JM Van Eaton

JM Van Eaton

In both drumming and in life, timing is everything, and J.M. Van Eaton was a master at both. As the studio drummer for Sun Records, the Memphis native played on some of the most influential and enduring rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, setting a high water mark for all of those who would come after him. Despite his many accomplishments, Van Eaton has remained deeply humble throughout his life, often pointing to being at “the right place at the right time” as the key to his success. And while his timing was undoubtedly beneficiary, J.M. Van Eaton was also the perfect man for his moment, an innovative and versatile drummer who elevated everyone around him. When guitars and drums collided, that changed music forever. And it hasn’t changed since.

As he himself will tell you, James Mack Van Eaton’s first great career move was being born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937, placing him squarely within the ideal age cohort and geographical location to play a major role in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, the luck of the draw is just one of many factors that would help shape Van Eaton into one of his generation’s most notable drummers.

From a young age, Van Eaton was enthralled with the music that he heard on the radio, most notably the New Orleans’ group The Dukes of Dixieland. “We could actually pick them up here in Memphis playing live from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. I loved them because they would let the drummer take a little ride” he would remember. He was also inspired by the black gospel and R&B groups that were ubiquitous around Memphis at the time, often visiting a church on Trigg Avenue to soak up the unique rhythms. “It had a feel like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. I was in awe of all this. We wouldn’t miss it for the world. It was an every Sunday night thing” he told authors Ross Johnson and Rob Bowman.

Inspired by these musicians, Van Eaton joined his middle school band, where he first learned the trumpet. By eighth grade, he had transitioned to the drums, although his education was strictly relegated to marching band music. As a teenager, and wanting to branch out, he eventually saved up enough pocket money to buy his first set of drums. Soon after, Van Eaton formed his first band, the Jivin’ Five, who played Dixieland jazz, which he then followed up with an Elvis-inspired rock-and-roll band, the Echoes. Like Elvis before him, Van Eaton and the Echoes decided to record at Sun Studio, which would allow anyone with enough money to cut an acetate.

Producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who was instrumental in bringing the young drummer on board at Sun, described James Van Eaton’s playing as “not fancy but intense, spirited, and intricate. Every beat falls exactly where it needs to and does exactly what it needs to.”

After arriving at Sun, Van Eaton first started playing with Billy Lee Riley and his group the Little Green Men, laying down the percussion on seminal early rockabilly numbers such as “Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll.” With Van Eaton eventually becoming Sun’s primary drummer, his usual week entailed studio sessions during the week, followed by live shows on the weekends. “We were a hot band in the South, but we never could get that hit record at the time to break through on the big stage,” he said.

But not long after joining Riley’s band, Van Eaton would soon find that elusive hit record with the help of a hotshot piano player from Louisiana…

In 1956, a then-unknown artist named Jerry Lee Lewis arrived in Memphis to audition for Sun Records, and Van Eaton was called to accompany him. At first, the drummer was unsure of Lewis, recalling decades later “Man, I thought ‘this will never work. This guy plays piano and he doesn’t look like a rock ‘n’ roller.’” He would quickly realize how wrong he was.

During their initial session, the duo played a version of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” which was subsequently released as the Killer’s first record. Although the song would go on to sell upwards of 300,000 copies, it would be their subsequent recordings together that would make both of them iconic figures of early rock ‘n’ roll.

In 1957, Van Eaton and Jerry Lee teamed up again to record a song called “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which they had performed many times while on the road to rapturous audiences. Like their previous single, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” was made in one take, and a bona fide classic was born. The combination of Lewis’ boogie piano and Van Eaton’s energetically propulsive drumming proved irresistible to the public and the single reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No.1 on both the country and R&B charts.

“Jerry Lee Lewis and his style of playing and my style of playing were identical,” said Van Eaton. “I think it was a godsend that we showed up there at the same time. Some things are just destined to happen, and that was one of ’em.”

Realizing that they had struck musical gold, Lewis and Van Eaton continued to churn out several more massive hits during ‘57, including Jerry Lee’s signature smash “Great Balls Of Fire.” Their collaborations not only made Jerry Lee Lewis an international star, they also helped to push drums into the forefront of rock music. “Once those records hit and we had found our sound, then everyone wanted that sound,” said Van Eaton. “If something is selling, they want that on their record, so the next thing you know I was getting a lot of session work.”

