As Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison were defining rock ’n’ roll’s first wave at Memphis’s Sun Studios in the 1950s, a group of shadow-figure drummers led by J.M. Van Eaton and W.S. Holland were forming the bedrock of rock ’n’ roll drumming on the hundreds of songs released by Sam Phillips’ in-house Sun Records label. You can hear that style taking shape across the twenty-eight tracks featured on the recently released collection Great Drums at Sun (Bear Family). It’s exhaustively researched and painstakingly annotated drumming anthropology, highlighting the spark these Sun sticksmen brought to their work during rock’s nascent days.
This is not an assemblage of quaint 4/4 and gentle ting-ting-a-ting shuffling from a bygone era. Great Drums lives up to its name, showcasing no-joke chops that sound as vibrant today as they did sixty years ago, from Van Eaton (dig the flipped beats and two measure-long single-stroke rolls he plays on Lewis’s “Lovin’ Up a Storm”) and Holland (like the alternating Latin and rock feels he applies to Carl Mann’s “Foolish One”) along with others in the studio’s drumming crew, including Johnny Bernero (who played on many Elvis sides at Sun), Bobby Crafford, Joe Riesenberg, Billy Pat Ellis, and Houston Stokes.
It didn’t matter that the blues had only recently birthed this baby called rock ’n’ roll, that Van Eaton was barely out of high school, that Holland had precious little experience behind a kit, or that Bernero’s tastes leaned more toward jazz. The Sun drummers blazed a path for future generations of rockers. Taking their cues from Dixieland, swing, and early R&B timekeepers, they brought the rock and, most important (as Keith Richards and the late Chuck Berry would tell you), the roll to these simple and usually very sparse songs. Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, John Bonham, and many other top names would take it from there over the course of the next decade, but their lineage runs directly back to Sun Studio.
“We were at ground zero, trying to create all this stuff,” the seventy-nine-year-old Van Eaton says with a noticeable measure of pride. “We were just trying to figure out how to do it ourselves.”
Holland, who at eighty-two is still gigging regularly, laughs, then politely interrupts Modern Drummer in the midst of a compliment about his playing on the aforementioned “Foolish One,” a peppy song whose Latin feel is referred to as a tresillo rhythm in the Great Drums liner notes. “Here I was in 1958 playing a rhythm that was developed in Cuba,” he says. “I am so glad to find out all these years later what I was doing, because I had no idea.”
You can forgive Holland for being tresillo-ignorant. He wasn’t exactly a student of rhythm or drumming coming up. In fact, he wasn’t a drummer at all when Carl Perkins invited him to play drums at his audition for Phillips at Sun in 1954. Holland was a friend of the Perkins family who worked as an air-conditioning repairman, and he would regularly go see the burgeoning rockabilly legend at local clubs. When the spirit moved him one time, he hopped on stage to tap along on the hollow body of Perkins’ younger brother Clayton’s upright bass. That impromptu act launched Holland’s drumming career, the highlights of which include rollicking and chugging along with Perkins in his glory days, followed by a forty-year stint doing the same with Johnny Cash.
“Carl saw something in me,” Holland reminisces. “I had never even seen a drumset before, but he says, ‘You keep time on that bass like that, you’ve got the feel. I know you can play.’ And it never crossed my mind to take lessons. If I did, I’d have just played like everybody else. And none of this probably would have happened.”
Unlike Holland, Van Eaton, who also still plays regularly, had been playing drums, learning the instrument in his high school orchestra. He says he was offered a music scholarship to attend the former Memphis State College, but declined it when he saw an opportunity to work his way up the ranks at Sun, starting on a session with Jimmy Williams for an amped-up shuffle called “Fire Engine Red,” which can be found on Great Drums.
“It was a terrible song,” Van Eaton says, failing to note that his powerful drumming dominates the admittedly undistinguished bit of jump blues. “I was about seventeen and still learning how to play. Later I went back in with a band called the Echoes. I’d just bought a new set of Gretsch drums, and I was playing a little bit better by then and they offered me a job to play with Billy Lee Riley. That kinda got me started. Next thing you know, here comes Jerry Lee, and it took off from there.”
Jerry Lee Lewis was hardly “the Killer” when he arrived at Sun in 1956. “A total misfit,” is how Van Eaton remembers him in those days. “He was just a guy that came in who played piano.”
