14 Years on the Road with the `King’
Flashback to Variety Today 1996
Elvis’s drummer DJ Fontana 1996
IMAGINE spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the King of Rock and Roll, ELVIS PRESLEY. You share the highs and the lows, the happy times and the sad, the triumphs and the battles – and all in the name of `Entertainment’.
DJ (Dominic Joseph) FONTANA was one of the lucky few. For 14 years, until 1968, he was Elvis’s drummer. He experienced first hand the larrikin in Elvis, Elvis `the Thinker’, Elvis `the performer’, Elvis `the family man’ and Elvis `the compassionate human being’.
During a recent visit to Australia, DJ FONTANA gave VARIETY TODAY’S SHIRLEY BROUN this exclusive interview about his relationship with this remarkable man and the reasons why he touched the hearts of millions … and continues to do so. For many, including DJ Fontana, Elvis will never die – and his music will continue to inspire generation after generation. He tells of the sad times, the happy times and the controversial times surrounding Elvis. August 16 next year (1997) marks the 20th Anniversary of Elvis’s death.
WHERE WERE YOU BORN?
I was born in Shreveport, Louisianna. I began playing drums in marching and concert bands at high school, then went into club work. I had always wanted to be a drummer. It was a good weekend job.
HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BEEN TO AUSTRALIA?
This is my fourth visit to Australia.
WHAT DID YOU EXPECT BEFORE THE FIRST VISIT AND WHAT DID YOU FIND?
You read alot about places like Australia. A couple of years back it was cold as heck but this year it is so nice. I hate cold weather.
HOW AND WHEN DID YOU MEET ELVIS AND HOW LONG WERE YOU WITH HIM?
I met Elvis in Louisianna at a country show called the Louisianna Hay Ride. Artists used to come in and out like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. I was playing in the Saturday night house band and we backed whoever wanted us. Elvis came back with Scotty and his bass player Bill Black (who died in 1965). We all got along well and I ended up playing with them for three weeks in a row and then joined up. It was fun in those days – before there became too much security. It limited our activity somewhat. You know, everyone had to leave together … couldn’t just duck out.
WHAT WAS THE MOST `OFF THE WALL’ EXPERIENCE WITH ELVIS?
That was all the time with Elvis, on and off stage.
WHAT WAS HE LIKE?
He was a quiet little guy in reality. Not loud and furious. A real thinker. He might not talk to you for a couple of days. When he got quiet like that, we knew to give him some space.
HOW DID ELVIS CHANGE OVER TIME?
I was with him for 14 years and it always seemed like a `family affair’. Elvis grew up over time. When he came out of the Army, his voice was stronger and he was always fit. I left in 1968, after working with Elvis on his last TV special, the one where he wore his black leather suit. After that I used to pop in occasionally to see him.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN ELVIS STARTED TO GET SICK?
It was such a shock to see him get so sick. He just never did that – he was always very health conscious. He believed in exercise, played touch football. But something went wrong. When he got so big, I think he was swollen with water. There was something wrong with his colon, a few medical problems. Then there were the medications …
CAN YOU RECALL SOME OF THE HAPPIEST MEMORIES WITH ELVIS, AS WELL AS THE SADDEST?
All were happy days. He was never in a foul mood, except for the quiet times. When he toured he would drive some of the way. I remember visits to Texas. Elvis would buy $100 worth of firecrackers and throw them out of the window. He wouldn’t aim them at anyone, of course. Then there was the time, I was asleep in the back seat one day when Elvis lit some ladyfinger fireworks (like your Tom Thumbs) and threw them on the floor in the back. I got a heck of a shock. He was always joking. We played jokes on him too. Fortunately, he could take a joke. It was uncanny though – he would never forget … always got you back, whether a day or a year later.
The saddest moment, I believe, was when his mother died. I flew up to be with him in Memphis. He was distraught, walked around like a zombie. It was as if his whole world had crumbled.
HAVE YOU EVER APPEARED IN MOVIES WITH ELVIS?
I was in a few of the early ones like `Lovin’ You’, `King Creole’, `Jailhouse Rock’ and `GI Blues’. I didn’t win any Academy Awards. Most of the time I was just walking through the scene or on the bandstand.
DID YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS WORKING WITH ELVIS ALL THOSE YEARS?
None at all. Well, perhaps just one … turning down the offer to work with him in Las Vegas.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU SPOKE WITH ELVIS?
Right after Lisa Marie was born. She was a couple of months old. 25 of us jumped into a bus and went down to see him. He was always pleased to see us.
HOW DID ELVIS TREAT VISITORS?
He welcomed everyone. Wanted them to feel `at home’. So much so that he used to leave his house open when he went to the West Coast to do the movies but stopped doing it when he found things were going astray. He knew where everything was and kept almost everything people had given him. Elvis also had a big heart. He used to get heaps of teddy bears from fans – too many to keep in the house – so he would give them to the children’s hospitals and those in need. He was always giving to the less fortunate.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF COLONEL TOM PARKER?
