Along with D.J. Fontana, Earl Palmer, and Jerry Allison, J.M. Van Eaton ranks as one of the paramount drummers in rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. In some ways, he was simply in the right place at the right time. Looking at it from a slightly different angle, he was the perfect man for the job. J.M. was born in Memphis in December of 1937. He started playing drums at school in the eighth grade and, about four years later, found himself behind the kit with Billy Lee Riley & The Little Green Men— as well as in the house band at Memphis’ legendary Sun Records.
Sam Phillips had started the Memphis Recording Service in 1950. His first few years were spent recording a variety of R&B artists including Ike Turner and Howlin’ Wolf—and subsequently leasing the masters to independent labels in the North or on the West Coast, such as Chess and Modern. After seeing many such records become R&B hits, Sam started the Sun label in 1952, continuing to record primarily black material until 1954. In that year, Phillips also recorded a significant amount of country music and, of course, found a young singer by the name of Elvis Presley. The house drummer for the country and early rockabilly material—including Presley’s last three Sun 78s—was Memphian Johnny Bernero. Van Eaton assumed Bernero’s duties from 1956 to 1961, playing on virtually all of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Sun material, all of Johnny Cash’s recordings for Sun after July 1957, Charlie Rich’s first two years of sessions, and Billy Lee Riley’s rockabilly classics, as well as innumerable sessions with lesser-known artists. Van Eaton is the man driving such stellar performances as Rich’s “Lonely Weekends,”Riley’s “Red Hot,” Cash’s “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” and “I Guess Things Happen That Way,” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls Of Fire. ” In fact, on the latter, the only two instruments heard are Lewis’ pumping piano and Van Eaton’s rim tapping and unique shuffle.
It is that shuffle that is Van Eaton’s chief claim to fame. Ultimately derived from the rhythm heard on many a big band swing recording, Van Eaton shifted the accents and added a heavy backbeat. In the July 1982 issue of Modern Drummer, Scott Fish referred to it as “almost a Latin rhythm, but not quite.” Van Eaton’s originality also extended to his surprising placement and execution of fills. In addition, he was always a sensitive and sympathetic percussionist, able to shift tempos and styles depending on the needs and talents of the featured performer.
In 1961, Van Eaton married and, consequently, retired as a full-time drummer. He continued to play on sessions for a variety of labels owned by fellow Sun house musicians Roland Janes and Billy Lee Riley, and he has never ceased to play the odd live gig whenever the context has met his fancy. These days, that generally occurs at one or another of Memphis’ annual music festivals, when Van Eaton joins a number of his old cronies for an hour of scintillating ’50s rockabilly. The following interview was conducted in two separate sessions in Memphis.
RJ: Was yours a musical home?
JMVE: No, not really. I think probably on my mother’s side there were a few musicians— mostly rhythm guitar pickers and things like that. There weren’t any drummers that I know of.
RJ: Were you formally trained or self-taught?
JMVE: I was just like any other student, I guess. You get in the seventh grade, and you can either play in the band or go sing in the chorus. I tried to get in the band, but the first year they wouldn’t let me in. So I wound up in the vocal end of it. I did manage to get in the band in the eighth grade, but it was full of drummers, so they gave me a trumpet to blow. It wasn’t until the ninth grade that I started playing drums in the marching band. I really started to feel some changes coming on in the type of music I liked to play compared to what was going on at the time.
RJ: What was your favorite music then?
JMVE: Believe it or not, I liked Dixieland music a lot. There was a lot of country music in my home and I liked that, but I guess I liked Dixieland because the drummer always had a pretty good part. When you got to take little drum solos, that was my type of thing. We had a Dixieland band at school before the Elvis era hit, and I enjoyed that. I used to listen to the Dukes of Dixieland. I don’t know who the drummer was, but the group as a whole was pretty hot stuff. Really, I guess the reason I liked Dixieland was because it had a pretty heavy backbeat. You go back and listen to the early Dixieland, and it’s a whole lot like what we’re doing now. The drummer was featured more than on other stuff. And then I was also influenced by the big band era. I always thought Buddy Rich was one of the best drummers there ever was. I mean, that guy can do more with drums than anybody else I’ve ever heard. But I never was one to really listen to other people. I played my way, and it either worked or it didn’t.