It didn’t take long, though, for Lewis to strike gold with a raucous sound that featured his pounding piano atop Van Eaton’s insistent drumming. “Our rhythm patterns fit perfectly,” Van Eaton says of the sound that propelled hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Breathless,” and transformed the “misfit” into an international sensation and one of rock’s first true outlaws.
“That little shuffle I do on the snare and cymbal at the same time on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’—that’s me just fitting in with the rhythm he was playing with his left hand. That ‘Easy now…’ part at the end—we developed that on stage the first time we played it, the weekend before we cut it. We were just following him in the studio. And I learned a lot with him about recording. Our theory was if you couldn’t hear the piano—which wasn’t miked—you were playing too loud. So we just didn’t play loud in that room.”
Holland and Perkins toiled for about a year after they first recorded at Sun, gigging regionally while the drummer held on to his air-conditioning repair job. (“They let me leave early on Fridays to drive to the gigs,” he says with a laugh.) All that changed when “Blue Suede Shoes” became a hit in early 1956. Though it’s not included on Great Drums, the iconic track includes one very noteworthy contribution from Holland. Out of habit, Holland didn’t count the song in as they were laying it down, a “mistake” he cites as the reason for the slightly askew cadence when Perkins sings, “Well, it’s one for the money…two for the show” in the intro.
“A drummer counts a song off…I never did that,” Holland explains. “I still don’t. I don’t know, for sure, what the singer is going to do. I don’t know what tempo he wants. So I let somebody else kick it off. All I knew to do was when somebody was singing a song, let ’em start. And as quick as I could, start playing behind them.”
The success of “Blue Suede Shoes” meant Holland could finally quit his day job in early 1956, something he’d been giving serious thought to after a gig in Helena, Arkansas, with Perkins the previous summer. “We’re driving back in my car to West Memphis after the show, and we stop to gas up,” he recalls. “So we’re counting our money and we had nearly $20 apiece. I told the boys, ‘Y’all don’t realize this, but I work all week at 75 cents an hour, and I don’t make very much more than this.’ Not only that, three different real pretty girls asked me to stay and have a party with them that night. And I said to the boys, ‘I never had a lady ask me to stay and have a party with them when I was working on their air conditioner. So you can do whatever you want to do the rest of your life, but I’m gonna play in a band.’”
Holland played steadily with Perkins through the end of the ’50s, eventually hooking up with Johnny Cash after Perkins started slowing down following the death of his brother Clayton. While Holland was beginning his forty-year ride with the Man in Black, Van Eaton saw the writing on the wall at Sun as stars like Elvis and Cash left the label, and he began looking for new opportunities beyond drumming. He eventually became an investment banker in Memphis, a job he still works at part-time to this day.
“The last few sessions I cut, I felt I didn’t get the right money for it,” Van Eaton explains, adding that $42.50 was the union scale rate for a session in those days. (Holland remembers it as being more like $11 per session.) “I thought, If this is where it’s gonna be, count me out. Sam was losing interest, all the superstars had moved on, and the work started drying up. That was really the downfall for me.
“But we were the pioneers, man. This music was brand new—nobody was playing it. And that’s something special.”
Really Great Drums at Sun
Highlights From the Great Drums Collection
“I Forgot to Remember to Forget” (Johnny Bernero) Bernero’s jazz roots show here as he glides effortlessly from a double-time shuffle to half time on this tender Elvis ballad.
“You’re My Baby” (Billy Pat Ellis) Roy Orbison was but a pup when he cut this rave-up, on which an old pal from Texas, Billy Pat Ellis, keeps the stop-rhythm breaks tight and pushes the band forward in the choruses and guitar solo.
“Greenback Dollar” (Joe Riesenberg) Legend has it Elvis asked Riesenberg to come on the road with him but the devoted family man declined. Listening to the sweet parts Riesenberg adds to this Ray Harris shuffle—a mighty tasty rim and snare pattern, and quick snare trills within that groove—you can see why the King wanted him.
“Lonely Weekends” (J.M. Van Eaton) Van Eaton spread his talents around the Sun roster, and Charlie Rich was often the beneficiary of his swinging rock touch. Hearing Van Eaton’s steady 8th notes on the cymbals and that snappy little fill out of the bridge, you can’t help but think a young Richard Starkey studied this song intently.
“Boppin’ the Blues” (W.S. Holland) Holland and Carl Perkins had a good groove going, and it’s on display here with drumming that’s slightly busy for the time. Of note: Holland’s snare and tom combinations, something you didn’t hear a lot of on the early Sun stuff.