Sunday, April 16, 2017

“I Tell You What, He Loved Gospel Music”

A magic moment: meeting D.J. Fontana in April 2006.

Eleven years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Elvis’ first drummer D.J Fontana. I was working as a reporter at a radio station, when, one day in April, 2006, a press release caught my eye. It announced that Fontana was touring Sweden as part of a Swedish group called The Cadillac Band that would be playing my home town that very night. As my news editor didn’t seem to understand the significance of this, I practically had to beg him to let me interview the drummer instead of doing the news piece he had in mind for me to do.

As luck would have it, I was planning a one-hour radio program titled Rock Me Lord dedicated to Elvis’ religious songs to be broadcast on Easter that year. Not only could I do a short news piece about Fontana coming to town, this would also be a golden opportunity to ask him a couple of questions about Elvis’ love for gospel music that I could use in the program.

So, off I went, first swinging by my apartment to pick up my Elvis Presley LP, so I had something D.J. Fontana could sign. I then met him and his wife Karen at his hotel before the show where he kindly answered all my questions. I found him very friendly, and he seemed to enjoy talking about his time with Elvis. Afterwards, he signed my record and his wife took a couple of photos of us together. It was a magic moment.

The program about Elvis’ religious music was broadcast nationwide a few weeks later, as planned on Easter, 2006. As only parts of the interview with D.J. Fontana were used, I later decided to include a transcript of the whole interview as a final bonus post in The Elvis Today Blog Volume 2 book that I released in November, 2012. And now, over four years later, it finally makes an appearance here on the blog in digital form: my interview with D.J. Fontana about Elvis and gospel.

Thomas: What did gospel mean to Elvis?

D.J. Fontana: I tell you what, he loved gospel music, that was his first choice of songs. Course, he couldn’t sing them all the time, you know, the RCA Victor wouldn’t go for that, but he cut three gospel albums, and that’s the only ones he won a Grammy on, the other stuff, not even a mention. But he loved gospel music, and if you listen to it closely, you can see the feeling he puts into his voice when he sings those songs, he almost cries, he does, he’s serious about it.

Thomas: He often played a lot of gospel before the recording sessions, didn't he?

D.J. Fontana: He did, we’d sit around maybe a couple of hours, just jam, he knew every gospel song that was ever written, I think.  He’d just go from one to another, maybe repeat one that he’d liked, it would maybe last a couple of hours. Now the big wheels, they didn’t like it, it cost them too much money, and the movie companies. But he didn’t care, he’d say, “I’ll sing when I get ready, and when we get ready to perform we’ll do it.”

Thomas: I read somewhere that once, I think it was during the Jailhouse Rock sessions, he got angry when he couldn’t play gospel.

D.J. Fontana: He did. We were sitting there, and the guys, the higher ups, the big wheels, they’d come up and say, “You know, tomorrow when Elvis comes in, guys, we’re wasting a lot of time and money, don’t sing with him, don’t play with him, don’t do anything.” So we’d say, “OK.” So he’d come in, sit down and start playing, and nobody moved, didn’t play, the voices didn’t sing. He said, “What’s the matter, guys, are you mad at me or something?” And we told him, the higher ups didn’t want us to play and sing. He said, “OK, so I got a sore throat, I’m going home.” So he went home. Once he had a sore throat or something wrong they couldn’t say anything to him, see. So they didn’t say another word after that. “Do what you want to do.”

Thomas: You played on many of his gospel recordings. Do you remember anything particular about it?

D.J. Fontana: No, they all run together after a while, after this many years, in fact. No, you go and you might cut five or six songs, maybe ten, and you hardly remember what you did from this minute to the last minute. It’s gone away. You do another song, you have to concentrate on what you do that moment, you know.

Thomas: I’m also gonna tell in the program that he sang “Peace In The Valley” on television, on the Ed Sullivan show.

D.J. Fontana: Yeah he did, yes, he told his mother he would do it. And it wasn’t Ed Sullivan at all, it was the producers and directors and all that stuff, they said, “No, you can’t sing it, we don’t have gospel on our show. So when Ed came in, he asked, “Mr. Sullivan, I told my mother I would do this for her” and he said, “Let the boy sing what he wants to sing.  That was Mr. Sullivan, he was pretty good about it, he let him sing.

Thomas: Do you like Elvis’ sacred recordings?

D.J Fontana: Oh yes, absolutely, I love them all. Like I said, he had so many, really. It’s hard to keep up with them all nowadays, you can’t do it. But I think if people would listen to his gospel, his religious tunes, they would fall in love with his religious side.

Thomas: Do you have any particular favorites?

D.J. Fontana: I like “Peace In The Valley” … what’s the other one? “How Great” [Thou Art]. Those are two of my favorites, yeah.