D.J. Fontana etched his place in rock and roll history playing drums for Elvis Presley. He was more than just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Original Interview Audio:
The staff drummer for the Louisiana Hayride TV show when he first backed Elvis in 1954, Fontana was a killer on the skins, able to lay down a groove that combined simplicity, power and swing. He established a no bullshit, in-the-pocket drum approach that would be absorbed by Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and countless others.
Despite his role as a founding father of rock and roll with the two other members of Elvis’s original trio – guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black – Fontana never came close to household name status. He never got rich either, despite his long association with the King. Not that Fontana seemed upset about it when we spoke.
I interviewed Fontana – who died on June 13, 2018 in Nashville at age 87 – upon the release of “All the King’s Men,” an album he made with his old partner Scotty Moore and a cast of peers and admirers, among them members of the Rolling Stones, the Band, Cheap Trick, the BoDeans, the E Street Band, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and the Mavericks, along with Jeff Beck, Tracy Nelson, Joe Louis Walker, Steve Earle and Joe Ely. It’s not, thank goodness, a set of Elvis covers, but a batch of new songs done with enough rockabilly fervor to almost make them sound like lost classics.
The album’s release was timed to the publication of Scotty’s autobiography, “That’s Alright, Elvis,” which details Scotty’s role in helping Elvis become the biggest star in the world, as well as his mistreatment by Elvis. Scotty politely but decisively makes the case that he and Bill Black were screwed, financially and otherwise.
Fontana backed up Scotty’s claim, but without a trace of rancor. Speaking in a heavy Louisiana drawl from his then-new home 30 miles from Nashville, the Shreveport-born Fontana had little bad to say about his former employer. Or anybody else. He came across as the most good-natured and good-hearted of men, a country boy who never lost his appreciation for the stroke of fortune which made him one of the most listened-to and imitated drummers of all time.
August 8, 1997
By phone from Smyrna, Tennessee
In the liner notes to the new record [“All the King’s Men”], you say that when the idea was proposed for you and Scotty to make a new record together, you said that you thought they’d never get Scotty to the table. So you were surprised he agreed to do it?
Yeah, because he hadn’t been doing much in a long time. But he kinda liked the idea. And this guy, Dan Griffin, got all these people together, so Scotty said “Shoot, that might be fun.” He hadn’t been playing that much. He quit playin’ for 24 years [laughs]. Really. He just started back a couple of years ago a little bit at a time and he still don’t play a lot.
What about you?
I’ve been playin’ all along. When I left Elvis I started doing recording sessions and I did that for 20 years off and on. And I’ve been on the road since then, all over the world through the Elvis thing, fan clubs and stuff. Mostly it’s question and answers. And if they have a band, I’ll play. It’s strictly Elvis type things. But it’s fun. We have a good time.
This year mark the 20th anniversary of Elvis’s death. Was that some kind of a prod for you and Scotty to get back together and do album?
No, we didn’t even think about that. We’ve been working on this thing for over a year. Just getting everybody to commit – because they’re busy doing other things, so you have to wait a month or two for this guy to come in and record. In fact we had to fly over to Ireland to get Ron Wood and Jeff Beck. We just had to get people when we could get ’em.
Did getting all these stars to play with you make you feel honored?
This was the best one. Because these guys, after you get to talkin’ to ’em, they grew up on Elvis just like everybody else. They were fans. I was over there with Ron and Jeff Beck and every time we’d say “Jeff, do you know so and so?” And he knew every lick that every guitar player ever played on them records. He studied ’em, I guess. He knew all the lyrics. And I don’t know how many Ron knew.
Does it surprise you to hear how many drummers you’ve influenced?
I guess so. I never thought about it ‘cept for the last few years. Levon [Helm]’s spoken well of me. And Max Weinberg from the E Street Band, he’s talked a great deal about learning how to play and listening to me on the radio. Ringo Starr, he’s a big fan. And I’m a big fan of all those guys too.
There’s an old story about you that when you first played with Elvis on the Louisiana Hayride the kept you hidden behind a curtain. It’s true?
