J.M. VAN EATON
THE BEAT GOES ON
Hear JM sing on 12 tracks
Teenage Sun Records session man, vending machine repairman, record producer,
Little Green Man, solo recording artist, race car driver, song writer,
investment banker -- these are but a few chapters in the life of one of rock
and roll's most prolific and legendary drummers. This page is for you J.M.
THANKS for not allowing the beat to stop. --
Steve Lester - Wix Records - LESTERSD@aol.com
1999 photo at Sun Studio.
MAKING SURE THE BEAT GOES ON:
The J.M. Van Eaton Interview
by Ken Burke
According to no less an authority than Jerry Lee Lewis, J.M. Van
Eaton is "...THE creative rock'n'roll drummer...."! The man who provided the bluesy
backbeat and energetic fills for countless sessions at Sun Records, his
drumming is no less than the very heartbeat of rock'n'roll music itself.
With Billy Lee Riley, Roland Janes, and Martin Willis - The Little Green Men,
he cut some of the best rock'n'roll records most of America never heard.
However, when rediscovered during the late 70s, such gems as "Red Hot" and
"Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll," became vivid anthems for the first blushes of
the rockabilly revival.
In addition, perpetual reissues of the Sun's hits and hundreds of previously
unreleased sessions on big stars, and auditioning wannabes alike were made
listenable for the ages, thanks to Van Eaton's work.
Van Eaton's contribution to this music we all love is often downplayed by
the mainstream music press, but as in the case of Scotty Moore and Bill
Black's stimulus to Elvis Presley's studio sound, one has to wonder how far
Jerry Lee Lewis would've gotten without the drummer's uncanny ability to
read his musical mind and lay down a compatible beat. (Especially in the one-take
method the Killer preferred.)
Despite playing hundreds of sessions, traveling uncounted miles on the road,
and ceaseless changes in the music business, Van Eaton never became a casualty
of rock'n'roll. Though he now makes his living as an investment banker, he has
kept his skills and mind sharp, learned to write songs, and produce records.
It should be heartening to struggling rockers to note that the man who played
on such classic mega-hits as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, " "Great Balls Of
Fire, " "Breathless, " and "Lonely Weekends" still has the hunger to make
His first solo LP, The Beat Goes On, features nine of Van Eaton's own songs,
as well as (for all intents and purposes) his debut as a vocalist. (see
review) We talked about that disc, his influences, and his association with
Sun Records over the course of a two hour phone conversation.
KB: Tell us about your very first band.
Van Eaton: The first band I had was in high school, we were a little
called the Jivin' Five. That was kinda like a little Dixieland band. But
first band that I actually went to the Sun studio with was more of an Elvis-
type band - we had lead guitars, an upright bass, that kinda stuff. That was
called The Echoes. And we went in to cut a demo at Sun, similar to what
was doing at the time. You paid fifteen bucks and got to cut two sides of an
acetate dub straight from the mikes on to the disc. You didn't put it on
and then transfer it, you just did it live on the acetate. If you messed up,
well then you had to get up another fifteen bucks. That's how I got started.
KB: Who took the money? Marion Keisker?
Van Eaton: Well, they were all there, but I remember that Jack Clement
guy who did the engineer part of it. So I can't remember if I paid him, if
paid Marion or maybe Sally [Wilburn] even.
KB: Do you have any influences as a drummer? Did you like say
Gene Krupa? Any
Big Band drummers?
Van Eaton: Of course I listened to all them, I think Buddy Rich was the
of all those Big Band drummers, he could really play and I liked to hear
a lot. To be honest with you, when I heard Gene Krupa's stuff, especially
solos, well - I could play what he was playing. So I wasn't that impressed
with him, though he was upfront and everything. I've always said this, I
Little Richard's drummer. [Earl Palmer] I thought he was one of the better
drummers of that era, but that was about it.
