Dominic Joseph (D.J.) Fontana was the Saturday night staff drummer for the Louisiana Hayride. He always played behind the curtain as in those days drums were considered a musical sacrilege to country music fans. The first time he played with Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys was on October 16, 1954. He played behind the curtain as usual, but after that date he played out in front with the rest of the band. He joined Elvis' group full-time in August of 1955.
When you hear D.J. Fontana playing his drums you are hearing a kid from Shreveport, LA tell you what he thinks music should sound like. Rock 'n' Roll had a clean slate. 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. He set the standard. Listen close to hits like "Heartbreak Hotel", "Jail House Rock," "Teddy Bear," "Hound Dog," Love Me Tender," "Blue Suede Shoes," and you hear the blueprint of the foundation for all Rock'n' Roll being formed. When that is understood, one can truly appreciate D.J.'s influence on drummers like Ringo and Charlie Watts, and feel his effect on the next forty years of music.
I recently had the pleasure of working with D.J. and the time I spent with him was invaluable in understanding the true nature of rock music and it's origins. Because he helped lay the foundation and was there from day one, D.J. is insightful. He knows why most musicians (mainly lead singers) are crazy. He has seen it all.
I studied his style as a man and musician and started noticing the many traits that all the great drummers share. He stays relaxed, disciplined and focused as he works and can disarm any tense situation with unmatched under the breath commentary ....no shit, the man is the master of the well-placed barb. Nothing and no one escapes him. Even though D.J.'s no kid he has the energy of a young thoroughbred. It's obvious to me that he played his share of bump and grind strip clubs from the way he sits and swings behind the kit. He knows he's got nothing to prove, he still loves the drums and loves to play. Some guys just make it look easy (it's not by a long shot).
He has a direct, get-to-the-point approach to his drumming. Within three takes he has his scene dialed in. After that you become the target of the commentary. Here's a sample producer/drummer conversation. I say, "D.J. can you give me another take?" He says, "Hell Stan, I can, but I don't want to." And he was right, the track was just fine. What else do you need to know. Love it.
His road stories cannot be beat by anyone anywhere anytime. Let's face it, he was there at ground zero. I was on a speaking panel with him once (I have since learned my lesson) and as we, the panelists were telling of our "grand moments" in rock, spewing on about eighties excesses, D.J. quietly waited his turn. Then he very humbly spoke of the day that Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Elvis and himself were after months of playing dives, finally breaking big. As this particular gig was wrapping up, they were in the middle of a field when a couple of thousand kids (moistly girls) started going ape shit tearing Elvis apart (remember big-time rock security had not yet been pondered). As they begin to realize that they might not get out with their lives, (here's the part I love) D.J. is hit with his grand moment "I realized that this Rock 'n' Roll music we was playin' was catchin' on." Just a little. The master of understatement.
Armed with accuracy, power, swing, dynamics, great time and - the biggest compliment of all - simplicity, D.J. rocked the greatest singer and the greatest songs.... ever. He did it year after year, record after classic record. In a world of one trick ponies and lucky "Rock Stars," D.J. is the real deal.
So much has been written about rock music and Elvis. All I really know is when I try to imagine music today without the contributions of D.J. Fontana, Scotty Moore and Bill Black my brain goes numb. Think about it. If you're a musician, they are the founding fathers on the face of Mount Rushmore and when I trace my roots up the long family tree of drummers, I can't tell you how proud I am to be a musical bastard son of the great D.J. Fontana.
Thank you D.J. - Stan Lynch
D.J. Fontana died in his sleep June 13, 2018 - R.I.P.