Opening with one of the most distinctive drum hits in rock & roll history, Elvis Presley’s 1957 movie tune, “Jailhouse Rock,” smashed it way to the top of the pop, r&b and country charts, becoming one of the most iconic tunes in the Elvis canon. For all its oddly homoerotic imagery and utterly silly lyrics depicting character Vince Evertt’s (Presley) two-year stint in the slammer, the tune, penned by the genius songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (writers of Presley’s “Hound Dog”), was – and remains – one of rock’s most powerful statements of abandon and rebellion, thanks in no small measure, to drummer D.J. Fontana.
Fontana, who died Wednesday at 87, accompanied the King on an astounding 460 cuts, playing with Presley for 14 years. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2009, Fontana was also part of the group that joined Presley for the historic “’68 Comeback Special,” and was also featured in some of Presley’s films, including G.I. Blues and Jailhouse Rock.
One of the other musical highlights of Jailhouse Rock is Presley’s hip-swinging performance of “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” sung after his character signs a contract to star in a Hollywood movie and meets actress Sherry Wilson (played by actress Jennifer Holden). At first unimpressed with Vince’s less-than-refined character, Sherry warms to him after they share a passionate kiss. A few days later, he sings the song, sometimes credited simply as “Baby I Don’t Care” to her at a party. In the scene from the film, captured above in a colorized version) D.J. Fontana is seated at his drum kit behind bass player Bill Black. On the actual recording session for “Baby, I Don’t Care,” which stretched over some 22 takes, Black reportedly grew frustrated with being unable to get the song’s electric bass intro just right, leading Presley to pick up the instrument to finish the session. Since Presley’s version, a host of artists have covered “Baby I Don’t Care,” on recordings or in live performance, including Buddy Holly, Cliff Richard, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Cee Lo Green and Joni Mitchell.
D.J. Fontana would go on to play with numerous country and rock acts over the next several decades, including Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Roy Orbison. In 1997, he reunited with guitarist Scotty Moore, who died in 2016, for the all-star compilation, All the King’s Men, which featured guest appearances from Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Steve Earle, Cheap Trick, Ron Wood and Jeff Beck.