While there has been plenty of attention and debate about this year’s main inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in addition to the debate over whether there should be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the first place), I would like to bring some attention to the Sideman inductees to the Hall. Bill Black, D. J. Fontana, and Spooner Oldham are three Southern musicians who were the backbone of some of the most memorable songs and performances in late twentieth century American popular music.
The induction ceremony will take place tomorrow night in Cleveland and will be broadcast on Fuse TV. Other inductees include Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Metallica, Run-DMC, Bobby Womack, and Early Influence Inductee Wanda Jackson.
Bassist Black and drummer Fontana belatedly join guitarist Scotty Moore (inducted in 2000) in being honored as the musicians behind Elvis Presley when he first exploded into American popular culture in 1956. Black was with Elvis since the Sun days (the label for which Elvis did his first recordings), while Fontana joined in time to add his rat-a-tat-tat riffs to “Hound Dog,” which still sound exciting to this day.
Along with Moore, Black and Fontana played on the incredible run of Elvis singles and albums that dominated the charts from 1956 to 1958, when Elvis went into the Army. Black, who had a subsequent solo career, died of cancer in 1965 without playing for Elvis again, while Fontana played alongside him one last time at the famous 1968 “comeback special” for television.
I had the pleasure of seeing Fontana and Moore play at an Elvis tribute concert in Memphis in 1997, with D. J.’s drumming during “Kid Creole” being a particular standout for me.
Keyboardist and songwriter Spooner Oldham was likewise “present at the creation” of a major force in American popular music, participating in Aretha Franklin’s first recording sessions for Atlantic Records in 1967. He was one of the stalwarts of the Memphis/Muscle Shoals music scene of the mid- to late 1960s and was frequently partnered with Dan Penn (who should have been inducted as well), writing memorable songs such as “Cry Like A Baby,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “A Woman Left Lonely,” “Sweet Inspiration,” and many others.
Oldham has also worked with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Frank Black, to name a few, and performed with Dan Penn—I highly recommend their 1999 live album, Moments from This Theater.
This year’s Sideman inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represent a group of musicians who, while being just a shade away from the limelight, made good and productive use of their talents to provide us with some of the most memorable songs of the past fifty years.