RJ: How did your professional career get started?
JMVE: I was in my junior or senior year of high school when I really started to get into the recording end of music and started playing with some of the bigger names. I really didn’t realize how big it was. I thought it was just a local thing—just Memphis musicians. I never dreamed that it was a worldwide thing. But at that point in time, there were a lot of good little groups around.
I started doing a lot of session work in high school. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even have a car. Jack Clement, who was the engineer at Sun, used to have to pick me up and take me to the session. I bought my first car when I was 18, and I’d been playing a couple of years before that.
RJ: What was the first band you played with in Memphis, and how did you get introduced to the Phillips/Sun thing?
JMVE: My story is similar to Elvis’. In those days, you could get a little group together, go down to Sun, and cut a record. You’d give them 15 bucks, and you’d do two sides. That’s what we did. There were a couple of guys in school who were pretty good musicians, and we’d been playing this Dixieland thing from an early age. Then we dropped the trombones and trumpets, kept the saxophones, and added some stringed instruments: guitar and bass. At that point in time, I was still awfully young. We started playing some of the nightclubs around Memphis. We had a pretty good little group, and we decided to go down to the studio and cut a record like everybody else. In essence, we were auditioning, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Jack Clement asked Marvin Pepper, who was the bass player, and me if we’d be interested in playing on some sessions. Of course, I said yes. He invited me to come back, and he introduced me to some other people, including a guy named Billy Riley. It just kind of started from there. One thing led to another, and it didn’t take long before everybody wanted me to come and play for them.
RJ: Was that 1955?
JMVE: It was probably ’55 and ’56.
RJ: So they didn’t even have a staff drummer at that point?
JMVE: Well, Johnny Bernero was playing drums at that time. But Johnny was more into the country stuff they were doing then. Sun really hadn’t gotten into rock ‘n’ roll yet. Even Elvis went a long time before he ever decided to use a drummer. I think the first drummer he used was a guy named Jimmy Lott. I was the first drummer who ever played with Johnny Cash. I didn’t go on the road with him, but I played on his sessions. It was the first time they ever tried to put a drum with Johnny Cash.
RJ: Most records on the Sun label sounded raw and unpolished compared to what was on the charts then. Was there a consciousness of trying to do something different from the mainstream?
JMVE: We didn’t think we were doing anything different. The public’s reaction to what was going on made it what it was. If the public had not accepted it and had not wanted that type of sound, it would never have made it to first base anyway. They’d have said to heck with it.
It was a combination of a lot of things. It was a feel created by Memphis-bred musicians, like me, with a black church background. I know people have heard this over and over, but I can remember very well that, when I was a junior in high school, we used to go over to East Trigg Baptist Church on Sunday night just to hear the music. It was great. It had a feel like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin. And they were doing this in church! I was in awe of all this. We wouldn’t miss it for the world; it was an every-Sunday-night thing. But that was before the racial turmoil came into effect. It’s a shame, because there was a real good rapport at that time. We were welcome there. We sat on the front lefthand side of the church every Sunday night.
We took that feel and incorporated it with the country music that a lot of us were brought up on. I like all music. I’m going to tell you that on the front end. There’s very little music that I don’t like, provided that it’s done well. I like good country. I like good rock. I like good classical. I don’t know what it is that separates good from bad, but I know what I like and what I don’t like.
RJ: I’d like to ask you about microphone placement in the studio at Sun. I understand that five mic’s in all were used, with only one mic’ for the drums. Is that correct?
JMVE: Right. They had one microphone, and it was over the snare. They tried using two, adding one for the bass drum, but they would always bring the bass and the bass drum in on the same mic’.
RB: Did you lock in with the bass player in the studio?
JMVE: I didn’t even know the bass player was in there. I was having a hard enough time playing what I was playing, much less trying to play what a bass player was playing. Most of the time, they used that slap bass thing—until they got into the electric bass. It really and truly didn’t matter that much because we weren’t playing a lot of different types of patterns anyway. They were pretty much straight ahead.
