Fontana’s son David announced the drummer’s death on Facebook, writing, “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 played with Presley for 14 years, accompanying him on over 460 cuts for RCA including rock and roll standards like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Fontana was with Elvis during his landmark appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, as well as his legendary “‘68 Comeback Special.” In 2009, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Known for his no-nonsense style of drumming, Fontana injected early rockabilly with the swing of big band music. At a time when many country and bluegrass groups were shunning drums altogether, Fontana’s mere presence behind the kit was revolutionary in its own right. Still, Fontana aimed to keep things simple in a way that complemented not just Elvis, but also his other bandmates, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore (Black and Moore died in 1965 and 2016, respectively). “I just learned how to stay out of their way and let them do what they had to,” he said in 1987. “It sounded better to me that way.”
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Fontana began playing drums in high school and was eventually hired as the in-house drummer on the long-running radio and television show, Louisiana Hayride. He backed an array of famed country artists, including Webb Pierce and Faron Young, on the show and met Elvis there in 1954.
At the time, Sun Records impresario Sam Philips had already paired Presley with Moore and Black, and the trio had already cut Elvis’ debut single, “That’s All Right, Mama.” In a 1984 interview with The Tennessean, Fontana recalled hearing Elvis’ early songs, saying, “They sent Elvis’ records from Memphis. I thought the sound was really incredible. It was really different… When Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black came down as a trio, Scotty approached me about drumming with them. We ran through about two or three songs backstage, including ‘That’s All Right, Mama.'”
Over the next 14 years, Fontana would accompany Elvis in the studio, on the road and in several films as well, such Jailhouse Rock and G.I. Blues. During the Sixties, however, he settled in Nashville and became an in-demand session musician just as Elvis’ career was hitting its first lull. After reviving his career with the ‘”68 Comeback Special,” Presley invited Fontana to play with him in Las Vegas, but the drummer chose to remain in Nashville instead.
Speaking to Rolling Stone last year, Fontana noted the spontaneity of the comeback special. “We didn’t really rehearse,” he admitted. “Just go out and wing it and do the best we could. Me and Scotty and Elvis, and
that’s all we really needed.”
Fontana would play with an array of rock and country legends over the next several decades, including Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Charlie Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Roy Orbison. In 1997, Fontana reunited with Moore for an all-star record, All the King’s Men, which featured guest appearances from Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Steve Earle, Cheap Trick, Ron Wood and Jeff Beck.
In an interview with Massachusetts television station WGBH, Fontana recalled the first night he, Elvis, Moore and Black played together as the quartet that would go on to launch and define rock and roll. “Well, the first night people were polite, just kind of like the Grand Ol’ Opry,” he said. “But it was a country, older crowd, and I think what they did, they went home and told their kids, ‘There’s a boy down at the Louisiana Hayride you got to go see.’ The next couple weekends we had nothing but kids, so that was the breaking point actually. The kids would scream and holler, crying and all that stuff. And I think that’s what really got it started.”