NEW YORK (AFP) – Drummer D.J. Fontana, the last surviving member of Elvis Presley’s original band whose hard-driving but self-effacing style helped shape rock percussion, has died, his family said Thursday. He was 87.
His son David Fontana wrote on Facebook that his father died peacefully in his sleep Wednesday evening.
An inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dominic Joseph Fontana introduced drums to the concoction that became rock ‘n’ roll at a time that popular singers often eschewed percussion entirely.
Fontana was a drummer for a radio program in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana when Presley, then performing primarily for country audiences, came in 1954 after performing on the rival, more established show of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
Fontana later recalled that the manager of the “Louisiana Hayride” program in Shreveport quipped about Elvis Presley, “‘What a funny name. … He’ll probably never make it with a name like that.'”
Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore approached Fontana to join and, in an instant, he became the original rockabilly drummer.
“It worked but I’d gotten to thinking it was such a unique sound they had, why clutter it up with drums and noise?” Fontana told The Washington Post in 1986.
“So I just kind of laid back and stayed out of their way. I think that’s why I got the job,” he said. “I just stay out of their way.”
Fontana was signed to Presley’s band, dubbed The Blue Moon Boys, supplying the heavy, high-energy beats that came to characterize rock ‘n’ roll on The King’s early hits such as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog.”
But he also knew his place in his band, allowing Elvis — and his pelvis — to dominate the show as he pounded away in the back during almost nightly shows.
Fontana played drums on Presley’s historic appearances in 1956 on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the singer’s gyrating sex appeal captivating a teen audience and shocking older viewers.
The Blue Moon Boys broke up in 1958 but Fontana regularly backed up Presley through the 1960s. Late in his life he also played shows for Elvis enthusiasts with Moore, who died in 2016.