Jimmy Van Eaton, Purveyor of the Sun Records Beat, Dies at 86

Jimmy Van Eaton, who played drums on epoch-defining hits, including Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and lent spontaneity and imagination to the unfettered sound of the influential Memphis label Sun Records, died on Feb. 9 at his home in Tuscumbia, Ala. He was 86.

His daughter Terri Van Eaton Downing said the cause was complications of kidney disease.

Mr. Van Eaton’s impeccably deployed accents and fills were heard not just on Mr. Lewis’s recordings but also on popular singles by Charlie Rich (“Lonely Weekends”), Johnny Cash (“Guess Things Happen That Way”) and others. He toured with Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty and, as the de facto house drummer at Sun, played on “Raunchy,” the bluesy instrumental by the saxophonist Bill Justis that reached the Top 10 in 1957.

Mr. Van Eaton in an undated photo. What he played with Jerry Lee Lewis, he said, was “a shuffle with a backbeat” and not a straight 4/4 beat.Credit…Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Mr. Van Eaton, who was sometimes billed as J.M., was a full-time musician only briefly, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, and performed sporadically after that before settling into a career as a financial adviser. His influence, though, was abiding and deep — especially his momentous work with Mr. Lewis, which had an impact comparable to that of other groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll drummers like Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine.

“A lot of people try to copy” the sound of those Jerry Lee Lewis records, Mr. Van Eaton was quoted as saying in “Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll” (1992), by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins. But, he added, they can’t do it because what he played was “a shuffle with a backbeat” and not a straight 4/4 beat.

“I never could play that straight country shuffle,” Mr. Van Eaton continued. “Maybe for eight or 16 bars, but after that I start falling off the stool. I’ve got to concentrate, and when you concentrate, you lose the feeling.”

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