Too Hot to Handle
We Wanna Boogie
Excerpt from Randy McNutt's We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement.
D.J. Fontana: Looking for the Cool Spot
By eight o'clock on Saturday night, a long line had already started to form outside Bobby Mackey's Country Music Ballroom near Wilder, Kentucky. A buxom woman of about forty pushed her way up to the door and thrust out her chest to reveal more clearly the black letters printed on her tight-fitting T-shirt: "Rick Saucedo--The Legend Lives On."
She and several hundred other admirers would pay six dollars this night to see an Elvis imitator from Chicago. They would also see D.J. Fontana, the man who kept the beat for The Hillbilly Cat, Elvis Presley. Before the show, Fontana sat in a dimly lighted storage room, eating fried chicken with Saucedo's security people, stage crew, and band. Food covered several small tables, like a picnic, but with the enthusiasm of a wake. The room was hot and stuffy, not unlike the clubs that Fontana performed in thirty years ago when Presley was beginning his incredible ascent. Tonight, things seemed the same somehow, from the fried chicken to the enthusiastic crowd to the unbearable 100-degree heat and high humidity. Even the limber singer in the gold jacket could temporarily suspend belief when he wailed, "Well, since my baby left me…."
But D.J. Fontana did not pause to consider history. He was too busy meeting the people and signing autographs. He earns a living these days playing on recording sessions in Nashville, where he lives with his wife and children, and making personal appearances such as the one tonight. He has had a front-row seat in the long run of musical history, but he will tell you that he was only in the right place at the right time.
"In '54," he said, putting down his cole slaw, "I was playin' on the Louisiana Hayride as a staff drummer. I'm from Shreveport, you see, and I played in bands there from the time I was fifteen. After high school, I played the strip shows, little clubs, anything I could find. On Saturday night, I played on the Hayride. The funny thing is, I never listened to country music when I was growing up. I didn't listen to it until I joined the Hayride back in '53 or '54, and the only reason I did it then was because I had to back the country performers. When I was in high school, all of us kids listened to the big band records. I played light jazz or pop stuff. Then Elvis came along. His records were getting a lot of play in the area and he got to appear on the show. A fellow said to me, 'Will you back him?' I said, 'Well, sure, that's what I'm here for.' So I played with Elvis and his players, and I thought he had a unique sound, one that I shouldn't clutter up. I kept it simple."
Fontana backed the odd trio of Presley, electric guitarist Scotty Moore, and upright bassist Bill Black. Their Hayride performances went well, and Presley enjoyed working with the drummer. Whenever the trio returned to the Hayride, Fontana kept a heavy back beat, smooth and uncluttered, with a few tasteful licks thrown in. Fontana did not hesitate to accept Presley's offer to join the group. After all, he was rapidly becoming a teen-age sensation in the South and in other areas. His energetic, gyrating stage appearances were attracting new audiences to the Hayride, ones with younger people. Fontana realized that something unusual was happening.
"When Elvis first came on the Hayride," he recalled, "the country artists were really thrown. They said, 'What is this kid doin'?' Then they went home and told their kids about him, and they came to the Hayride to see what was going on. In those days, Bill Black was the mainstay of the band. He was a comedian who could warm up a crowd. That was necessary for us because we played for a lot of country crowds that weren't used to people jumping up and down on stage. Well, Bill was a big guy, as you'll remember, and he used to slide up and down on that big upright bass, slapping those strings on the wood. You get such a fat sound with an acoustic bass. You can't duplicate that sound. No way."
Fontana wiped his brow, tugged at the collar of his shirt, and shifted uncomfortably in his blue-gray suit. The heat was oppressive, even inside the air-conditioned nightclub, so he decided to move up to the bar.
"D.J.," a band member said, "are you keepin' cool, man?"
Fontana stared in disbelief. "Cool?" he replied.
He groaned and ordered a beer--he lit a cigarette and stared toward the ceiling.
"There's a cool spot around here somewhere. I know there is," he said as he looked for air vents on the wall.
By 8:30, the crowd had wound its way fifty feet outside the door. The people inside had already sucked up any cool air. As smoke drifted all around, middle-aged women in polyester suits filed past a table lined with Rick Saucedo memorabilia: key chains, fan club items, bumper stickers, glossy photographs. The women looked reverently at the table, as though it were a shrine.
Fontana sat at the bar, talking. A heavy woman walked up and touched him gently on the arm. "Hi, D.J.!" she bubbled. "Remember me?"
"Hi," he said, lowly.
"I'm Dottie's sister. From the convention…."
"Oh, yeah, hi," he said.
She walked away smiling. Fontana got up and inspected another corner of the bar. Suddenly he grabbed a stool and sat it down carefully. "Here it is," he said to no one in particular. "The cool spot. It's right here."
A cool stream of air flowed from the vent, right into his face. "The tie's gone," he said, pulling it off. "Let's have another beer."
"I learned the value of simplicity at the Hayride," he said later. "I heard Scotty and Bill and Elvis one night and knew that I couldn't mess up that sound. That's why I always play what I feel. If that won't work, I just won't do it again. I think the simple approach comes from my hearing so much big band music. I mixed it with rockabilly."
He does not remember the details: The tracks he played on, the studios he recorded in, which songs were cut, and which ones weren't. Everything seems to run together now, more than thirty years later. Record historians tell him he first appeared on sessions in the mid-1950s, on Presley's later Sun recordings. He shook his head at the thought. "There were so many songs over the years, so many performances. We recorded live in those days, on one-track equipment. But Elvis didn't care if we made a mistake if the track sounded right to him. He wanted quality, sure, but Elvis had an ear, too, and he wanted the records to have that certain feel to them. That's what it was all about--the feel."
Fontana has told the stories over and over, to fans and writers and collectors. It's a job that somebody must do. Elvis and Bill Black are dead; Scotty Moore is busy with his business interests in Nashville. That leaves Fontana to talk.
The band played an effective version of "My Girl." Just then a pretty woman of about twenty tapped Fontana on the arm.
"Dance with me," she pleaded. "Just dance with me."
"Well, uh," he said, trying to be polite, "I've been looking for the cool spot in here all night, see, and this is the coolest place in the building. I just can't move. But thank you, though."
He wiped his forehead again and sipped on a beer.
"The jacket's gone," he groaned.
"Who put the glue on my microphone?" asked the band leader.
D.J. Fontana laughed. "I'll do my five songs soon," he said. "When you do only five songs, you don't sweat so much…."
Photograph of D.J. Fontana by Randy McNutt.
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