D.J. Fontana, the drummer who helped launch rock-and-roll as Elvis Presley’s sideman on such 1950s recordings as “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Jailhouse Rock,” died June 13 in Nashville. He was 87.
His wife, Karen Fontana, told the Associated Press that he complications from a broken hip suffered in 2016.
Mr. Fontana rose from playing in strip joints in his native Shreveport, La., to the heights of musical history as Presley’s first and longtime drummer. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
They met on the Louisiana Hayride, a popular and influential radio and TV country music program based in Shreveport. Mr. Fontana, the staff drummer, asked to join his group for a session broadcast in October 1954.
A regional act at the time, the 19-year-old Presley had been recording and touring since the summer with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, the musicians Sun Records founder Sam Phillips brought in after Elvis turned up at the Memphis-based label’s studio.
“The Blue Moon Boys,” as they called themselves, had been playing a blend of blues, pop and country that was unique at the time, but it was missing something crucial.
“Elvis and Scotty and Bill were making good music, but it wasn’t rock-and-roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it,” the Band’s Levon Helm told the AP in 2004.
Elvis returned often to the Hayride, and in 1955 Mr. Fontana became a permanent member of the group, working with Presley through much of the 1960s.
Influenced by such big-band drummers as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Mr. Fontana was admired by Helm, Ringo Starr, Max Weinberg and many others for his power, speed and steadiness, which he honed during his time with the Hayride.
“I heard Scotty and Bill and Elvis one night and knew that I couldn’t mess up that sound,” Mr. Fontana later said. “I think the simple approach comes from my hearing so much big-band music. I mixed it with rockabilly.”
Mr. Fontana was there for Presley’s extraordinary first wave of success, memorably egging the singer on with stop-time drum fills on “Hound Dog” (1956) and accompanying the singer on his hip-shaking television appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Milton Berle Show” and other programs.
Mr. Fontana played on many of the soundtracks — and was occasionally seen on camera — for Presley’s movies in the 1950s and ’60s.
He later appeared on the “comeback” Christmas TV special of 1968 that featured Presley and fellow musicians on a tiny stage before a studio audience, with Mr. Fontana keeping time on a guitar case.
“We didn’t really rehearse,” Mr. Fontana told Rolling Stone last year. “Just go out and wing it and do the best we could. Me and Scotty and Elvis, and that’s all we really needed.”
Widely cited for reviving Presley’s career, the comeback show was his first live performance in years and the last time Moore and Mr. Fontana worked with Elvis, who died in 1977.
Mr. Fontana also played on Starr’s solo album “Beaucoups of Blues” and worked with country artist Webb Pierce, bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements and rockabilly star Gene Vincent, among others. More recently, he and Moore were joined by Helm, Keith Richards and other guests for the 1997 Presley tribute album “All the King’s Men.”
In 2000, he played on Paul McCartney’s cover of Presley’s first recording, “That’s All Right.”
Dominic Joseph Fontana was born March 15, 1931, in Shreveport. He began playing drums in his high school marching band and also jammed with his cousin while listening to big-band recordings.
By his early 20s, he was performing at strip joints and spending enough time around the Hayride that he was hired full time, although at first he was asked to play behind a curtain because drums were scorned by country audiences.
Presley’s Sun Records contract was purchased by RCA Victor late in 1955, and he became a sensation across the country and beyond.
During an interview with the fan site Elvis Australia, Mr. Fontana recalled a 1957 show at a Canadian football stadium, when Presley did his best to honor the owners’ wishes to keep the crowd off the grass and away from the stage.
“So Elvis came on, did a few songs, and said: ‘We’d like for you to get back in your seats.’ Which they did, very orderly. Until the last song, and here they come again,” Mr. Fontana said.
“Elvis left the stage, and here we were with 20,000 people! The stage turned over, but we finally got all the equipment in the car, which was right behind the stage. The car was surrounded by kids, and they were shaking the car.”