Yeah, they didn’t want a lotta noise, I guess. It was strictly a country-orientated crowd. It was like offstage behind a curtain, but it was one of them sheer curtains. You could see through it and hear. It wasn’t like a big backdrop, I was just off to the side a little bit. Finally they said, “You can come out front with your snare drum.” Then it was “Bring your sock pedal,” then “Bring your bass drum.” Next thing you know there was a whole set there. People got used to it.
Scotty came out with a book last month, his autobiography [“That’s Alright, Elvis”]. Do you think eventually you’ll follow Scotty and do a book of your own?
Nah, it’s all been written. I haven’t read Scotty’s book, but I’m sure he covered the rest of it.
Do you plan on reading it?
Yeah, if he gives me one [laughs].
Scotty says that you were the first drummer he and Elvis and Bill Black played with.
I think they used a couple of guys down in Memphis once or twice, but it didn’t work out, I don’t know why. And one of the records on Sun, “I Forgot to Remember [to Forget]”, had a drummer [Johnny Bernero]. I think that’s the only one.
Did you think it was a big deal the first time you played with Elvis?
No, I didn’t think about it. They asked me to play and I played. I thought it was good. I thought they were good. They had the best sound I ever heard for three pieces. They played me the record in the management office and I said, “Wow, it sounds like five or six musicians.” They said, “No man, it’s but three guys.” I thought that was unusual.
Did you have any doubts about it when they asked you to join them?
Oh no. I jumped right on it. I was just working the Hayride one night a week, working clubs around town the rest of the time to make a living. They didn’t offer a lot of money. They weren’t makin’ a lot of money. I said “Okay, I’ll stick it out, what the heck.” And it was fun, too. I think that was the main thing. We had a good time.
Did it seem like you were on a rocket ride when Elvis caught on?
It wasn’t a long time. People think it was five or ten years , but it was maybe a year and a half [before Elvis was drafted into the army]. We worked a lotta little towns in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, But he really broke out when we started doing those television shows.
What did you think of all the excitement?
Well, you put four hillbillies in New York City and it scares ya. You’ve seen all the television shows, all these great artists and musicians, and you say, “What the hell am I doing here?” But the guys in the Dorsey band, most of those guys were real nice people. The Dorseys were real good to us. Louis Bellson was the drummer in their band and I talked to him quite a bit. They were awfully nice to us.
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Scotty and Bill started out with Elvis and ended up unhappy with how much money they were making. Did you think Scotty and Bill were treated unfairly financially.
Well, yeah, they were treated unfairly. I was hired just to play. Those three guys started the whole thing. Scotty had some kind of contract to begin with. They were splitting at the first part of their career, [Elvis] was getting 50 [dollars] and they were getting 25 each. And they was paying me outta their two shares. But we’re talking about 100 dollars a show, not a lot of money.
Did you come to think you were mistreated financially, too, as time went by?
Well, you think that, but he always paid me exactly what he said he was going to. Every Monday morning I’d go to the mailbox and there it was. I didn’t have any kick coming, Because that’s what we agreed on. I said, “Hey, we agreed on this and when I’m not happy I’ll let you know.” So he was okay with that.
In Scotty’s book, he’s not quite sure whether he and Bill were getting screwed by Elvis or if it was the Colonel who was sticking it to them.
He blames it on the Colonel, but you can’t blame it on him. Elvis had his own money. He could do with that money what he saw fit.
So did Elvis forget his buddies?
I don’t think he forgot. Elvis didn’t understand money. He had a nickel, he was happy. He had $50,000, he was happy. He just did not understand money. He thought because he was making money everybody in the band was making money. We tried to explain it to him a couple of times. And I’m sure the Colonel told him, “Don’t go paying those guys. The more you pay ’em the more they’ll want.” That was his whole theory. And Elvis would listen to him. He didn’t have to, but he did. So what are you going to say? But it didn’t bother me that bad because I wasn’t there when they started. I liked playin’, we had a great time and I guess that was all I was looking for. He treated me like a gentleman and we had a great time together. It was friendship more than money.
So you never felt bitter?
