Hall of Fame drummer DJ Fontana to perform at Elvis FestivalWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer DJ Fontana speaks with an enthusiasm that belies his 82 years. Ask him about his career in music and he starts at the beginning.
“I was in high school way back — way, way back,” Fontana said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “I started playing in bars and cocktail lounges and piano, bass and drums, small groups, you know. And that went on for a long time, and then I joined the Hayrides — the Louisiana Hayrides in Shreveport. Then Elvis came in.”
Yes, that Elvis. Fontana was the drummer for the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, and played on many of his most iconic recordings: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel.” More than 400 Elvis songs feature Fontana’s work in the background — so many that the man himself can’t keep them all straight.
“I can’t remember the names of any of them, hardly, because there were so many of them,” Fontana said. “Every now and then I’ll hear one and [say], ‘Oh, I did that one!’”
What’s amazing, though, is that modern fans can see Fontana onstage — still playing, still rocking, all these decades later. And Toledo-area fans — those attending the Toledo Elvis Festival on April 27 — will get the chance sooner rather than later.
It’s been 35 years since Elvis left the building, and yet his music still plays on. Generations of fans that never had the chance to hear the King play live have been fostered in his absence, with more being born every day. It’s for fans like these — and their parents, and grandparents —that the Toledo Elvis Festival is so special.
The regular event, put on by Elvis Presley’s Sweet Sweet Spirit Fan Club, is a celebration of the legacy and memory of the King. While previous years have been spread out over two days, this year’s edition — at St. Clement Community Center on Tremainsville Road — is concentrated into one day of rockin’ and rollin’.
“We try [to] be like we bring Memphis here,” said Michelle Birdsell, president of the Sweet Sweet Spirit Fan Club. “We have Elvis vendors, so there’ll be Elvis merchandise that you can buy. There’ll be Elvis raffles. The doors open at one, so at two o’clock — from two o’clock on there will be something on the stage all the time. If not somebody singing, then the real deal, Elvis, up on the screen.”
Birdsell, a fan of Elvis since childhood, has been the president of the fan club since it was started back in 2001. A group that is officially recognized and authorized by Graceland, Birdsell said that the goals of Sweet Sweet Spirit go beyond preserving the memory of Elvis and his music, to include carrying on the spirit of his personal kind of charity — she estimates the group has given more than $45,000 to charity.
“We have admiration and respect for Elvis and his music,” she said. “We keep his generosity alive by doing what he would want done. So in his name we’ve done a lot for Honor Flight — he was in the Army, so we would give a donation in memory of Sgt. Elvis Presley, whatever. We just try to give and help those in need in his name.”
The 2013 edition of the Toledo Elvis Festival will feature performers from all over the country singing in tribute to the King, but the most anticipated appearance will be by Fontana, who will take the stage to play as part of the festivities. The Hall of Fame drummer performs in a few of these kind of events each year, and says he’s seen a shift in the makeup of the audience recently.
“I’ve noticed the last three or four years, there’s a lot of youngsters coming in, teenagers coming in to see these Elvis guys work. And I think that’s good. Gives the parents a thing where, ‘Go and see this guy, see what you think.’ Gives them something to talk about.”
Birdsell agrees that Elvis fans come in all shapes and sizes. “We meet people from all walks of life. I could have a 17-year-old boy in the fan club and have an 85-year-old woman. People perceive that, ‘Oh, it’s just the old folks,’ it’s not. It’s a whole range. They come in all ages, shapes and sizes. You can’t really stereotype an Elvis fan.”
As to why the King remains so resolutely on his throne so many years after his reign began, not even Birdsell can really put it into words. “Elvis is unexplainable, to be honest with you. I think he’s the greatest entertainer the world will ever see. You can’t explain the phenomenon of him, the staying power. The music is timeless, he’s timeless,” she said.
“Elvis was so cool, he could just walk into this century and … nothing about him would be uncool.”
And Fontana, even this far into his career, remains the pinnacle of cool himself. Asked what he hopes to get out of the Toledo Elvis Festival, his answer is simple and comes with a smile in his voice.
“I’ll have a good time,” he said.
For more information, visit www.elvissweetspirit.com.