He was a business man. You don’t like the guy, but have to admire what he did. He worked directly through Elvis. He gave everyone a tough time. But we were lucky. Elvis was our mediator. If we had a problem, we would go to Elvis and he would attend to it. After all, we all ate, slept and entertained together, 24 hours a day – weeks at a time, so we had to get along.
IF YOU HAD TO SUM UP YOUR YEARS WITH ELVIS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
I had a good time, we all did. I don’t think it will come again. ELVIS IS A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW! I was proud of those years.
ARE THERE ANY QUESTIONS LEFT UNASKED ABOUT ELVIS?
I don’t think so. He seems to get bigger every year. Memphis is still getting bigger every year. Next year (1997) is the 20th anniversary of his death. I have spoken to people all over the world. Already, there are about 1400 people booked to come here in 1997 from London – and that is just one tour. There are also others in Australia and Scandinavia I have spoken to who are coming over. I go every year to his anniversary. I work with shows and also do things for Graceland itself.
DID ELVIS HAVE MANY CLOSE FRIENDS?
I don’t think so. It is a shame, he had acquaintances. He didn’t know who was a friend. Although he knew who was there just for the ride.
TO YOUR KNOWLEDGE, WAS THERE ANY TRUTH TO THE CLAIMS THAT ELVIS JOINED THE FBI IN AN EFFORT TO FIGHT AGAINST DRUGS DURING PRESIDENT NIXON’S REIGN?
You hear those things. He received an FBI badge from President Nixon, but it was in an honorary capacity. Elvis grew up collecting badges, he had thousands of them at Gracelands. He was keen to get an FBI badge but was denied one from the powers that be – not protocol, they said – but then the president stepped in and told them to give him one. After all, Elvis was always helping the police departments out, buying and donating equipment to them. The City of Memphis only had to ask, and he would always be there for them. They thought a lot of him.
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE WERE THE BEST TIMES, AND WHEN DID THINGS START GOING WRONG?
The early days were the best for us. We were always together … touring, eating sandwiches, hamming it up as we drove along he highway. I wasn’t there when it started to go wrong.
WHAT IS THE MOST `ASKED’ QUESTION ABOUT ELVIS?
Is he dead? A lot of fans, true ones, don’t want to believe it. In their hearts they want to see him back on stage. They don’t want to know that he passed away. I don’t either and I hope one day he will come back. It may be just a dream but you like to cling to the hope of his return. You hear rumours of Elvis being seen at the local Seven Eleven Store. I don’t know who they are seeing. Sadly, I don’t think it is the real Elvis!
WHAT ABOUT ELVIS IMPERSONATORS?
They do a job to make a living, and most of the ones I know are bigger Elvis fans than any I’ve known in my life.
WHAT WAS ELVIS’S VIEW OF `GROUPIES’?
We didn’t get into it much. Didn’t have the time. If we did all the things people say we did, we would all be dead. We just didn’t have time between one venue and driving to the next.
IF YOU HAD TO LIVE THOSE YEARS AGAIN, WOULD YOU HAVE DONE ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY?
Not a thing. Maybe stayed longer when Elvis called us to go to Vegas with him.
HOW DO YOU REMEMBER ELVIS?
I always remember him as a nice, kind, polite person. He was humble. Didn’t have to be that way. He could have developed a big ego and treated his fans with contempt … but not ELVIS, he never forgot his roots in Tipollo, Missippi. I feel very proud and honoured to have worked with him for so long.
UPDATE: IN 1983 DJ Fontana published a book in pictorial form titled “D.J. Fontana Remembers Elvis” about his years playing with Presley. He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Cleveland on January 14, 2009. On April 4 the same year, Fontana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sidemen category.
ADDED NOTE ON COLONEL TOM PARKER: During a visit to Las Vegas in 1994 Shirley Broun was fortunate to have spoken with Colonel Tom Parker, by then retired and in declining health. His wife Loanne explained the Colonel rarely spoke to members of the media but as Shirley had been recommended by a close friend, she would put him on the phone. Shirley said: “The colonel was the utmost gentleman, very polite and seemed very happy to be speaking with me. He explained he was happy to have a chat as a friend but couldn’t give any interviews because he didn’t want to upset other members of the local media whom he had known for a long time.
And, he added, he couldn’t resist my Australian accent. We spoke for a while but all was `off the record’. It was great to be able to say that I actually spoke to him, as he wasn’t an easy person to get to.”
Colonel Tom Parker made his last public appearance that year and ill health meant he rarely left his own home. He suffered a stroke on November 20, 1997 and died the next day, aged 87. Love him or hate him, Tom Parker became a vital part of the legend that was ELVIS.