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.



10 thoughts on “LAST MAN OUT (D.J. FONTANA, R.I.P.)

  1. There were four. Now there are none. Someday, it will be like that for the Beatles. Imagine if D.J.’s vocalist had stuck around as long as he did. I figure we would have a ton of late career gospel recordings in our collections!

  2. The acoustic guitars will come out tonight and there will be an Elvis sing-along, with us, two other bands and no audience except ourselves and maybe a scant few other pals. This is how we try to posthumously celebrate those who helped to invent the general type of music we all play several decades later. Absent drums are the only respectful kind, and the loudest type of percussive silence you can imagine. Anyone who doubts DJ’s importance to Elvis’s most consistent period of indispensable tunes should hear those tunes without drums. It’s one hell of a wake-up call.

    Two cases in point: “You’re So Square” and “Devil in Disguise.” They’re absolute classics among drummers who know how to listen for significant choices made by ’50s and ’60s drummers. I was going to include a couple of links, but the modern masters — the only ones found on YouTube, apparently — all remove the original reverb, leaving for a dry sound that gives the songs a claustrophobia they don’t deserve. Shame on “modernizing” old records. What’s the point?

    (This was done to a lot of Shangri-Las songs as well. Myrmidons of Melodrama didn’t kill the aesthetics like later Elvis masters, but the vinyl sure sounds different and more spacious. Hit me up in e-mail, Johnny, if you ever want any MP3s I’ve managed to create directly from a lot of my old vinyl, Shangs and Elvis included. They definitely sound like records, so the digital cleanness isn’t there, but they’re truer to what was intended at the time.)

      • Check your e-mail! (By the way, fellow Johnny readers, the comments are just taking a while to appear. They show up eventually, after they’ve been automatically filtered, I presume. It’s better than dealing with spammy comments!)

  3. Another thing DJ didn’t need, to put it mildly, was an electronic metronome in his ear like so many drummers use these days. (Personally, I won’t allow one in my vicinity. That’s not human rock’n’roll!) Gov’t Mule came out with a song last year called “Click Track” whose lyrics, by the great singer and guitarist Warren Haynes, paid some fitting pre-tribute during the final chorus:

    Bonham didn’t need it – neither did Charlie Watts
    Neither did the King – or the whole cell block
    I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired of click-track rock

    Or the whole cell block. That’s damn right, Warren. That is DAMN right.

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