MEMPHIS, Tenn. — D.J. Fontana, a rock 'n' roll pioneer who rose from strip joints in his native Shreveport, Louisiana, to the heights of musical history as Elvis Presley's first and longtime drummer, has died at 87, his wife said Thursday.
Karen Fontana told The Associated Press that her husband died in his sleep in Nashville on Wednesday night. She said he'd been suffering complications from breaking his hip in 2016.
"He was loved by everybody all over the world. He treated everybody like everybody was his friend," she said.
Presley's former wife, Priscilla Presley, issued a statement calling Fontana "a tremendously talented musician and a wonderful man."
Fontana, a member of the Rock Hall of Fame, was the last surviving member of Elvis' original core of musicians. He met Presley and the others on the Louisiana Hayride, a popular and influential radio and TV country music program based in Shreveport. Staff drummer Fontana asked to join his group for a session broadcast in October 1954.
A regional act at the time, the 19-year-old Presley had been recording and touring since the summer with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, the musicians Sun Records founder Sam Phillips brought in after Elvis turned up at the Memphis, Tennessee-based label's studio.
"The Blue Moon Boys," as they called themselves, had been playing a blend of blues, pop and country that was unique at the time, but it was missing something crucial.
"Elvis and Scotty and Bill were making good music, but it wasn't rock n' roll until D.J. put the backbeat into it," the Band's Levon Helm told The Associated Press in 2004.
Elvis returned often to the Hayride. In 1955 Fontana became a permanent member of the group, working with Presley through much of the 1960s.
Influenced by such big-band drummers as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Fontana was admired by Helm, Ringo Starr, Max Weinberg and others for his power, speed and steadiness, which he honed during his time with the Hayride.
"I heard Scotty and Bill and Elvis one night and knew that I couldn't mess up that sound," Fontana said. "I think the simple approach comes from my hearing so much big band music. I mixed it with rockabilly."
Fontana was there for Presley's first wave of success, from such hit singles as "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" to his increasingly frenzied live shows and hip-shaking appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other TV programs.
He played on many soundtracks — and was occasionally seen on camera — for Presley's '50s and '60s movies.
He was on the "comeback" Christmas TV special of 1968 that featured Presley and fellow musicians jamming on a tiny stage before a studio audience, with Fontana keeping time on a guitar case. Widely cited for reviving Presley's career, that show was his first live performance in years and the last time Moore and Fontana worked with Elvis, who died in 1977.
"Elvis would always want to go back and talk about the early days when there were four of us in a car, Me, Scotty, Bill and Himself," Fontana told the fan site Elvis Australia.
"He told me one day, he said, 'You know, I wish I wasn't Elvis.' And that struck me funny — even back then. You know he kinda wanted to get away for a while. I think he should have retired for about seven or eight years, and then come back — you know. And then he might still be with us."