When Elvis Sings ‘Merry Christmas Baby,’ Let’s Also Remember D.J. Fontana
When Dominic Joseph “D.J.” Fontana died earlier this year, age 87, he was primarily eulogized as Elvis Presley’s drummer.
That’s not a bad item on your resume. From 1955 to 1968, Fontana played the drums on some 460 Elvis recordings, and the fact you may hardly notice him on many of those records underscores both his skill and his musical intelligence.
Fontana was from the school that says the drummer is there to serve the singer and the song, and if rock ’n’ roll subsequently spawned a modest outbreak of drummers who swung the spotlight back to themselves, Fontana’s model is the one that in the end deserved to carry the day — and did.
Instrumental as he was to Elvis’s success, pun intended, D.J. Fontana also was one of the musicians who forced the country music biz to accept drums, which in turn helped embed them as a foundation of rock ’n’ roll.
All this comes to mind a couple of months after Fontana’s death because once the radio starts playing Christmas music every year, Elvis re-enters the building. It’s odd, though understandable, that his Christmas songs in some places outlive “Jailhouse Rock” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
Fontana, the last surviving member of Elvis’s original core band after the deaths of Bill Black, Scotty Moore and Elvis himself, played on all of those, Christmas and otherwise.
Perhaps Fontana’s most impressive achievement, though, transcended Elvis. It was the way that a kid who fell in love with music as a teenager carved a whole life out of it.
He used to say the only job he held in his life besides drumming was helping out at his father’s grocery store when he was a teenager in Shreveport.
Fontana started playing the drums at 14, thanks to a high school teacher named J.B. Mullens who provided the only formal music training he ever had.
Fontana played in the school drum and bugle corps and the ROTC marching band until he was 16, at which point he turned pro, sort of. He took night gigs in local bars and clubs, playing hits of the day like “Stardust” by ear.
His personal favorite music was jazz, thanks in part to showcase drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, but he played whatever his employers wanted, from light pop to Dixieland.
The gig that ultimately proved the most valuable, as sometimes happens in the music game, was the unlikeliest. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Fontana joined a local trio called Hoot and Curley that had made itself a big name in Shreveport strip clubs.
Ever attentive to his employers, he figured out which drumbeats would best accentuate the action in the spotlight. Bump, grind, wiggle, shake, tease. There was a vocabulary to it and Fontana was a good student.
Meanwhile, he had also been hired as the in-house staff drummer at Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, a weekly live country music radio show on KWKH that had a wide multi-state audience and a reputation as a younger, looser version of the venerable Grand Ol Opry on WSM in Nashville.
Fontana had never played country music, he later remarked, when he took the job. But he was a fast learner and besides, being the staff drummer at the Hayride kept you on your toes, because you were like a bee at a garden party. You served a function, but not everyone wanted you there.
Country musicians for years had scorned drums, preferring to stick with stringed instruments. While Bob Wills had drums in his Texas Playboys, and other Western Swing bands followed suit, many country artists feared their fans see that drum kit and think they’d gone pop.
The drums were musically useful, though, so the Hayride hired Fontana to be available for anyone who wanted him. Eventually artists like Webb Pierce and George Jones did, though sometimes Fontana set up behind the curtain so the audience wouldn’t be visually as well as sonically shocked.
Fontana was on duty at the Hayride when someone played him an early Elvis Presley record, which just featured Elvis, guitarist Moore and bass player Black. Fontana liked it, so he was amenable when Moore asked if he’d accompany them on the air.
He was nervous at first, he said, not wanting the percussion to overpower the strings. Whatever his strategy, Elvis liked it, and in August of 1955 Fontana was invited to join the band on tour.
He made $100 a week and romantic as the idea of touring with the young Elvis might seem, it was not glamorous. Much of it was long cramped car rides.
Fortunately, those rides quickly led to the yellow brick road.
Fontana joined Elvis at the end of his brief Sun Records period, where the sound was lean, raw and spare, driven by Elvis’s almost angelically pure voice and Moore’s genius on the guitar.
Elvis’s last few Sun recordings were his first with a drummer, and it wasn’t Fontana. It was Johnny Bernero. But Fontana became the guy who played behind him on stage, and one of the reasons that worked so well was all those lessons Fontana had learned back with Curley and Hoot at the Shreveport strip clubs.
When Elvis would shake a leg or swivel his hips, Fontana told Dan Griffin and Ken Burke for their book The Blue Moon Boys, “I’d throw a cymbal crash here, a tom-tom fill there, give him a little beat with the kick drum. He loved it. It was fun. A lot of the guys who work today, they don’t have no fun.”
So here was Elvis, making the moves he always said he picked up from gospel tent revival shows, and Fontana, applying the lessons of the Shreveport strip clubs, putting it together to drive teenage girls wild and eventually force Ed Sullivan to direct his camera crew to film Elvis only from the waist up.
The birth of rock ’n’ roll was a wondrous thing — and the late Levon Helm argued that Elvis didn’t become rock ’n’ roll until Fontana joined him.
The other elements were there, Helm said, and Elvis’s early records had clearly moved beyond traditional country and blues. But they needed Fontana, Helm said, to make it come together as this new something else.
That point may be arguable. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun, thought Elvis and Scotty had already put it together pretty effectively. But there’s no argument that Fontana became an integral part of the sound that turned an infectious Southern trio into what we know as Elvis.
The success flashpoint for Elvis, of course, came when Phillips sold his Sun contract to goliath RCA.
RCA first tried to re-create the marvelous Sun Records echo and couldn’t. So it ended up filling out the sound in more traditional ways, like with drums.
A lot of the early singles, like “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Don’t Be Cruel,” are quintessential Fontana, driving the rhythm without pushing anyone else aside. He was more prominent on “Hound Dog,” where he plays several machine-gun solos that last, oh, three or four seconds.
As sometimes happens in the music biz, Fontana’s most lucrative years with Elvis were among the least musically interesting. After Elvis had two years of crazy success and two years in the Army, he returned to find that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had sold him to the movies.
During the 1960s Fontana played on hundreds of Elvis’s movie recordings, which often meant sitting around doing nothing for hours until Elvis had the time to record songs that Elvis himself recognized as junk.
The sun came out briefly, pun intended again, when Fontana was invited to Elvis’s 1968 TV comeback special.
Musically reinvigorating as that special was, it turned out to be the final curtain for the guys from the old days. Elvis moved on, leaving Fontana a free agent.
He rolled with it, reuniting alongside Moore on occasion and also playing with the likes of Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Joe Ely, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
He toured for quite a while with the Sun Rhythm Section, other Sun artists who recreated the original Sun rockabilly sound and had great fun without the burden of great fame.
By then, of course, rock ’n’ roll was no longer being created on the fly by the likes of Phillips, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, most of whom used musicians from the previous generation. By the ’60s and ’70s, rock ’n’ roll had developed iconic drummers of its own, like Motown’s Benny Benjamin, Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine. A number of important bands, like the Four Seasons, built much of their music around the drums.
Exactly who studied D.J. Fontana is hard to pin down. Drummers like Helm, Starr and the Rolling Stones’s Charlie Watts tipped their hats to him, and the musical evidence strongly suggests that most rock drummers had learned from what Fontana did and didn’t do.
When Bruce Springsteen advertised for a drummer in 1974, he warned “No Jr. Ginger Bakers,” referring to the wild-man British drummer known for his 10- or 15-minute solos with bands like Cream.
Springsteen was in the musical majority there. Give or take the Grateful Dead, most bands and artists ultimately settled on a drummer closer to D.J. Fontana.
In whose hands less became, and remains, a whole lot more.