RJ: Who did you do most of your live work with?
JMVE: Well, I played with a lot of different groups. I went on the road with Jerry [Lee Lewis]; I played with Roy Orbison; I played with Conway Twitty . . . . I stayed out a lot. We played wherever the demand was. I didn’t get on the West Coast, but we worked from Canada to Florida, on down the East Coast.
RJ: So you got a full taste of that.
JMVE: Yeah, well, I enjoyed it. I was young and single, and it was a big thing then. It was something special. One of my biggest experiences was in Canada with Conway Twitty. We were playing in a lounge setup there. People were lined up for like six or seven city blocks—and it was raining. I couldn’t believe it.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. When you’re young, you make some bad decisions as to which groups to play with. Probably, if I’d stuck with just one group…. I really thought Riley was going to be a big star. That was one of the best bands I’ve ever played with. There were some musicians in that band that were as good as anybody in the country at that time. And I just enjoyed being with that particular band. The only thing that kept Riley back was that he never had a big hit record. I think what it really boiled down to was that Sun Records didn’t want us to have a hit record, because they would lose their staff band.
RJ: Did Sam Phillips try to set up a mood in the studio? Did he influence things in an active way?
JMVE: He knew what he wanted, and the records he released were the records he obviously liked more than others. Sometimes, some of the stuff would get too “uptown” or not commercial enough, and a few of those records may have been released. Sam is a good friend of mine, and I think the world of him. He gave you the freedom to do what you wanted to do. At the same time, if you weren’t playing what he wanted you to play, then you probably wouldn’t be in there. He’d have somebody else in. Jack Clement had a lot to do with it, too. When we first started down there, Jack was doing most of the engineering, and Sam was just there. He’d come in late and listen to what was done. He’d make suggestions: “Let’s do it over,” or “That sounds great.” Then he brought in Bill Justis.
I was pretty young at the time and didn’t realize that there was a lot of conflict going on between those people. It’s a shame that they couldn’t have all stayed, because what that combination produced was definitely something that was catching on worldwide. It’s like any good corporation: You’ve got to have a good leader, but you also have to have good people working for you. And that’s what happened down there. I think it was a combination of everybody. Sam had the right people at the right time. I enjoyed it. Now that I look back on it, those were probably some of the happiest times of my life.
RJ: The records reflected that. They were very raw and sounded different from what else was going on at the time.
JMVE: Let me throw this in now. One thing that made a big difference was that Sam never rented out that studio like a lot of people would do. If you weren’t one of his artists, you didn’t record there. It was a personal-touch type of thing. You were his artist, and he was going to try to do the best he could for you and give you that Sun sound. I’m sure he had a lot of opportunities, but to my knowledge, he never rented that studio to other people. I think that’s interesting. You can go to Nashville today, and rent different studios, cut demos, or whatever if you’ve got the bread. Right now, you can go down there [referring to Sam Phillips Recording Service, currently located on Madison Avenue in Memphis] and rent time, but back then, you couldn’t do that.
RJ: Did Sam ever tell you not to play something? Did he ever tell you to leave certain things out if they got too fancy?
JMVE: To just give you a straight-out answer, yeah. Everybody was trying to keep it commercial. You can label it what you want to. Stax did it; RCA did it; all the big labels did it. Once you have a staff band, those records sound like factory records. Every one of those records has got the same basic band tracks. You come in. You’ve got this tune. “So okay, let’s play the riff we did on this other one. We’ll take this from what we did on this other guy’s record.”
But the drummer had a lot of freedom. They didn’t hold me back. If there was anything I felt like doing, they would all really go for my suggestion. If it didn’t work, they’d be quick to say, “No, it’s not coming off. Try something else.” They would always leave it up to me to decide what else to try. They wouldn’t come out and say, “Hey, play it this way.” Now, Jack [Clement] would, because he was more of a musician than Sam. See, Sam, to my knowledge, is not a musician. He’s a radio man and he knows sound, but he’s not a musician. Jack, on the other hand, could come out and say, “Let’s change this chord progression; it doesn’t sound right,” or “Do this rhythm pattern here.” But most of the time, they were kind of excited as to what we might come up with. If we hit on a chemistry that worked, then that was it. “Hey, that sounds good. Let’s cut it.” And it was that simple.
