Man Who Gave Elvis His Backbeat Is Dead at 87

Drummer DJ Fontana was with the icon from the earliest days
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 14, 2018 11:50 AM CDT
In this 2004 photo, longtime Elvis Presley drummer D.J. Fontana performs at the 50th anniversary celebration concert of Elvis Presley's first performance at the Louisiana Hayride in Sherveport, La. Fontana,...   (Robert Ruiz/The Shreveport Times via AP)
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(Newser) – DJ Fontana, the drummer who helped launch rock 'n' roll as Elvis Presley's sideman, has died at 87, his wife said Thursday. Karen Fontana told the AP that her husband died in his sleep in Nashville Wednesday night. She said he had been suffering complications from breaking his hip in 2016. "He was loved by everybody all over the world. He treated everybody like everybody was his friend," she said. Fontana rose from strip joints in his native Shreveport, La., to the heights of musical history as Presley's first and longtime drummer. They met on the Louisiana Hayride, a popular and influential radio and TV country music program based in Shreveport. 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 n' roll until DJ put the backbeat into it," the Band's Levon Helm told the AP in 2004. Elvis returned often to the Hayride, and in 1955 Fontana became a permanent member of the group, working with Presley through much of the 1960s.

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