D.J. Fontana, Elvis Presley’s Drummer, Dead at 87

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left to right: Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, Elvis Presley

Drummer D.J. Fontana, who worked with Elvis Presley nearly from the beginning of his career—and remained with the singer for 14 years, reportedly playing on close to 500 recordings—died yesterday (June 13). No cause or place of death was reported. Fontana was 87.

His son, David Fontana, posted on Facebook, “I told everyone that I would keep you posted. My Dad passed away in his sleep at 9:33 tonight. He was very comfortable with no pain. I will post more tomorrow when I have more information. We ask for privacy at this time. Thank you for your love and prayers.”

D.J. Fontana was the last surviving member of the original group that backed Presley during his early tenure at RCA Records and at his live performances of the 1950s. Bassist Bill Black died in 1965; guitarist Scotty Moore died in 2016; Presley himself died in 1977.

The late Levon Helm once said, “Elvis and Scotty and Bill were making good music, but it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it.”

Stan Lynch of the Heartbreakers said, “There were no drum parts written for him on those Elvis records. He dictated the groove and made you feel it. There is no one on this earth that can make music move the way he did.”

Watch Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana perform “Blue Suede Shoes”

Dominick Joseph Fontana was born March 15, 1931, in Shreveport, La. Nicknamed D.J., he began playing drums while in high school and was working as a house drummer for the Louisiana Hayride radio program, backing country artists, when, on Oct. 16, 1954, Moore asked him to sit in with the group at the Hayride. Fontana reportedly played that day behind a curtain so as not to offend country music purists in the audience who did not like drums.

Related: Elvis’ 1968 comeback

Fontana joined the group permanently in Nov. 1955, and they took on the name the Blue Moon Boys. Fontana began playing with Presley in the studio beginning Jan. 10, 1956, after the singer signed with RCA Records, and appeared on most of the biggest early Elvis hits recorded, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “All Shook Up” and “Hound Dog.” Fontana played drums on a total of 460 Elvis Presley recordings.

D.J. Fontana

Fontana performed with Presley and the group at all of their live concert appearances of the era and on television programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show. The band broke up in 1958 when Moore and Black left due to a royalty dispute, and although Presley recorded fewer sessions while he was in the Army (1958-60), Fontana continued to work with Elvis following the star’s discharge. He can be seen on Presley’s career-reviving 1968 “comeback” TV special (which also included the return of Moore).

Once he left Presley’s employ in 1968, Fontana recorded or played live with dozens of other artists, including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jeff Beck, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards and Steve Earle.

Related: Scotty Moore died in 2016

Fontana was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2009. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman that same year.

Watch D.J. Fontana discuss his years with Elvis

Bonus video: Watch Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana with Elvis on the ’68 comeback special

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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