D.J. Fontana, the drummer who helped create Elvis Presley's early, rockabilly sound and who played with him throughout the 1950s on hits like "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog," has died, his wife Karen Fontana confirmed to NPR. Fontana died on Wednesday night in his sleep at the age of 87, while in hospice in Nashville.
Fontana was born March 15, 1931 as Dominic Joseph Fontana in Shreveport, Louisiana. In a 1999 interview with music producer and filmmaker Dan Griffin, Fontana said that he began playing the drums in high school marching bands, and started really learning about structure and style by listening to recordings of big bands fronted by the likes of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and the Dorsey Brothers. Later, he began playing with western swing bands and serving as the house drummer for a popular radio program broadcast from Shreveport called The Louisiana Hayride.
When Presley appeared on Hayride with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore in 1955, Fontana sat in with them — and a few months later, Presley asked Fontana to join his group full-time, taking the band from the three-piece setup assembled by producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records to its four-member lineup. Fontana was the last surviving member of that band, after Bill Black's death in 1965, Presley's in 1977 and Moore's in 2016.
Fontana remained with Presley throughout the rest of the 1950s, and was a key contributor during the construction of Presley's sound, providing an easy groove that evoked both rockabilly and swing, and helped to define hits like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog." In all, Fontana recorded more than 400 sides with Presley for RCA Victor.