It was a thing that just had to happen for Memphis at the time. It’s like Elvis. There won’t be another Elvis Presley. There was only one. There were a lot of imitators. Now there may be somebody else somewhere down the line who’ll do something nobody else has done before. Everybody will try to copy, but there’s only going to be one. The Sun Records thing was just a happening because my style of playing, Jerry Lee’s style of playing, and Roland Jane’s style of playing all just kind of came together. We didn’t work on that sound. I’d never seen Jerry Lee before we cut his first record. I’d just met him that morning.
RB: It must have been something that just gelled.
JMVE: I don’t know how you view things, but it was a spiritual-type thing that brought everybody together at the right time. It just happened to be there. If Jerry had come to Memphis and had a different drummer and if Roland had been some body else, then it might never have happened. Who knows? It all came together.
RJ: For that to have turned out to be a salable formula must have been quite impressive.
JMVE: Well, that was the amazing thing. If you play to your relatives, they’re going to say, “That’s great.” But if you play to a genuine audience—a critical audience—and they like what you’re putting down, those are the things you need to go into the studio with. That’s how “Whole Lotta Shakin'” came about. It was just an old song of Jerry’s. We did it at a club we were playing at. He was on the road, and “Crazy Arms” was doing pretty good. So we were out doing some dates on that. He didn’t have a long list of songs; his repertoire was pretty short. So he said, “I used to do this one when I was playing in the club,” and people went crazy over it. It was the first time I’d ever heard it. At that time, we played these 9:00 to 1:00 gigs, and we probably did that song four or five times that night. People kept coming up saying, “Play that ‘Shakin’ song.” So the next time we were in the studio, we cut it. And the success speaks for itself.
RB: On some records, you alternate between the swing-type shuffle beat and a straighter 8th-note feel on the ride. Was that something you just fell into during a song, or did you plan that alternation of patterns on the ride cymbal?
JMVE: I probably just got tired and switched around, [laughs] Man, I was just trying to get through. Half of the records we cut were never intended to be mastered. You’d be cutting a track and you’d get tired of doing this thing, so you’d say, “I’ll just do this for a while.” Then you’d kind of relax and go back into the other. It could happen that simply. I know you think that’s funny, but that’s probably how it came down. Jerry Lee is not good after about three or four cuts. If you don’t get him then, you might as well go on to the next song. It’s one of those deals where you’ve got to capture that magic.
A lot of times, I would change in the middle of a song to see which rhythm pattern I liked best. I’d be changing, saying to myself, “Do I like this better than that…” and that would be the cut they wanted to keep. I mean, I might have been experimenting, rather than trying to do something on purpose. The producer may not even have been listening to the drums. He was probably listening to the voice or the left hand on the piano. If it got like he wanted, then that was the cut he’d take and to heck with everybody else. If the drum part wasn’t just right, well, that was tough. At that point in time, there were only a few songs that we really worked hard at doing. And the ones we worked the hardest on probably sold the least amount of records.
RB: On your recordings with Jerry Lee, there seem to be tempo shifts throughout the songs. Who was responsible for this?
JMVE: I think it was a little bit of both of us, really. He still does that to this day on stage. I know that, when music professors get that metronome going, they want things to be right on time. If that’s your thing, there’s nothing wrong with it. I admire people who can play that precisely and still play with feeling. But to me, you lose something when you’ve got to be that precise. If you’re playing a song, you’re in a groove, and it feels good to do these certain things, that’s what makes it. And I think that’s the way the people who were involved with the music we made at that point in time felt about it.
RJ: How did you come up with your distinctive shuffle pattern? Also, how do you account for the unpredictability of your snare rolls and fills? I can never tell how one of your fills is going to come out.
