(Above: D.J. Fontana and the singer that he’s best associated with.)
Word spread this morning that Dominic Joseph Fontana passed away peacefully last night at the age of 87. There is no question that you have heard him play the drums.
D. J. Fontana was recruited to accompany Elvis Presley along with Scotty Moore and Bill Black in a band they called the “Blue Moon Boys.” The sudden popularity of Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama,” recorded at Sun Records in 1954, led Sam Phillips to cash in while he could and sell Presley’s rights to RCA Victor records. Fontana, Moore, and Black provided the music on some of the greatest rock and roll hits ever recorded from 1955 to about 1969 or so.
It’s estimated that Fontana played on over 400 different recordings for Elvis, and that may be a conservative guess. When you consider that between 1956 and 1969 – up to “Memories” – Elvis put 107 songs in the Top 100, and that’s not counting all of the various tracks included on the soundtracks to all of Elvis’ films, it’s easy to see the number of songs add up.
Fontana was what I’d call a late addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has a habit of waiting far too long to put deserving performers on the wall. He was inducted in the “sideman” category, but not until 2009. That same year the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Nashville determined that he was also worthy of remembering, and they enshrined him as well.
The hard part about a piece like this is picking a song to spotlight. I mean, when we’re talking about Elvis’ 50s and early 60s recordings, we’re talking about some amazing stuff. I’d also point you to a terrific CD called All the King’s Men that Fontana put out with Scotty Moore in 1997. (I was this close to picking a track called “Deuce and a Quarter” from that album, which features some other guy named Keith Richards.) But it made sense to pick an Elvis track, and I selected a B-side called “My Baby Left Me.” A legitimate Top 40 hit in its own right, peaking at #31 in 1956, it was overshadowed by its A-side “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” In the 50s, as the Elvis phenomenon took over the charts (and television), it was easy to forget that the music was terrific. On this track, it’s not just the talented 21-year-old kid singing – it’s the fantastic backing musicians that make it work so well.
(My copy clearly has a few miles on it, and you can tell that whoever owned this first preferred the A-side.)
You can hear DJ Fontana hit the skins on “My Baby Left Me” by clicking here.