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Elvis drummer visits Louisiana

Mon Jul 19, 2010 11:33 pm

CROWLEY — If you talk about the proverbial “big bang” of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1950s, drummer D.J. Fontana was at its explosive epicenter.

Think “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” — that was Fontana up front and center on the skins.

The Shreveport native was Elvis Presley’s first drummer on the radio staple “Louisiana Hayride,” broadcast from that north Louisiana city. No one knew the madness, the genre-bending blues-country-rockabilly swell that was to follow.

“No, no — I don’t care who you are,” Fontana, 79, said from a hotel room a couple of days before a recent Crowley gig backing Elvis impersonator Donny Edwards. “You never know what’s going to happen. You have no idea. You just gotta be there first with the most.”

Fontana, his Shreveport twang still evident, said he stayed with Presley up until the famous Elvis 1968 Special that resurrected Presley’s career.

Fontana did not play on those early Sun Studio sessions in Memphis that brought “Heartbreak Hotel” to living rooms and bedrooms across the U.S. and England. In that little room, it was only Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and upright-bassist Bill Black — no drummer.

Then they added Fontana, just after Presley switched to RCA Records.

Fontana said he hadn’t been to Crowley “in about 50 years, probably.”

“We (Presley, Moore, Black and Fontana) worked Crowley, Baton Rouge, Texas. A couple of years we worked Texas. We went all through north Texas, all over the place,” he said.

“I had joined Elvis for ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘All Shook Up,’ and somewhere along in there before that, the ‘Louisiana Hayride.’

“That was basically a country show, a live radio show,” he said. “It was a 60,000-watt station, but the antenna was aimed toward Texas, so that’s why we got all those calls from Texas.”

“Hound Dog” — backed on 45 rpm with “Don’t Be Cruel” — topped the charts for 11 weeks, a streak that would reign for 36 years. Presley’s voice was a mix of smoldering, close-miked allure that shocked the world.

But in the trenches, that is, the stages and long rides to get to each show, the boys were just trying to play this new music dubbed rock ’n’ roll.
“We had one car!” Fontana said, chuckling. “It was me, Scotty, Billy and Elvis. It was a Cadillac, not a big stretch job, as I recall, but it got us to where we had to go.

“(I remember) we might go to sleep in the back of our car and he’d turn the radio back on when we were trying to sleep,” Fontana said of Presley’s sly humor, “and he’d laugh, because Elvis didn’t want to sleep sometimes after a show.”

Local Elvis historian and KTDY radio personality C.J. Clements, the “number one Elvis fan west of the Mississippi, but only because Elvis’ mom is buried east of there,” often mentions Presley on his morning show with Debbie Ray.

“You know that famous beginning lick in ‘Jailhouse Rock’? That’s him (Fontana). That dum-dum … dah-dah. He came up with that. It jump-starts that song,” Clements, 46, said Friday.

Fontana uses a “conventional” grip with his left hand — lilting perpendicular to his right hand across the toms and snare — as opposed to the “match” grip used by most drummers today. Buddy Rich played the same way, but Fontana’s influences are more Big Band.

“I used to listen to the Woody Herman Band, and Louis Belson,” Fontana said. “I met Louis in New York. We did the Tommy Dorsey show. My style is, I just stole a little bit from all those guys. If you’re gonna steal you might as well do it from the guys who know what they’re doing.”

Fontana appeared or played in the Presley movies “Jailhouse Rock,” “G.I. Blues” and “King Creole.”

Presley’s legendary “Jailhouse Rock” pole-dancing scene was the King’s brainchild. “You know,” Fontana said, “that started out where somebody was supposed to teach him how to dance.

“He said, ‘No, let me do what I’m doing. You turn those cameras off and we’ll do it until we get it right.’ It was his baby. It was his idea.”

The 1968 special, with Presley in black, slim and in his early 30s, is a fond memory for Fontana and all fans.

“That son-of-a-gun played on the back of guitar cases,” Clements said of Fontana. “They were in the round at one point, and that’s what he used.”

“That was probably the best thing he’d done in years,” Fontana said. “He’d come out of the Army (in 1960) and started doing the pictures and he was actually wanting to go back on the road. But that stage was about the size of a boxing ring. There wasn’t no room up there.”

Fontana was playing a session in Memphis, coincidentally, when he heard Presley died. That was August 16, 1977.

“It was about 4 o’clock when a friend called us and said he’d heard Elvis died. I told him, ‘Na-ahh, you can’t believe all that stuff. They’ve been trying to kill him off.’ You just can’t believe it when it happens,” Fontana said.

Overall, Presley “was just a nice guy, even though he was so young,” Fontana said. “He always treated people like he wanted to be treated.

“You know, we worked hard. We just tried to cut good records. But we knew that if it wasn’t for Elvis, we wouldn’t have done anything.”

D.J. Fontana, 79, plays drums with Elvis impersonator Donny Edwards during a recent performance at the Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley. Fontana was Elvis Presley’s original drummer.