride's office to listen to Elvis' records. On week days D.J. played drums on the cocktail and strip-joint circuit. Come Saturday nights he was the staff drummer at the Hayride in his home town. That meant that whenever visiting artists wanted to beef up their act with drums, D.J. made himself available.
He always played behind the curtain, so he couldn't be seen by the audience. In those days, drums were considered a musical sacrilege to country fans. D.J. listened to the Sun recording of "Good Rockin' Tonight" with great interest. He liked it and commented on the echo effect. He had never heard anything quite like it and asked "How many musicians they got? five ... six ..."
When told there were only three people in the band, it floored him. "I never heard anything like that ..... Boy, that's good".
Jim Denny, the Opry's manager had also been dumbfounded ...... on seeing the trio he hollered that he "wanted the full band that's on the record" ........ which of course was what he got (and ultimately rejected).
By car from the Eagle's Nest (Memphis way) to Shreveport was some 7 hours. The three-hour Hayride show was broadcast in its entirety over a 28 state area. Curtain time was 8 p.m. and it had a large stage + seating capacity of 3,800
The boys were nervous and we have the memorable recorded intro where Elvis is on auto-pilot and babbles away, finally realising he's usurped announcer Frank Page and reverting to type with a polite and apologetic "You got anything else to say, Sir?" - before launching off
D.J. had of course met with the boys prior to the performance and they spent time in the dressing room listening again to the records. Elvis, Scotty and Bill had never performed with a drummer and looked forward to it
D.J. decided not to clutter the players, rather to 'complement' them and avoid cymbals, just playing the back beat. They did 2 songs and were scheduled to repeat them later in the show. Audience reception was polite only. Sam Phillips gave Elvis a pep talk which basically was 'relax, perform the way you do back home in Memphis and if these people didn't like that ...... well, to hell with them'.
All credit to Sam then because following the Opry flop, this was a bit of a 'last chance saloon' as regards 'local' southern mass radio media exposure.
The audience had changed for the second set. There were more students and reacted better, shouting and clapping. Whilst still not at 'Memphis response' level, it confirmed Sam's belief that Elvis was on the right track.
The Hayride felt the same and the boys were invited back. They didn't really take off for several weeks ........ then the young ladies started showing up. Elvis wiggled his legs a bit, snarled a bit and let his hair hang down. The audience changed as the demeanour of the act changed ... and D.J. was allowed in front of the curtains!
Elvis soon returned to Shreveport with his parents to sign a 12 month contract. Scotty and Bill got basic union scale - $12 to Elvis' $18 as 'band leader'. They were expected to perform for 52 consecutive weeks, with occasional absences permitted with adequate notice.
This then was D.J.'s introduction to Elvis and The Blue Moon Boys.
Once the first Hayride contract with Elvis and the Band expired in November 1955, they picked up their option to extend - with Elvis' fee shooting to $200**. Scotty and Bill persuaded Elvis to add D.J. permanently to the line up by agreeing to share the cost of the drummer's $100 per week salary among them. This way the 2 friends facilitated Elvis' desire to have a drummer but at a cost to themselves.
(** as things transpired, in Spring of 1956 Col. Parker manoeuvred a release from the Hayride contract).
The Memphis boys all liked D.J. with his Louisiana bayou ways.
Reminiscing on the old days SM has said "There were no stage monitors back then to hear yourselves play. D.J. would watch Elvis like a hawk. Elvis loved for him to accent stuff just like you would... Well, DJ did play for strippers back in his younger days. And I told this guy, Well, we're probably the only group in the world led by an ass! I was talkin' about Elvis' movements".
Unfortunately Elvis' then manager, Bob Neal soon rescheduled the original remuneration arrangement to the detriment of Scotty and Bill. Now that stardom beckoned, their status shifted from partners to salaried sidemen (or employees, if you will).
There had been unrest between Scotty and Bill and Colonel Parker and the latter even suggested to Elvis that for an upcoming tour, he leave the (now) 3 musicians behind and use Hank Snow's band but that didn't happen because Elvis wouldn't sanction it. You have to believe Snowy's boys were relieved also ... imagine them trying to contain the whirlwind that was the young Hillbilly Cat.
Sam Phillips sold Elvis' recording contract to RCA records and on 10 January 1956, D.J. for his first session, joined the 3 guys and several prominent Nashville musicians to record 5 titles - starting with 'I Got A Woman' and including the million selling and mould-shattering "Heartbreak Hotel".
On 28 January they recorded the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show TV special and from their big band, D.J. got to meet up again with one of his heroes, drummer Louis Belson. They had become pals and D.J. even thought the Dorseys nice guys. But then D.J. was the archetypal 'nice guy' himself and probably didn't see bad in anyone (except Ol' Col. Tom!!).
Another landmark recording session was later on 2 July 1956 - this time in New York and it saw Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel and Any Way You Want Me committed to wax. Chief Jordanaire Gordon Stoker gives a lot of credit to Scotty and D.J. for their creativity on sessions, working things out together.
But the backing boys never succeeded in playing any kind of 'catch up' as regards their earnings. Over three appearances on Ed Sullivan's TV Shew (in-joke) - from Sept. 56 to January 57 - Elvis pocketed $50,000 for 15 songs whilst D.J. and the other 2 boys each received $78.23 per show (i.e. x 3).
When 'active' for Elvis, Scotty earned some $200 weekly, about the same as the singer's Memphis Mafia, except those members of Elvis' entourage also received free cars and expensive gifts. Parker vetoed various opportunities for the backing boys to make extra money and Elvis never purchased cars for them.