KB: What about some of your drumming contemporaries? What did
you think of
D.J. Fontana, Dickie "Be-Bop" Harrell, "Fluke" Holland - did those guys do
work you appreciated?
Van Eaton: Well, here again, I'm not trying to put anybody down. I like
early stuff - I thought "Don't Be Cruel" and stuff I heard on that was
unique, but as far as really playing some licks, they were what I'd call
straight up drummers. When we were doing stuff like "Breathless" and "Great
Balls Of Fire," at Sun - we were putting some licks in there that people
weren't playing. So to me, that was kind of a different spin, and although I
didn't have anything against the playing of the guys you mentioned by any
means, I wasn't trying to copy their playing. I mean, I could listen to them
play, and it didn't offend me, but I didn't think it was anything to write
I know D.J., and I don't want this interview to sound like putting him down.
think what he was doing at the time was more than adequate - in fact, I like
the sound they got on the drums as much as I did the playing. Y'know, I
for all that. And, I liked Buddy Holly's drummer he was pretty cool on
Sue," I thought that was pretty good. But, I was never one to really copy
somebody else's stuff. I kinda got this little shuffle stuff going myself
with both the left hand and the right hand, and people were trying to copy
what I was playing, so I figured I'd just keep on playing it.
KB: You must've been doing something right, eh?
Van Eaton: Well, it got me a lot of gigs. But I did listen to a lot of
different people and I liked Dixieland early on because they always let the
drummer take a solo.
KB: When you went into the Sun studios with The Echoes, were you
gigs at that time?
Van Eaton: Oh yeah, we were playing a couple little clubs around
little place called The Rodeo Club, and we played some backyard things. We
this one particular club gig we played every Friday night, and then they had
another band that played on Saturday. We played for the younger group that
came out on Friday nights, and the older guys would do their thing on a
KB: So how did you hook up with Billy Riley during this period?
Van Eaton: Jack Clement kind of put us two together. Do you know who
KB: Oh sure, one of the original Little Green Men.
Van Eaton: That's right, well he was also a bass-player with The
Anyway, Jack, Roland Janes and Riley were in the studio at the time and they
needed a drummer and a bass player. So Jack told him about us [The Echoes],
and they started coming out to this little ol' place we were playing and
us. Then Billy just came up and told me who he was and that he had a
with Sun and he had this record out and he's going to be the next Elvis, and
all this sort of stuff. He had a lot of gigs booked, and was going to do
things that we were not doing, so I felt "This is the time to make that
KB: So The Little Green Men were comprised of part of The Echoes
Billy Riley had going in the studio at the time?
Van Eaton: That's correct. Roland Janes, Billy Riley, Marvin Pepper,
KB: On your first session, were you playing for your band, or
were you backing other people at Sun?
Van Eaton: Actually, my first trip to the Sun studio was with a guy
Jimmy Williams - and all this is going on while I'm still in high school.
Later on, Jimmy Williams had a record out on Sun, but the first time I ever
went into those studios was in the tenth or eleventh grade. So I was a
with him - and I played for older guys who just kinda drug me around with
which got me some exposure. So from that, I realized what I wanted to do - I
wanted to play drums. So, I got up early and delivered papers in the
saved my money and got my own set of drums. It was real tough decision to
make too. I had a decision to make between the 11th and 12th grade: to
buy a used car or buy the drums. I didn't have enough money for both, and I
wanted a car so bad but I ended up buying the drums. So that's why all these
people had to come and get me and carry me to wherever I played. (laughs)
it wasn't long after that the drums paid for the car.
KB: Tell us how you developed some of the technique you used
while playing in
the Sun studios. I've read that you used to lay your wallet on the snare to
dampen the sound - how did you know that was necessary?
