Elvis Drummer D.J. Fontana Dead At 87

We were saddened to learn that D.J. Fontana, Elvis Presley’s long time drummer and one of the pioneers of Rock drumming, passed away this week at age 87. We say “one of the pioneers” but in a lot of ways Fontana was really Rock Drummer #1, the guy behind the kit when Elvis blew the doors open for Rock & Roll back in 1956. As Elvis captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation, D.J. Fontana ignited the imagination of an eccentric subset of that generation, those thousands of crazy cats who took up the drums mostly because of him.

D.J. Fontana was the missing magical ingredient that finally put Elvis over the top. Presley’s earliest recordings were as a trio with only bass and guitar accompaniment, because that was the prevailing setup for country and bluegrass groups at the time. The addition of Fontana was the crucial element that gave Elvis’ music its propulsive drive and Rock & Roll bite.

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Watch the clip of Elvis and the band performing “Hound Dog” from 1956. As always, Fontana’s drumming lets Elvis and guitarist Scotty Moore lead the way, because he was smart enough not to get in the way of those freight trains. But at the end of each verse he lets loose an explosive roll that electrified the song with energy, and surely made the hair on the back of the necks of all those aspiring drummers stand on end.

His experience playing with big jazz bands inspired Fontana to develop a backbeat drumming style – playing just a smidge behind the beat to give the Rock & Roll a swinging feel – a style that was later perfected by drummers like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. Listen to “Jailhouse Rock” again. Fontana’s huge counterbeat crashes open the song, and the rest of the way he swings back in the pocket. As always, nothing flashy, just serving the song any way he could, and inspiring so many drummers who followed to do the same. For that we owe him our thanks and our gratitude, and may he rest in peace.

photo credit: By Rockabillyvampire [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

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