JMVE: I can’t either, [laughs] I did most of it with just one hand. If there was any one change in music, that was it. Most of that sound came from the cymbal rhythm. At that time, big bands and country bands were playing that swing shuffle rhythm. It was on everything. “Rock Around The Clock” and even the earlier rock things were that type of stuff. We were rehearsing with a group one night, and I said, “I wonder if we could get that swing shuffle pattern going with a backbeat and see what we come up with?” That’s where it came from. When Jerry Lee came in, that was the rhythm he played. A lot of people try to copy Jerry Lee Lewis’ sound, but they’ll never copy it because they’re trying to play a straight 4/4 beat when, in fact, it’s a shuffle with a backbeat. That’s the whole rhythm.
I went out with Jerry recently. We did three nights, and the rhythm was there. You can feel when you hit it. I know that the drummers he’s been using just don’t play it that way, and it makes all the difference in the world, because it’s right on top of it. It’s straight. It’s a shuffle beat, but it’s not the country shuffle. That was done on the snare drum like boom-chick, boomchick. I never could play that. They wanted me to play it, and I can’t play it to this day. I’ll be the first to admit it. I can play it for maybe eight or 16 bars, but after that, I start falling off the stool. It’s labor for me to do that, [laughs] I’ve got to concentrate. If you’ve got to concentrate to play something, musically you’re in trouble. You lose the feeling of it. It’s got to come naturally. The other was just so natural and was something I wanted to get into. I think that really made a big change in the rhythm pattern of that type of music.
Later, rock ‘n’ roll went on into straight rhythm stuff. We wound up doing some of that down at Sun, but the basic thing was really that shuffle, and it was 99% done on the ride cymbal. They would tape that thing up to where it wouldn’t sound like a ride cymbal. It wouldn’t have that ringing sound to it.
RJ: That’s very interesting to know. I was under the impression that you didn’t tape or muffle drums and cymbals much in those days.
JMVE: Yeah, we did a lot of it.
RJ: Was that how your snare sound was achieved? Was the drumhead taped to get that dry, wooden sound?
JMVE: Well, it was mostly done with tape. It deadened the sound on the snare. Or you could take your billfold and lay it on the
head, and it worked. I had a set of Gretsch drums, and—just like with any instrument— some of them just sound better than others. That was the best-sounding set for what we were doing. I could use other drums, but they wouldn’t sound the same. This one particular drumset had that sound. I have a hard time duplicating that sound now.
RJ: Did you have any specific preferences when it came to drumheads or cymbals?
JMVE: We had Zildjian cymbals. That Gretsch set was probably one of the better sets, and Premier was making some pretty good drums. You see, we didn’t have Tama and all these other names you have now. The set I’ve got now is really a mixture. To me, unless you’ve got a lot of dough, you’ve got to be crazy to spend what they want for some of these drums. If you know what you’re doing, you can put together a good set of drums a lot cheaper than some walk-in-off-the-street deal. You can find drums on sale at various places, if you know what you’re looking for. Of course, there’s some cheap stuff out there that wouldn’t be worth 50 cents on the dollar, but you can find some bargains.
RJ: I understand that you had a front bass drum head made out of calfskin with hair on it.
JMVE: That’s right. To my knowledge, there were only two in the world. Elvis’ drummer, D. J. Fontana, had one, and I had one. His was tan and white, and mine was black and white. I think I picked it up in Dallas. It may have been a big thing out West; western swing bands all had drummers. I went to pick up some sticks or something at a music store in Dallas, and I saw the thing. I said, “Elvis’ drummer has one; I’ve got to have one.” That was before they went to taking the front heads completely off the bass drum. Back then, they always had exotic pictures drawn on the front heads. But I had to have it. It was a conversation piece if nothing else— although it was a legitimate bass drum head. I don’t know that it had any bearing on the sound.
RJ: On most of your Sun recordings, your hi-hat can hardly be heard. Was this due to it not being miked?
JMVE: Probably. We did use it on just about every session. But I think one of the key things to the rhythm patterns at that time was that they were played on the cymbals—particularly the ride cymbal. There wasn’t that much of the closed hi-hat ride done until later. If we went back and started reviewing this record and that record, I could probably point it out to you.
RJ: Did you use a full set in the studio?
JMVE: No, all I used was snare, bass drum, ride cymbal, and hi-hat. I had tom toms and I used them out in public, but they never could record them. Tom-toms threw the needle all the way over, and the engineer would go crazy. We did have some tom-tom stuff on a few songs—very few.
