J.M. Van Eaton, Sun Records' Rock 'n' Roll Drummer, Passes Away at 86

Memphis Drum Legend's Journey Ends at Eighty-Six.

by Nouman Rasool
J.M. Van Eaton, Sun Records' Rock 'n' Roll Drummer, Passes Away at 86
© Rick Diamond/Getty Images

J.M. Jimmy Van Eaton, the veteran rock 'n' roll drummer whose beats graced the studios of Sun Records, died Friday at the age of 86. His wife, Deborah Van Eaton, confirmed his death at their Alabama residence to The Commercial Appeal of Memphis.

Van Eaton had faced health issues for the year preceding his death. He was an early music lover of rock 'n' roll, a moment marking an era short in relative time but forever enshrined in the tides of modern music. With his blues-infused, driving brand of drumming, he provided a signature sound for the label and drove the rhythms on immortal hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by Jerry Lee Lewis and "Red Hot" by Billy Lee Riley.

His drumming prowess also enlivened recordings with artists such as Bill Justis and Charlie Rich. His musical journey began with the trumpet in the school band, but after some time he was captured by the appeal of the drums.

In a 2015 interview, he pointed that out and said he would rather like to do something percussive. His early band, The Echoes, got an opportunity to record a demo at Sun Records which led him to making the collaborations that first saw him connect with Riley, and notably Jerry Lee Lewis.

"Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, once said of Van Eaton, "He's the only musician in the world that can follow Jerry Lee, who knows where he's going.

Van Eaton's Musical Revival

Van Eaton remained a major force at Sun for the rest of the '50s before a retreat further into the background in the next decade.

It was only in the '70s, with the further revival of rockabilly with the death of Elvis Presley, that he returned to music once again. His musical interests were balanced with that new career in the 1980s: he began working in the municipal bond business.

He was part of the soundtrack for the film "Great Balls of Fire," a biopic about Jerry Lee Lewis and released also his solo album in the late 1990s. He has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which paid tribute to his work.

After he moved from Tennessee in the last decade, Van Eaton had been living in Alabama until his death. His memory will be carried in the hearts of fans and musicians who were his contemporaries alike. He is survived by his wife, son, and daughter.