By John Benson
Just a regular guy is what drummer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee D.J. Fontana thought about Elvis Presley when the two met in the fall of 1954. Less than a year later, Fontana joined the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s outfit full time.
“It was a good little act, actually,” said Fontana, calling from Baltimore. “Scott [Moore] played good, Bill [Black] played good, and Elvis played good rhythm guitar. That kind of gave it a boost, too. At the time, I just figured it was another band. We always had worked with different bands. It was like, ‘It’s another job, another band. We’ll have a good time while it lasts.’”
To say it lasted is obviously a gross understatement. That era of Presley’s music produced such legendary hits as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
Though the aforementioned quartet ended in the late ’50s, Fontana would go on to work with the King for the next decade, culminating with Presley’s 1968 landmark comeback special — the highlight of which was an impromptu jam session where the group shared memories and songs.
As far as Fontana is concerned, within rock circles his straight-ahead beats and laidback style always was revered.
Over the decades, he’s recorded with such classic-rock legends as Paul McCartney, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck and more. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that the Louisiana native officially received his due and was inducted in the sideman category into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The ceremony took place at Cleveland’s Public Hall.
“It felt pretty darn good,” Fontana said. “It had been a while, and I’m glad I’m finally coming around to their liking. That was a great package, wasn’t it? A lot of guys aren’t on there, but I’m glad I made it. Well, Elvis was in there, of course, and Scotty got in. I guess they figured they needed Bill and D.J. in there to smooth it out.”
Today, Fontana continues to spread the music of his friend Presley at tribute concerts across the country. This includes the annual Elvis Birthday Tribute on Sunday at the State Theatre in Cleveland.
This year’s bill boasts more than two hours of live music and more than 50 Elvis songs presented by Presley impersonators Cody Slaughter, Shawn Klush and Donny Edwards, along with Fontana as emcee and backing singers The Sweet Inspirations.
“I enjoy doing these shows,” Fontana said. “We just try to go out and have a good time — try to do a good show and see if the people like it. You never know, but those guys are all sincere about what they’re doing. They’re not making fun, and they’re really serious about their singing and how they look and everything. If Elvis was here, I think he would enjoy it. He always said it’s an honor for somebody to want to act like you and sing like you.”