It is customary to blame Parker for all such injustices but although he was no admirer of the Colonel, Scotty seems pretty adamant that it fell more within Elvis' remit to play fairer with the boys and he never took the opportunity to do so. Maybe father Vernon had an influence ......... it was true that compared to the kind of wage earned by Vernon and John Doe at the time, the backing boys didn't do too badly. You can't help but conclude though that the Hillbilly Cat was decidedly at fault in not sharing the merest fraction of his riches and good fortune with the guys who helped him break through. Shoot, he never even replaced Scotty's wife's '54 Chevy which she made available for the group to tour and which they burned out, taking it 3 times around the clock mileage wise.
Let's face it, if Scotty hadn't badgered Sam Phillips about 'that kid' and if Bill hadn't saved their bacon several times with his on-stage shtick, Elvis might never have escaped from Crown Electric. This writer loves you dearly Elvis Aaron but not looking after the 3 main boys, really is a big blot on your C.V.
I like a comment made by Jordanaire Ray Walker .......... "Scotty was more protective of Elvis than the Colonel. It was like Scotty was a speedboat and Elvis skied in the smooth water behind the speedboat". CK reflects that it may have been Elvis' motto but Scotty - as far as Parker allowed and certainly in those crucial first 20 months or so - was the perpetual 'fixer' , the man who certainly did "Take Care Of Business". A quiet man he may have been but you didn't mess with Scotty Moore.
Another reason to rue the machinations of Tom Parker ........ for surely many other managers of the Boy King would have kept D.J. and those Blue Moon Boys in tow, whereas Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk saw fit to remove the influence of the likes of D.J., Scotty, Bill, Leiber Stoller etc.
It was Parker's shenanigans that saw to it that the Blue Moon Boys weren't really in the frame for the musicians' parts in the 'Love Me Tender' movie, but D.J. and the others did appear with Elvis in the 1957 movies Loving You and Jailhouse Rock.
For the sound track for the latter film, as back then they couldn't literally use a sledge hammer to generate a jailhouse sound, they simulated it musically. On the now so familiar intro, Scotty does a half-step drag and D.J. a beat on the drums to imply a rock pile.
Owing to time constraints I'm taking giant steps down the years and readers can easily fill in gaps from any decent Presley biog. In late 1965 following the tragic death of Bill Black from a brain tumour, D.J. and Scotty were pallbearers. A few years later in '68 for the NBC TV Comeback Special the two of them provided a kind of 'security blanket' against Elvis' apprehension about doing the show, after being 'away' so long.
The final break occurred from Elvis in early 1969 when Parker offered Moore, Fontana, the Jordanaires and other long-time Presley backups insulting wages to drop what they were doing and back Elvis at a Las Vegas concert. When they all balked, Parker put together a new band and it was Sayonara.
D.J. continued to work with Scotty on various of the latter's projects down the years, including touring gigs.
In March of 2000 'All the King's Men' is released on Sweetfish Records. It features Scotty and D.J. joined by an array of guests including Keith Richards, the Band, Cheap Trick, Ron Wood and Jeff Beck. Unfortunately the writer thinks this is a poor record. No big deal however D.J. - your bestest years were way back and we have the wherewithal to travel back there regularly.
Intriguingly D.J. and Scotty appear to be chess freaks. The mind boggles a little ........ there was an alternative issue to the basic album on 'All The King's Men' which was a Chess Set box. This contained an enhanced CD with detailed chessmen, game board, and a sheet of Scotty & D.J.'s favourite chess tips!
http://www.rockabillyhall.com/DJ.html some nice comments (and pics) here
Recommended Reading: 2 to track down
D.J. authored the book D.J. Fontana Remembers Elvis
"A quite new publication 'The Beat Behind The King' is a fitting title for a book by DJ Fontana about his life with Elvis. The story of the force behind the King that ignited a revolution in pop music.
This book is somewhere between a text and a picture book. The format is good for the number of images in it, they can be presented in a larger size. Too bad the quality of the images is very poor, even on the glossy paper they used, because great images like this deserve the highest quality. They have chosen a good font which makes reading easy.
With the book comes a picture disk CD in which DJ tells some great anecdotes about life on the road with Elvis. The book is told by DJ Fontana, written by Darwin Lamm and published by Elvis International books".
One reviewer's conclusion :
"We've read a lot by the guys who were there in the later years, but not too much from the guys who were there in the early days. This book contains DJ Fontana's version of (especially) the fifties part of Elvis life and is told in a very pleasant, open and positive way. It is one of the better books we 've read recently. A big minus is the quality of the photos, they deserved much better.
This book is a great read for any fifties fan and everyone interested in Elvis life (on the road) with his early friends". Available from Bear Family's site etc.
I was delighted to see D.J. and Scotty on one of their dozen UK dates in the spring of 1999, a fantastic experience. The drummer man is set to appear as one of the main weekend guests at an Elvis Summer Ball Fan Club event organised by head honcho Todd Slaughter in June 2003, near Crewe. He'll be accompanied by his wife Karen. He hasn't been to a fan club event for 10 years but he's sure to be a popular choice, as "he is always so friendly with the fans".
A glance at his website will show that he's still pretty active around the scene and has numerous other appearances lined up - ranging from the U.S. through Canada and Switzerland! Way to go D.J.
As a nod to D.J. why not have a blast on Elvis' "I Feel So Bad". Who knows where D.J. starts and Buddy Harman ends but it's a percussive treat. Next up flip on "My Baby Left Me" for that marvellous opening burst on the skins! And "All Shook Up" and "Don't Be Cruel" .... Ahhhhhhhhhhh
Colin Kilgour: March 2003
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