Born James M. Van Eaton, December 1937, Memphis, Tennessee
There's some drummers from the 50's that became legendary like Earl Palmer and Jerry Allison as well as some great ones who seem to have been forgotten, Roy Harte for example who worked at Capitol (listen to Shotgun Boogie by Tennessee Ernie Ford). But to me, nothing enters my ears quite like the backbeat provided by Jimmy (J.M.) Van Eaton. He played on countless sessions for Sun records in Memphis and helped give many recordings that little bit extra. His work with Jerry Lee Lewis was stunning, they played in complete syncopation. Jerry Lee usually only did one take of a song, so it's not as if Jimmy could have a think about what drumming might fit the song. He had to adlib on the same channel as the Killer - and they didn't miss the mark very often. Jerry Lee has said that he was "...THE creative rock'n'roll drummer....". I'm not one to argue with the Killer, so I won't start here.
Although he worked with no end of one-shot artists, he was also a semi-permanent member of Billy Lee Riley's legendary band, The Little Green Men. They were the mainstay of many of Sun sessions as well as creating a couple dozen classics with Riley. Listen to Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll - Roland Janes' guitar intro is suitably "other planetish" but wouldn't have had half the impact without Jimmy's crashing symbols.
Jimmy Van Eaton was born and bred in Memphis and saved his paper-round pocket money to buy his first set of drums. He wound up with a music scholarship to the University of Memphis - Memphis State. He formed his first band, The Jivin' Five while still in high school. They played a Dixieland style but it was with a rock 'n' roll band, The Echoes, that he cut a demo at Sun studios. Jack Clement engineered the session and was impressed enough to point him and the bands bass player, Marvin Pepper in the direction of Riley, whose debut single had been released and was ready to take a band on the road.
With Jimmy becoming the studio's premier drummer, his usual week entailed sessions during the week, followed by live shows on the weekends. The Little Green Men had taken to wearing matching green outfits on stage, custom made by a Memphis tailor. Another thing they did for publicity was a 72 hour music marathon at the Starlite Club in Memphis.
Asked by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame whether he thought the band played with "an almost telepathic ability" he replied, "Well, I think we did. I think Roland and that whole bunch did have that. Because I could play with players today, and I could be listening for them to do certain things, and when they don't - then the "feel" is just not there. These days, you have to generate your own enthusiasm during a song, where before you could play off of each other. I could do a session now with a guitar player, and if he's not as hot as another good guitar player then chances are, I'm just going to play methodically through whatever is playing. But if you're with another guy, and he's really jammin' - they you're going to pick it up a bit. And at the time, me, Roland, Jerry Lee, and Martin Willis, we were all in synch. We had very little, if any, arrangements. Especially on Jerry Lee's stuff. Now Riley's stuff, especially when Martin Willis started playing with us, he was more likely to give us an arrangement or a plan to follow. But with Jerry, you just hung after him, man. "Crazy Arms," his first record - we only did that one time, just the drum and the piano. We didn't even have any other instruments on there. And then "Whole Lotta Shakin'" was only cut one time. So, we didn't have any rehearsal time, there wasn't any "Let's go work this up." Jerry Lee might say "I'm going to do it in this key." Then he'd just start playing, and then Roland would just play along a little bit until he got the feel of it, then you'd be ready to go! Now Charlie Rich was more of a constructive type guy who brought in arrangements and all that. Most of that was just three chord changes and GO for it! That didn't affect me of course, I wasn't into chords." Continuing about Jerry Lee he said, "He's a great entertainer and he doesn't get near the recognition he should for his vocals, I think he's an excellent singer. Those country things he did where he could really sing and get into the song, "Another Place Another Time," "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye," and "What Made Milwaukee Famous," that's great stuff. Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, I listen to his stuff all the time, whether I played on it or not. I like a lot of that stuff. I don't know if you heard that song in the "Great Balls Of Fire" movie "Lucky Old Sun?" Man, that's great singing."
Among Jimmy's many satisfied customers are Roy Orbison ("Devil Doll," "Sweet And Easy To Love," "Chicken Hearted," "Claudette"), and Johnny Cash ("Straight A's In Love"). As well as with Billy Lee and Jerry Lee, he also toured with Conway Twitty, but left about a month before Conway skyrocketed to fame with "It's Only Make Believe."
As well as the biggies that he played on, there's more than a few that didn't become hits that perhaps should have. He recalls "I thought Riley's record of "No Name Girl" was going to be a big record - and it never did do anything. There was a guy I think was named Jimmy Pritchard, had a record called "That's The Way I Feel," and I thought that was going to be a good one. "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll," that was popping up in areas other than Memphis. With a little bit of promotion it might have been a hit."
Jimmy finally left Sun when he went north with Billy Lee. He also worked in the Memphis area away from Sun, playing on "Mountain Of Love" by Harold Dorman, for Rita Records. Other labels he worked for included Hi, Pepper, and Fernwood.
He started to drift away from music and got into the vending machine business. He found God and gave up music altogether until he started a gospel group, The Seekers, with some friends. Nowadays, Jimmy is a successful investment banker, but he has had the odd foray into the rockabilly world. He was the original drummer for the Sun Rhythm Section but when he got tired of the travelling, moved aside for DJ Fontana. He did the 706 Reunion album with Billy Lee Riley and Roland Janes and for a while in the early 80's he worked with Jerry Lee again. He worked on Charlie Feathers Elektra album as well as with Billy Lee for Hightone. His most recent album is The Beat Goes On (706 Records, 1998).