Early Rock Spotlight #1: DJ Fontana

moment in history

DJ Fontana grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. As a budding young drummer in the 1940s, he was influenced by the sounds of the big bands, western swing, and early rhythm and blues. By the early 1950s, the country music world was starting to embrace the drum set, allowing Fontana to become the first house drummer on the Louisiana Hayride, a weekly radio program similar to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

Right Place, Right Time

In 1954, a regular guest on the Hayride was Elvis Presley, the young firebrand who was making his mark at Sun Records, the pioneering rockabilly label out of Memphis. Presley’s band (which included guitarist Scotty Moore and upright “slap” bassist Bill Black) had become a regional sensation, but they knew that in order to satisfy the screaming crowds and ever-growing venues, they were going to have to add a drummer. Although it took about a year, Fontana eventually got the gig. So began the ascent that by 1956 would make Elvis Presley the biggest star in the burgeoning world of rock and roll.

Kicking it With the King

Fontana worked with Presley throughout the rest of the ’50s, touring incessantly with “The King,” and contributing innovative parts to his biggest hits, including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”

In all, you can hear Fontana’s touch on 460 tracks. When the singer left the road and turned to movie making in the 1960s, Fontana came along for the ride, recording the soundtracks to all 31 of Presley’s movies (along with studio ace Buddy Harman, and often Hal Blaine). He was also featured on the legendary televised event known as the ’68 Comeback Special, which marked Presley’s return to live performance.

Session Obsession

Although that show would prove to be Fontana’s last hurrah with Presley, he graduated to a very busy schedule as a Nashville-based session man in the 1970s, working with a variety of artists including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings. Since the ’80s, he has been celebrated for his role as one of “The King’s Men,” recording all-star sessions with the likes of Keith Richards and Jeff Beck.