Van Eaton: You got to realize that back then, you only had maybe five
microphones, and they were not all on the drums the way they are now. You
one mike on the snare that picked up the hi-hat, the cymbals, and the whole
nine yards. Then you had one mike on the bass drum and the upright bass at
same time. Then there was the mike the singer was using, and the mike the
guitar player was on, and maybe - if there was a piano player, you had him
miked. I don't know if you've ever been to the Sun studio, but it's a
small room. And, in order to keep all this from bleeding over into other
microphones, especially the drums into the vocal mike, we'd try to deaden
We weren't doing it as a "style" to play in, but mainly as a way to keep the
drum from bleeding over everywhere. It turned out to be a pretty good little
KB: You guys achieved a very distinctive sound, I think Rolling
referred to it as "seductive."
Van Eaton: Here's a big difference in that early playing, I was also
lot on the ride cymbal - doing some licks on that, and a lot of drummers
didn't do much of
that. I was quite active on the ride cymbal.
KB: I can hear that on many of Jerry Lee Lewis' records and that
the basis of his style, didn't it?.
Van Eaton: Jerry Lee and I played a lot alike. He played that shuffle
on the piano the same way I did on the drums. And that's why you can take a
song like "Whole Lotta Shakin'" and when he gets to that part where he says
"easy now, let's get real low," you can listen to the rhythm on the piano,
the snare drum, the rhythm on the ride cymbal, and they're all the same.
I'm doing that same shuffle with both my right hand and my left hand and
drummers never did that.
KB: Are you ambidextrous, or is that just your style of playing?
Van Eaton: I don't know, man - that's just the way it was. I broke my
arm when I was a child, in the elbow, and it's still not quite as strong as
left arm. So, I throw and write with the right hand, but when I played
in high school - I could only shoot with my left hand. So when you ask if
ambidextrous, I thought "No - but in a way I am." I can do certain things
my left hand that I can't do with my right.
KB: With all the sessions that you guys did as either The Little
Green Men or
backing other artists, when did you find time to play gigs?
Van Eaton: On the weekends mainly. We did our recording during the
on the weekends, we didn't do much recordings and there were just a ton of
clubs in the South that we could play. Fraternity parties were mostly on the
weekends - so you'd book your gigs around a weekend, with studio dates
KB: Tommie Wix wanted me to ask you - were there any promotional
you did as the Little Green Men that would interest fans? And what about
Van Eaton: (laughs) Well, we were getting pretty popular and thought it
be cool if we had some green suits to wear. At the time, obviously, you
couldn't just go to a rack and pick out a green suit - in fact, you couldn't
do it today either! (laughs) But there were a lot of tailor shops in Memphis
at the time, so we went up and down Main Street and finally found us a
shop that had some green material. We told the guy what we wanted, and they
custom made some green suits for us. The material was so thick, it was like
wearing that stuff they cover pool tables with - that same texture, it was
pretty weird. Hot too!
KB: You don't happen to still have that, do you?
Van Eaton: No, I sure wish I did, it'd be worth LOTS of money. I've had
of people ask me about that, and it would be worth several thousand dollars.
lost the drums I had with calf-skin head on the front of it in a fire. And
that would've been worth thousands of dollars too. Anything that came out of
the Sun era - I've sold things to museums. There's a local museum in Memphis
that has a pretty neat display about Memphis artists, and they have a set of
drums I did play on for a long period of time. You'd be surprised what that
stuff is worth.
KB: Were there any promotional stunts you guys did?
Van Eaton: We played a 72 hour music marathon. We thought it'd be a
thing for publicity - and it was at the time. We were in the Guinness Book
KB: Where'd you play?
Van Eaton: It was called the Starlite Club in Memphis.
KB: Did you get any rest?
Van Eaton: No, we played 72 hours just like a normal band. We'd play 45
stage, then take 15 off to get a chance to go to the restroom and we had
people there watching. By the time one crowd would leave, the milkman or
somebody would wander in - there was always somebody there. I guess the
served its purpose, we got a lot of news coverage because we were on
TV and got a lot of hot publicity out of it.
KB: So that was around the time of "Flying Saucer's
Rock'n'Roll," and "Red
Van Eaton: Right - all during that span of time.
