There was plenty of rock ‘n’ roll in the early fifties. Some of the great records made between 1950 and 1955 had drums on them–almost always played by ace session men (think Earl Palmer on almost everything coming out of New Orleans, especially Fats Domino and Little Richard), though sometimes it was just a matter of a reliable road drummer keeping time during a studio stopover (think “Rocket 88”).
Some of the great records didn’t have drums at all: Think, for instance, Elvis Presley’s first records at Sun, few of which had drums, none of which had D.J. Fontana.
Though he had met Elvis and his band at the Louisiana Hayride, and had been on some road dates, Fontana didn’t get in the studio with them until the first RCA sessions, where, among other things, he added a softly brushed shuffle to the haunted comedy of “Heartbreak Hotel.” That was January of 1956, and, with it, the lineup of the basic rock and roll band–lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums–had become attached to the era’s transcendent star and solidified into the shape it has held for six decades.
The vision–like most expansive visions in those days–was probably Elvis’s…but it wasn’t an accident that he chose D.J., a man who could bang out the biggest sound anybody could make…
….swing the coolest shuffles known to man…
…or lay in the weeds to accommodate the softest subtleties with an ease that bordered on aplomb.
He could take over a record or disappear inside it on demand.
Thus, it was no accident that the most visionary musician of the twentieth century–with a world to choose from–picked D.J. Fontana, a sufficiently graceful and modest man that he would have to get his accolades from fellow musicians and precious few others, to be his drummer during the most important part of his career.
D.J. Fontana was as good as it got.
And I don’t know if they really had a hell of a band in Rock and Roll Heaven before.
But they do now.