RB: How did tom-toms fit into your live playing style? Were you much of a tom tom player?
JMVE: Not as much as they’re using them today. About the only guy that used tom toms much was Bo Diddley. We did a lot of Bo Diddley stuff, so consequently, I had to do that. And then they came in in solo stuff. When I played with Billy Lee Riley & The Little Green Men, we did have a lot of arrangements where we did some things like that. We did some pretty far-out stuff for a rock ‘n’ roll band.
RB: You mentioned solos. Can you give us an idea of how they sounded back in the ’50s? There’s not much on record.
JMVE: Well, they just sounded terrible, [laughs] What can I say? I don’t know what to tell you.
RB: Were they long?
JMVE: Oh, we used to have this thing where all the other musicians would leave the stage like they were going for good. We were probably one of the first ones who started that. I was playing with Charlie Rich once, in his hometown. He said, “We’re going to let the drummer do his thing.” They turned me loose and left the stage, and I thought they were coming back. But they were gone like five minutes. Then it was ten minutes. I’d about had the course, so I looked around and saw Charlie in his limo already! He wasn’t coming back; he was going home! So I just left, too.
RB: You’d often have five-minute solos then?
JMVE: It’s hard to say. Sometimes they were pretty lengthy—depending on whether or not everybody was getting into it. I had a couple of records out that had some drum solos on them.
RJ: Did you use a crash cymbal on any recordings? It sounds like you might have used one at the beginning of Billy Lee Riley’s “Flyin’ Saucers Rock And Roll.”
JMVE: It wasn’t a crash cymbal as we know crash cymbals today. It was just one big cymbal. You’d just hit it harder if you wanted it to crash.
RJ: You place your ride cymbal on the lefthand side of the kit when you play live today. Were you doing that back then?
JMVE: That’s always been kind of comfortable for me.
RJ: Have you always played with a matched grip?
JMVE: No, as a matter of fact, I used to play the “legitimate” way.
RJ: Traditional grip? Was that how you played on a lot of Sun sessions?
JMVE: I really can’t remember. I think a lot of Memphis drummers started playing matched grip on slow records, in order to get that cross-stick sound on the rim. You can’t do that playing traditional grip; you have to turn the stick over and deaden the drum with the palm of your hand.
RB: I notice you often switch off playing on the rim and playing on the drumhead between bridge and verse. Was that planned or just part of your natural style?
JMVE: No, I think that was probably something the artists wanted done. They liked the verses to be laid-back and soft, and the bridges to come on stronger. So that was about the only way to do it. I’d change from one sound to another to try to keep from being repetitious.
RJ: Are you aware of what stylistic influence you’ve had on rock ‘n’ roll drumming?
JMVE: Well, I didn’t realize that it was that much of an influence, really. At that point in time, I didn’t realize I had a style. I didn’t think we were setting trends to be followed; I was just playing. I wasn’t trying to perfect what I was doing, because I didn’t know that it needed perfecting. I was just playing it because that was what came natural to me.
RJ: I’ve run into so many drummers who cite you as a major influence. They wonder what you’re doing musically these days and if you’re still playing the clubs in Memphis.
JMVE: I just got to where clubs were not where it was at for me. And I don’t have any desire to play with groups that are not good pickers. Whenever an opportunity comes along to play, it’s kind of like the old-timers game in baseball. I enjoy that. It’s not so much that I can’t keep up with the younger musicians. It’s just that I don’t really want to try to do that. They’ve got their own thing to do, and more power to them.
RJ: Has age played a part in developing this attitude toward playing music?
JMVE: Maybe age really doesn’t have that much to do with it. You gain knowledge through age, and your priorities change. Things that used to mean a lot to you don’t mean anything. That, I guess, is the biggest thing. My priorities changed. It’s fun to do some sessions. I go in there with the attitude that I’m going to have fun or I’m not going to do it. If it gets to be work, I’ve already got a job—you know what I’m saying? If it gets down to one of those deals where there’s a producer sitting up there going crazy, it’s just not worth it to me. Music is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing the wrong thing. You need to play where you can enjoy it.