KB: How did you guys develop the remarkable chemistry you
achieved on record?
Was it just something instinctual, or was there a lot more hard work to this
than we suspect?
Van Eaton: Well, I think where the hard work comes in is when you're
to play - practicing endless hours in your room by yourself with the door
closed. But I never felt it was hard to get together with other guys - and
even today, I don't feel like that's a hard thing to do. Here's the way I
look at it - I play the way I play, and if that's fine - great, if not - go
find you somebody else. You also have to find the right person for the job.
If you're cutting a country song and you need a guitar player, you wouldn't
out and hire somebody like Jimi Hendrix. And if you're cutting a rock song,
you wouldn't go get Chet Atkins. You go get the personnel for the moment.
with us, everybody in the world was coming to Memphis because they liked
they heard - so we had no reason to change. It's hard enough in this life
be recognized for anything that has any credibility to it - so why go change
it? I mean, I could play other stuff - when we got into Gospel, there were a
lot of changes from what we were doing to that style. But you also need to
have the desire to play in different style. If you don't want to practice
learn to do certain things, then I say forget it. Some of this music today -
people ask me "Could you play this?" And I say "I probably could - but I
want to." That's the way it is with me. There are very few things that I'm
going to go home and work on just to try and get it, unless it's a project
KB: When we read these album notes by writers such as Colin
always mention that you guys seemed to play with an almost telepathic
to know what the other one was going to do next.
Van Eaton: Well, I think we did. I think Roland and that whole bunch
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
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
But if you're with another guy, and he's really jammin' - they you're going
pick it up a bit. And at the time, me, Roland, Jerry Lee, and Martin
we were all in synch.
KB: How did this work in the studio? Did you discuss
arrangements ahead of
Van Eaton: We had very little, if any, arrangements. Especially on
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
Jerry, you just hung after him, man. "Crazy Arms," his first record - we
did that one time, just the drum and the piano. We didn't even have any
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
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
I wasn't into chords.
KB: Can you read music?
Van Eaton: I could read when I was in school, I haven't read in a
while. I had
a music scholarship to the University of Memphis - Memphis State at the
KB: Did you attend?
Van Eaton: Well, I did for a little while, then I realized "I'm doing
I'm studying to do once I get out of college." Which was being on the road
with a band and cutting records. So why go back to school when I could get
more OJT [On The Job Training] out there playing. So I learned more playing
with the real guys than I would have at Memphis State.
KB: Tell us a little something about Roy Orbison.
Van Eaton: Roy Orbison was a good friend of mine. I didn't play on
"Ooby Dooby." but I played on some other things of his he had on Sun - "Devil
"Sweet And Easy To Love," "Chicken Hearted," some of those songs. I liked
Orbison quite a lot, he was a very good friend of mine. It wasn't just a
session thing, we hung out together. We actually went out on the road with
some on gigs in the South. He was from Texas, of course, he didn't live
here - but he'd come in and stay maybe a week or two. While he was here, we
cut the demo for "Claudette," things like that. I liked Roy, he was one of
good guys. We kind of went our separate ways when he left for Nashville,
I did talk to him a lot. I was telling you about the first time I ever went
into Sun with this guy Jimmy Williams? He and I used to hang out with Roy.
KB: Did you play with Johnny Cash?
Van Eaton: That's right - I was the first drummer they used with him.
didn't really want me there in the first place. I think the song was
"Straight A's In Love," because I hit some cymbal on that, I think that was
the one. He didn't even want that. Right at the end of a song, a lot of
a drummer will just reach up and hit that cymbal. Well when Cash heard that
he jumped "Don't do that again!" (laughs) I said "Yes sir, we'll just stick
with the brushes and the stick, man." That was kind of an experience, but
after he got used to hearing a drum on his records, he kind of liked it.
KB: Could you have hung in there and played drums for Johnny
Cash or would
that have been too limiting for you?
