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Remembering D.J. Fontana, The Drummer For Elvis Presley's Band

Jun 15, 2018
Originally published on June 20, 2018 9:34 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. D.J. Fontana, the drummer on some of Elvis Presley's biggest hits like "Blue Suede Shoes," "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," died Wednesday in Nashville. He was 87. Fontana was the first drummer in Presley's band and played in it for 14 years on over 450 recordings. He appeared with Elvis during that legendary "Ed Sullivan Show" performance and in the movie "Jailhouse Rock." In 2009, D.J. Fontana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine. Well, they said you was high-classed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That has to be one of the famous - most famous drum rolls in history. Did you have that one planned?

D.J. FONTANA: We didn't ever plan anything. We never knew what was going to happen from one second to the other. And we'd go in the studio, just kind of fiddle around and find things, you know. And that's just one of those things that accidentally happened. There was no reason for it. I decided to put it in there. He said, Hey, that's great, do it every time, you know.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the Ed Sullivan appearance that you and Elvis Presley were on, the first - I guess it was a TV premier - national TV premiere of Elvis Presley. And we've all heard about how the camera people were told to just shoot him from the waist up.

FONTANA: They said that, but I didn't see any sense in it. I don't think anybody did.

GROSS: Well, what were you told behind the scenes about that?

FONTANA: They said it was vulgar, his gyrations. But he really didn't do anything, not compared to what they're doing now. He was a saint, you know. But the press, you know, they'll write anything that people tell them. And then you've got the churches behind you. And, you know, so you had to really kind of behave yourself, you know. But Elvis wouldn't have done anything to hurt anybody's feelings or the country, anything else. He didn't think it was wrong. He really didn't think it was wrong.

GROSS: You were one of the first groups to perform in front of a lot of screaming people. I think you had a lot of screamers long before the Beatles did.

FONTANA: Yeah. That was quite a few years back.

GROSS: How did that affect you as a drummer? You must have had to play really loud.

FONTANA: No, not really. He always worked us tight. Everybody was right up against each other. It was hard to hear a lot of times. But I know one time we went to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. There was about 45,000 people. And back in those days, that's a lot of people. And we really couldn't hear him do a thing. And he took his microphone and went way out to the gate of the fence. And we were like in the middle of the arena on the 50-yard line.

So we was probably 75, a hundred foot from the fence and we couldn't hear a thing - and he couldn't, I'm sure. We only had three little pieces. But we knew by his movements, his hands, his feet, legs. We knew exactly where he was. So we had to watch him awfully close to find out where he was all the time.

GROSS: Some of those swiveling hips were probably cues to the band (laughter).

FONTANA: It was cues. See, when I was 15 years old, I was working strip acts down in Shreveport. So I learned to follow these people. So when he done all his moves, I learn to follow him 'cause I did not know where he was at.

GROSS: You appear in two of my personal favorite Elvis Presley moments. One is in "Jailhouse Rock."

FONTANA: That was a good movie.

GROSS: It's a great movie.

FONTANA: I enjoyed doing that movie.

GROSS: And also, you were in that terrific 1968 network special.

FONTANA: Special with the black suit.

GROSS: Yeah. He's wearing all leather and denim, as I remember.

FONTANA: It was hot.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: The costume was hot or the studio was hot?

FONTANA: Costume - that suit looked like it weighed a hundred pounds. And it was black leather. I mean, he was...

GROSS: It was tight (laughter).

FONTANA: I don't see how he didn't pass out, really, I mean, of course, with the lights and everything making it hotter.

GROSS: What was exciting about that special, though, is that it was a period when you thought, well, maybe he'd lost it musically. Maybe he was just going to be doing bland pop songs.

FONTANA: Well, he was worried about it. He was really, really concerned.

GROSS: About how he'd - what kind of reaction he'd get? how he had a reaction over a year

FONTANA: Yeah because he had been doing movies for 10 years. And when you're doing movies, people are played to applause and clap and, you know, raise king. You know, that's part of the job. So then he was a little concerned. And we went back to the dressing room. We was talking about it. He said, what do you think? I said, hey, go out there and do the same thing you've done for years and get the people on your side. He had a knack for doing that. He knew how - as young as he was, even in his earlier days, he knew how to get the people on his side somehow or another. I said, go out and do the same thing you've been doing for 15 to 20 years. He said, you think it'll work? I said, why not?

DAVIES: D.J. Fontana was Elvis Presley's drummer for 14 years. He died Wednesday. He was 87.

On Monday's show, John Prine talks with us about his life in music. His new album, "The Tree Of Forgiveness," is his first in 13 years. Prine's first album came out in 1971, when he was just 24 and working as a mailman. Several of those songs became classics, including "Angel From Montgomery," "Sam Stone" and "Paradise." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE SUEDE SHOES")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, it's a one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go. But don't you step on my blue suede shoes. Well, you can do anything but stay off my blue suede shoes. Well, you can knock me down, step in my face, slander my name all over the place. We'll do anything that you want to do, but, honey, lay off of them shoes. And don't you step on my blue suede shoes. Well, you can do anything, but stay off my blue suede shoes. Let's go, cat.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Today's engineer is Adam Staniszewski, (ph) with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.