D.J. Fontana — Elvis Presley‘s longtime drummer who played on hits including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and pioneering Sun Records recordings — died in his sleep Wednesday night at the age of 87.
The news of his death was first shared by his son, David Fontana, in a Facebook post. “I told everyone that I would keep you posted. My dad passed away in his sleep at 9:33 tonight. He was very comfortable with no pain. I will post more tomorrow when I have more information. We ask for privacy at this time. Thank you for your love and prayers.”
Fontana was the last surviving member of Presley’s classic-era backing trio. Bassist Bill Black died of a brain tumor in 1965 at the age of 39, and guitarist Scotty Moore died in June 2016 at 84.
Born Dominic Joseph Fontana in 1931, he first began working with Presley in 1954 when the up-and-coming young singer was booked to perform on the popular radio program Louisiana Hayride, which taped in Fontana’s hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. Though many country acts eschewed a drummer, Fontana served as an on-call percussionist for the production.
“The manager of the Hayride called me into the office and said, ‘I want you to listen to these records ’cause we got this kid coming in, Elvis Presley,'” he recalled while speaking to the Washington Post in 1986. “I said, ‘What a funny name … he’ll probably never make it with a name like that.'”
Moore held an impromptu audition for Fontana in their dressing room before their set. “Scotty and Elvis and I got playing and somehow or other it laid right and it felt right. It worked, but I’d gotten to thinking it was such a unique sound they had, why clutter it up with drums and noise? So I just kind of laid back and stayed out of their way. I think that’s why I got the job — I just stay out of their way.”
It was a job he’d hold for 14 years. Fontana’s distinctive playing can be heard on more than 460 of Presley’s early recordings, and he also appeared in a number of his many films. Black left the band in 1958, but Moore and Fontana would continue to perform with Presley throughout the ’60s, including his legendary 1968 NBC “Comeback” special.
A longtime resident of Nashville, Fontana played with — and influenced — everyone from Ringo Starr to Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg. He was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 2009.