Van Eaton: It was too limiting. He offered me a job, and I like Johnny
But I could not see me being a drummer with him. I felt I had more in me, I
was a rock'n'roll drummer - or at least I thought I was, and I was more
inclined to take wild drum solos.
KB: Did you ever even hear the term rockabilly when you were
Van Eaton: Naw, I think that's just some term that somebody started
later on -
and at first I though "That's kind of goofy." But, if something like that
carves you a niche in the music industry, why fight it? The problem is -
rockabilly didn't really have drums. The early Elvis stuff is what I call
rockabilly. I liked the early Elvis stuff. And I liked the Charlie Feathers
stuff - he probably didn't have a drum on that. The drums put in a heavier
backbeat. How can you call somebody like Jerry Lee Lewis "rockabilly?" Just
because he sings a country song doesn't mean he's a rockabilly. That's the
I see it. Back then it was either country-rock or Rock'n'Roll. Then they
Billy Riley "rockabilly," and if "Red Hot's" rockabilly...well, I just don't
know where you'd draw the line. It doesn't bother me though, because I'm at
home with myself, and I'm not trying to be something I'm not . I think [the
term rockabilly] started out as a way to poke fun at us, but later it began
picking up an element of respect.
KB: Tell us about touring with Conway Twitty.
Van Eaton: I played with Conway for a good bit. I was with him when he
Harold Jenkins and just after he changed his name. I quit Conway about
days before he hit with "It's Only Make Believe." I toured with him up into
Hamilton, Ontario which is actually where he wrote the song. Then again, I
was still with Riley - and even then Conway was more of a country singer,
to be honest with you - I didn't think he'd ever make it. (laughter) Well
got to understand, I'd been playing with Jerry Lee and some pretty big guys,
man - with Orbison and these cats. Then here comes Conway trying to sing
music, and I thought "Man - he ain't gonna make it!" Then he turned out to
a great country singer. On my CD, you'll see a picture of me and Conway,
Martin Willis and a couple of other guys sitting there.
KB: So you were doing double duty, playing in both Riley and
Van Eaton: Well, I wasn't locked in - I was playing with whoever
Riley, for some reason, didn't have any gigs booked at this particular time
just a few dates, but Conway had this three week in Canada. He called Billy,
and they both came and talked to me about it. And I knew Martin Willis, and
probably wouldn't have gone if Martin Willis hadn't been in that band, we
to high school together and I wasn't about to go on the road with a bunch of
cats I'd never met. We ended up staying there for sixteen weeks.
KB: Wow! They had a good scene up there, didn't they?
Van Eaton: That right. I got Ronnie Hawkins up there. I met Ronnie one
over at this club in West Memphis, and I knew Ronnie was a pretty wild stage
guy - still is - and I said "You need to get you a band together." And then
gave him the name of the guy who was booking up there - and Ronnie went up
there and never came back!
KB: Were there any records you played on that you had a good
but ended up not going anywhere?
Van Eaton: I thought Riley's record of "No Name Girl" was going to be a
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.
KB: Do you feel Sam Phillips was stretching himself too thin?
Van Eaton: Man, I don't know. I can look back on it now and all I can
guess. Probably, and knowing what I know about my own life, it is hard to
juggle all that stuff. For example, now I've got my publishing company going
and I had a guy come in here about that today, and another guy is sending me
music, I'm trying to get my own stuff done. Marty Stuart was here, and it's
just hard to keep all the balls up in the air. That may have been the case
with Sam, I really don't know. Yeah I could say all the same things "Yeah,
Sam's trying to keep up there to cut his records, trying to hold us back
having a hit. " But, you know, we did some things after we left there - and
some people are destined to make it, some people aren't. That's the way I
KB: I've seen interviews with Billy Lee Riley. In some he sounds
bitter, and in others he sounds more philosophic.
