The musical, artistic, and cultural impact that Elvis Presley made upon America occurred in about four years, from his Sun recordings in 1954 through his last great clutch of RCA tunes in 1958. Take away this four-year period, and nothing about Elvis much matters musically in terms of shaping an epoch. The intersection of his talent with the rise of a new technology—television—and a new music industry business model based on sales to younger buyers in an affluent age mattered enormously to epoch-shaping, of course, but that has nothing to do with music itself. So if we assume that Elvis’s career would have gone on unchanged, minus those 1,500 days, there would have been some fine gospel albums, decent recordings at the end of the 1960s from Memphis. Elvis would have been someone that your cool uncle who is into original vinyl name-checked from time to time, but you probably wouldn’t know much about him if you were born after about 1955.
Certainly you wouldn’t know much, if anything, about Elvis’s drummer on many of those key recordings of the crucial 1,500 days, D.J. Fontana, who passed away June 13 at age 87. He was with Presley for 14 years, beginning in October of that crucial year of 1954. American musical history is comprised of many under-sung heroes, because that is the nature of American popular recording. The session bass player who turns up on a veritable galaxy of hits, James Jamerson, informed musical culture itself via the low-end sound of four strings. With Fontana, we have a similar achievement, but via percussion.
Rock and roll drummers were not wildly idolized until well into the 1960s, when English players like Keith Moon and Ginger Baker channeled and reformulated American drumming possibilities, making those possibilities their own, before funneling them back stateside. Both channeled the power and finesse of Fontana, and the bands of Moon and Baker—The Who and Cream, respectively—succeeded largely on something Fontana, along with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass, helped invent in the service of Mr. Presley. And that something, simply—and not so simply at all—is what we might call “bandness.”
The cohesion of the multi-part ensemble becoming a singular yet many-headed sound, is instantly recognizable in one form of music contrasted with other forms, and is recognizable usually within a single bar. Presley had the voice, but the band behind him helped give his portion of that sound a larger identity. You might say, then, that Fontana and crew helped give Elvis to Elvis.
While at Sun Records, Elvis didn’t have a drummer. His was a kind of blusied up country music, as ancient as any hillbilly hill, but music that came on in the night, as if carried on an evening breeze, absorbed back into the atmosphere before the sun rises. It wasn’t daytime music; it wasn’t music grounded in earthen bedrock that you stomped along to; it was a case of spectral sonics. But with Fontana, that sound seemingly from beyond this world gained greater traction as a thing a part of it.
That beat The Beatles came to love and imitate early on? That too starts with Fontana. His style of playing was a cross of the flexibility of rhythm and blues, and the jackhammering power of rock and roll. We can go one step farther: His was the first rock-and-roll beat. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t already rock and roll, or, at the least, nascent strands of it. But Fontana codified with his kit that driving essence; he made a form of musical tribalism something pandemic. He just didn’t get a lot of credit for it.
“Bandness” is among the rarest qualities a performing unit can have. Miles Davis’s first great quintet with John Coltrane had it going on when it cut three marathon sessions in the mid-1950s to fill up four albums’ worth of first takes. The Who achieved a similar unity live on a host of concert stages in 1970. the Beatles got there at times at the BBC, having turned themselves into a human jukebox, performing requests from fans. But it was the Presley unit that poured the mold.
Fontana gave them volume. If you listen to the Sun recordings, they’re light in the decibel area, as they’re supposed to be. They have a greater degree of pliability, but they course over you rather than enter you and turn you into their weathervane for a given day or more. Fontana was there for “Heartbreak Hotel,” a dramatic blues, not what we think of as a big beat number, but the drums are central to everything happening on the record. They are like that percussive call from the wilderness in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. They mark the start and end of each bar in the 12-bar blues cycle, doing so with force but also a Dear John note of restraint, and even solemnity. It’s akin to when you are standing next to your friend and a call comes in giving him bad news. You want to stick around and be there, but not over-assert your presence, so you hang back a bit even while remaining close in multiple other ways.
That’s Fontana’s drumming on one of the most important records in American history, but he could also swing. Listen to the vim and verve of Presley numbers like “All Shook Up,” “I Got Stung,” and “A Big Hunk o’Love.” Those are completely different from “Heartbreak Hotel” so as to almost be another band, and yet you know right away exactly who these players are, and that they could not be any others. Herman Melville was that way as a writer. It’s a long way from Moby Dick to the poems to Pierre to “Bartelby,” but provided with a mere clause, we can tell who we are reading. With Fontana, his drums gave you a tool for reading a song, reading a band, reading a sound, reading a force that shaped music domestically and abroad, so that that later shaping could in turn reshape domestic musical affairs.
Would Elvis have hit his heights without him? Not those particular heights. Different heights, perhaps, but if Elvis had two primary musical periods that are as important as any by any American musical artist, he doesn’t have the second one in quite the same way without Fontana, who allowed him to transition. Fontana also allowed him to transition within mere weeks. Do you know how different the Sun recordings sound from those RCA sides? Elvis was the voice of that ultimate American “borne on the wind of the night” American music, and that “isn’t the daytime glorious” rock of chart-topping late 1950s years. It was the drummer who flipped the lights on.