From: 28th Anniversary Issue, August 2005
by Phil Arnold
If you were on the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee, which of these drummers would you pick for the relatively new “Sidemen” category?
DJ Fontana: The beat behind the King. Elvis’ original drummer, who performed and recorded with him from 1955 to 1968.
Benny Benjamin: Motown’s first drummer and the most beloved musician in Hitsville.
Hal Blaine: May well be the most prolific drummer in rock and roll history.
Earl Palmer: Probably the greatest session drummer of all time.
Pretty hard choice isn’t it? Well, the selection committee has already enshrined three of these drummers, and it is time for them to add one more – DJ Fontana.
There can be no arguing with the merits of Benjamin, Blaine, and Palmer. The capsule summaries above come right from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame web-site. Benny Benjamin recorded with all the Motown greats like the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Martha and the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye. Hal Blaine was a first-call session drummer in Los Angeles, recording with the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Mamas and Papas, the Byrds, Johnny Rivers, the Association, Sonny & Cher, the Grass Roots, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, and Herb Alpert. Earl Palmer started in New Orleans and recorded with Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Little Richard. Then he moved to Los Angeles and backed Ritchie Valens, Ray Charles, Duane Eddy, The Monkees, Neil Young, and Elvis Costello.
Looking at these resumes, you will note all three men were outstanding session musicians, but none was ever a sideman to one rock star for an extended period of time. DJ Fontana, on the other hand, was a sideman in the truest sense. He performed with Elvis on hundreds of live shows and played drums on 460 RCA Elvis cuts. Plus, he did other session work in Nashville for over 30 years, recording with a veritable who’s who of singers.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame created the Sidemen category in 2000, and got it right when they picked Scotty Moore among the first five inductees. But, in a move that defies logic, DJ was omitted, and two other drummers, Blaine and Palmer, were selected. Scotty and DJ should have gone in together.
In 2001 the Hall enshrined the other Elvis guitar player of note, James Burton, of TCB band fame. No drummer went into the Hall that year. Another slight to DJ.
In 2002, only one musician, Chet Atkins, was added to the Sidemen list. Why not DJ? Who knows, but it surely wasn’t his lack of credentials.
In 2003, the Hall added a third drummer, Benny Benjamin. This is when the fans of DJ Fontana started to really get upset with the selection process. Rumblings of ”let’s get DJ into the Hall of Fame” were heard at Elvis Week and other gatherings, and on Internet chat groups. Hundreds of letters and petitions went to the Hall extolling the praises of DJ and cheerleading for his inclusion.
As reported in Elvis International magazine a year ago, four of the world’s most famous rock drummers formally approached the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Sidemen Nominating Committee about DJ Fontana’s qualifications. Ringo Starr of the Beatles, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Levon Helm of the Band, and Max Weinberg of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band had it right.
In spite of this intervention by all-star drummers with Hall of Fame credentials, the selection committee ignored DJ again in 2004. Incredibly, they did it again in 2005. The most frustrating thing is that they selected no one to the Sidemen category in either year. If there were no other notable musicians worthy of induction, how could they ignore DJ with such great qualifications.
Maybe we need more people championing his cause. How about a lot more? This writer thinks the time has come for the citizens of Elvis World to let the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame know we are fed up. We cannot e-mail them, because they do not publish an e-mail address. But they do have snail mail. Please take a few minutes to write a letter to:
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation
1290 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10104
There’s no need to remind them what stupid jerks they are. Instead, you might want to add substance to your plea by emphasizing DJ’s qualifications. To review, they are:
- Elvis’ original drummer.
- Performed and recorded with Elvis from 1955 to 1968.
- Played drums on 460 Elvis recordings.
- Top session musician in Nashville for 30 years.
- Supported by Hall of Fame Drummers Ringo Starr of the Beatles and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.
- Fellow Elvis sideman Scotty Moore already inducted into the Hall of Fame.
It’s time to stop the injustice to DJ Fontana. Please send a letter and help get DJ into the Hall of Fame.
© 2005 Philip R Arnold
Contributing Editor, Phil Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org