No, I didn’t. Because I wasn’t there when it first started. Had I been there, I possibly would have felt different. But it didn’t bother me because I was the hired help.
Finances aside, there are people that think you and the others didn’t receive a fair share of credit musically.
People understood. Just like musicians do. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Without you guys Elvis wouldn’t have done as well.” I have to say we worked hard trying to get different sounds, trying to cut good records. We’d see a radio station, we’d bop in there. We didn’t have to do that.
So do you think looking back that you have received just recognition for your contribution to rock and roll? [The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to its shame, did not see fit to induct Scotty Moore in the sideman category until 2000; Fontana and Black did not get inducted as sidemen until 2009.]
Oh yeah. You don’t know the people I’ve met the past 20 years. And I see ’em every year in Memphis, whole families it seems like.
Are you going to Memphis next week for all the activities marking the 20th anniversary [of Elvis’s death]?
I’m going this afternoon. We got Good Rockin’ Tonight [an annual Elvis tribute concert]. Everybody in the world’s on it. Me, Scotty, the Jordanaires, Charlie Hodge, Joe Esposito, Ronnie McDowell, everybody. And then we’re doing something for Graceland with James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, the big band.
You stayed with Elvis after he came back from the service and made the transition to being a Hollywood film star. Do you agree with those who think Elvis’s music went downhill after he went Hollywood?
Well, it did. It was those movie things they were writin’ for them. There wasn’t a heckuva lot he could do about it. That’s the way they wanted it and they were payin’ him big bucks. A lot of them tunes he just hated to do. He said, “Hey guys, let’s do the best we can with ’em.” He always tried to do his best whether he liked the tunes or not. We made the best of it. Let’s do the best job we can, don’t fluff it off. He may not have liked it, but he did the best he could.
Do you remember when you last spoke to Elvis?
Well, me and Scotty left finally in 1968 after that special [the so-called Comeback special broadcast on NBC-TV]. I’d go by the house and see him from time to time. I’d stay two or three hours and talk, then I’d go home. I was living in Nashville, but if I was going through Memphis, I’d always stop and see him. He always acted happy to see us. Me and the wife and kids would go by and sit and talk to him for a while. Then when I said “I gotta go,” he’d say, “Make sure you stop by and see me now.”
Did you stay in touch till the end?
No, I was reading in magazines and papers he was getting sick. Every time he’d come to Nashville to record he’d be going into the hospital or something. When a guy’s not feeling well it’s best not to sit around and talk. He probably doesn’t feel like it. So I kinda stayed away after that. Maybe he wouldn’t have cared, but I know if I don’t feel well, I don’t want nobody to bother me.
I heard you were ill when you recorded the track [“Deuce and a Quarter,” with vocals by Levon Helm and Keith Richards] on the album with The Band?
Yeah, I had a prostate problem there. I had to run to the emergency room and they had to catheterize me there, so I had the bag on and I had to play. So I was having a heckuva time there.
Among all the guests on the album, there were some great drummers joining you, too.
Man, all those other guys were good. We just wanted to sit in with their band. It was, “You guys do what you wanna do and we’ll just sit in.” Most of those tunes, there were two drummers and you can’t tell it because we were playin’ about the same thing, stayin’ out of each other’s way, playin’ a little rhythm, playin’ a little fill and that was it.
On the album, you also have the reunion of the Bill Black Combo [Black died in 1965; this latter-day reunion included original Black Combo guitarist Reggie Young and former members Ace Cannon on sax, Bobby Emmons on organ].
Ain’t that great? All those guys are still good. It was just fun working with these guys. We had just about all the originals. I hadn’t played with a lot of the guys for years. I’d done sessions with different guys every so often.
Is there a chance that you’ll tour?
Yeah, they’re already talking about it already. We’d like to get Tracy Nelson, Ronnie McDowell, the Bill Black Combo, the Jordanaires….I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it. but they’re working on it.
Do you need the money or is it just for fun?
It’s a kick. If you make a few dollars, it’s fun too, of course. But we’re not looking to make any fortunes. I’m retired, Scotty is too, basically. I’m not wealthy by no means, but I can get by. I don’t care. I don’t need much.