While Van Eaton credits his work with Lewis in helping to make the drummer an integral part of rock ‘n’ roll during the 1950s and beyond, he says that their unique chemistry proved difficult to replicate.

For a drummer who enjoyed experimentation and trying out different styles, Sun’s bohemian approach to making music was a natural fit for Van Eaton’s sensibilities. With the green light to utilize differing techniques, Van Eaton became one of the most versatile drummers of his era and an inspiration to millions of aspiring musicians. “You would get pretty creative in that Sun studio, because if you’re not, you’re going to get left behind. So most all of that stuff was pretty spontaneous and creative. That’s what made it so popular, made it what it was. And it just happened to fit,” he recalled.

Due to this creative flexibility, one of Van Eaton’s greatest assets was his ability to shift tempos and styles depending on the needs of the performer with whom he was working. In addition to his work with Billy Lee Riley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Van Eaton also laid down his fiery beat for the likes of Johnny Cash (“Ballad Of A Teenage Queen,’’ “I Guess Things Happen That Way,’’ “Straight A’s in Love”), Roy Orbison (“Devil Doll,” “Sweet And Easy To Love,” “Claudette”), Charlie Rich (“Lonely Weekends,” “Big Man”), Bill Justis (“Raunchy”), and countless others.

Unfortunately, as the 1950s came to an end, careers, priorities and opportunities began to change and cracks had begun to show in the foundation at Sun. Sam Phillips was busy constructing a spacious new studio, Jack Clement had left to pursue other work, and some of Sun’s biggest stars had moved on to other labels. “The sessions started slowing down. The hits stopped coming. And it became kind of a money thing, really, and I had to do something different,” said Van Eaton.

Given his stature in Memphis, Van Eaton did not find it difficult to find session work after leaving Sun. Over the next couple of years, he would perform at several other Memphis labels during the late ’50s and early ’60s, including at Rita Records, which was owned and operated by longtime collaborators Billy Lee Riley and Roland Janes. “We cut the first hit record that came out of Royal Studio over there, a song called ‘Mountain Of Love’ by Harold Dorman,” he recalled. For the first time, Van Eaton was also asked to step into the spotlight as a bandleader, releasing the instrumentals “Foggy” and “Beat-Nik” on the label. He also contributed to local labels such as Hi, Pepper, and Fernwood, but eventually drifted away from the music business by the mid-1960s.

“Session work had slowed down for me, and I had gotten married and had a child on the way, and I just couldn’t make enough money playing music full time,” he said. Over the next several years, he worked in both the vending machine business and as an investment banker, only occasionally dabbling in music.

A religious conversion eventually brought Van Eaton back to his first love and in 1979 he began playing with a gospel group called the Seekers. “That got me started writing gospel songs and performing again, which was probably one of the most rewarding times in my life,” he said. Several years later, Van Eaton reunited with several of his Sun labelmates to form a band they called the Sun Rhythm Section for a musical festival in Washington, D.C. “That band got so popular so quickly that they started touring again, but I had too many obligations back in Memphis.” While he wasn’t able to join the group on the road, the experience convinced Van Eaton to return to music on a more regular basis, including several live engagements with Jerry Lee Lewis.

In 1998, Van Eaton released his criminally-overdue debut album The Beat Goes On, which showcased his prowess as both a drummer and a singer, and in the ensuing years has continued to perform with artists such as Dale Watson, Sonny West, and Jerry Lee’s sister Linda Gail Lewis. In an era of pre-programmed drum loops that allow for mathematical precision, Van Eaton is a reminder that nothing compares to the real deal.

What Others are Saying

  1. Been J.M.’s sister-in-law for 60 years and love him like a sister, but I learned a lot from this that I didn’t know. What I do know is that he is an honest, giving and fun to be around Christian man. God blessed him with a talent and he has used it well. May you continue to inspire those around you. I know your ” little ” brother loves you as only a brother can!

    Sandra VanEaton
  2. Fantastic that JM has been given the credit he deserves. I had the pleasure of interviewing twice over the phone and he’s a real gentleman as well as a rock n roll legend.

    Simon Nott

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