Legendary rock drummer Jimmy Van Eaton dead at 86

February 12, 2024

J.M. “Jimmy” Van Eaton, a renowned rock ‘n’ roll drummer celebrated for his contributions to the music scene at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, passed away Friday at the age of 86, as confirmed by a family member.

Van Eaton, a native of Memphis who began his career at the iconic record label as a teenager, died at his residence in Alabama.

The details

His death came after battling health challenges over the past year, his daughter, Terri Van Eaton Downing, verified concerning his passing.

Recognized for his distinctive blues-infused drumming style, Van Eaton played a pivotal role in driving the rhythm for classic early-rock hits recorded at Sun, such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis and “Red Hot” by Billy Lee Riley. He also collaborated with musicians like Bill Justis and Charlie Rich.

James Mack Van Eaton initially started playing trumpet in his school band before transitioning to drums, citing the instrument's allure in a 2015 interview.

His background

Van Eaton formed his own rock ‘n’ roll band, The Echoes, and recorded a demo at Sam Phillips' recording studio, leading him to collaborate with Riley and later Lewis.

Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, praised Van Eaton's musical prowess, particularly his ability to keep up with the notoriously dynamic Jerry Lee Lewis.

Although he drifted away from the music industry in the 1960s, Van Eaton returned to performing in the 1970s, particularly as interest in rockabilly surged following Elvis Presley's death.

His impact

In addition to his music career, Van Eaton spent over four decades working in the municipal bond business from the early 1980s.

Despite his professional pursuits, he remained active in music, contributing to the soundtrack of the film “Great Balls of Fire” and releasing a solo album in the late 1990s.

He was honored with inductions into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Van Eaton relocated from Tennessee to Alabama in recent years.

Surviving Van Eaton are another daughter, two sons, and a stepson. Private services are planned for the following week, according to his former wife, Deborah.

The loss of the long-time rock drummer marks the end of an era, leaving behind decades of music enjoyed by millions of fans worldwide as listeners and the music industry mourn his loss.

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