Jimmy Van Eaton, early rock drummer who played with the greats at Sun Records, dies at 86

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J.M. “Jimmy” Van Eaton, a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll drummer who played behind the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, died Friday at age 86, a family member said.

Van Eaton, a Memphis native who came to the famous record label as a teenager, died at his home in Alabama after dealing with health issues over the last year, The Commercial Appeal of Memphis reported, with a daughter, Terri Van Eaton Downing, confirming his death.

Van Eaton was known for his bluesy playing style that the newspaper said powered classic early-rock hits at Sun like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Lewis and “Red Hot” by Riley. He also played with Bill Justis and Charlie Rich.


James Mack Van Eaton initially began playing trumpet in a school band, but he soon moved to drums, saying in a 2015 interview that “it was an instrument that intrigued me.”

Van Eaton had his own rock ‘n’ roll band called The Echoes that would record a demo at the recording studio operated by Sam Phillips. His work there led him to connect with Riley and later Lewis.

Sun Studio

Guitars stand in the window of Sun Studio, known as the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Originally named the Memphis Recording Service, the historic studio was operated by rock pioneer Sam Phillips and is where many famous rock musicians like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis got their start. Late drummer Jimmy Van Eaton played here regularly throughout the 1950s. (Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“The hardest man to play with in the world was Jerry Lee. I told every musician to stay out of this man’s way,” Phillips told The Commercial Appeal in 2000. “The one exception was JM Van Eaton.”

Van Eaton became a core of musicians that performed at Sun through the 1950s, the newspaper reported.


Van Eaton drifted away from the music business in the 1960s, but he resumed performing by the 1970s, particularly as interest in rockabilly grew following the death of Elvis Presley.

By the early 1980s, Van Eaton began four decades of working in the municipal bond business. But he also was part of the team that played the music for the film “Great Balls of Fire,” about Lewis, and he put out a solo album in the late 1990s. He was a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame. He moved from Tennessee to Alabama a few years ago.

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Other survivors of Van Eaton include another daughter, two sons and a stepson. His former wife, Deborah, said that private services will be held in the coming week, the newspaper said.

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