Van Eaton: I think, in a way, probably he could've made it. "Flyin'
Rock'n'Roll," that was popping up in areas other than Memphis. With a little
bit of promotion it might have been a hit. You see, they had to hire Judd
[Phillips] to go on the road and promote Jerry Lee - and he went up to New
York and got Jerry Lee on them big shows. If they'd of done that for Riley,
probably would've made it.
KB: But Sun only had one promotion guy?
Van Eaton: Right. Now they have a team working, but back then, I think
just throwing stuff against the wall to see what would stick. He was cutting
everybody and his brother.
KB: And you played for everybody and his brother.
Van Eaton: (laughs) Yeah. And one of the reason for that is that, we
working arrangement with them. They would pay us so much to come in and
audition with a guy. You have to understand the value of a dollar back then.
It was like 15 bucks to go in and audition a guy, and if they liked his
and released it - then they would pay you scale which was $42.50. Now, that
doesn't sound like a whole lot of money, but my car note wasn't but 60 bucks
month - so put in that perspective, you could see that by doing two or three
sessions a week, and play on the weekends you could come out OK. It was a
pretty happy time, man.
KB: So you're not bitter that something like "Whole Lotta
Shakin'" became the
biggest seller in Sun history and all you got was scale?
Van Eaton: No, I'm not bitter. But I will tell you where I have a
"rub," if you will. Somebody, somewhere down the line made some money on
record. We never got any kind of a bonus - not that we deserved one, we were
not part of a group like the Rolling Stones, we were just session musicians.
We got our money and they can say "How many songs did you play on that we
money on?" What got me is - they never gave us a gold record, or anything
you could hang on your wall. Let me use Stan Kessler as an example. These
who helped him do "Wooly Bully," I think even guys who swept the studio
got a gold record. On the other hand, we got nothing, man. I played on
gold records for Sun Records, and I've never gotten anything like that. So ,
would've liked to have had gold records for the big hits I played on. So I
won't say I'm bitter, but I am disappointed in them that they would not do
that. Even Shelby Singleton, who bought them, somebody should say "You
deserve this." And then give one to Roland and all the guys who played on
KB: When Shelby Singleton began reissuing all the Sun sides on
LPs, were you sent copies of the records.
Van Eaton: No, I haven't received anything. But let me say this - since
resurgence of the Sun Studio - I've gotten more from those people than
anything there from before. The guys that are down there now, Mark Bell in
particular, treat you with respect. There's just a whole different attitude.
They do their best to try to help you.
KB: Were you surprised that all this stuff was released, like on
sets from Bear Family?
Van Eaton: I'm glad they did. Yeah, I was surprised in a way. I've
something on one of these the other day that I'd nearly forgotten about. It
was bluegrass session with Stonemans. They did "Bo Diddley" bluegrass style,
Jack Clement was just messing around and that was the wildest thing I've
heard. I didn't think I'd ever hear that again, and lo and behold - there it
was. And then there's "Claudette," the thing I did with Orbison, that was
a demo and they still had it - just me and Roy, and I'm trying to figure out
what to play on the thing. It's terrible - but at least I got a copy.
KB: I've heard that and I rather like it. Orbison was playing
guitar, and you guys kept shifting up the rhythm.
Van Eaton: We were trying to figure out what would fit. I was trying to
KB: Your story and Billy Riley's was tangled together for a
while. When he
decided to go to Philadelphia and join Dick Clark's label, you all left with
him. Was it a matter of loyalty?
Van Eaton: Well, yes, and the fact that I kept thinking Riley was going
make it. Man, we had a great stage show. Every place we played we went over
great! And the band was tight and could really jam. There was no reason for
that band not to make it. Plus, when we were splitting the money, there was
bigger piece of the pie to be had than if we were just side men.
KB: You've played with some guys who have, for lack of a better
"dynamic personalities" - Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Feathers, etc. How does
somebody like you, who has intelligence and his own sense of destiny, get
along with these people?
Van Eaton: Well... (laughs), I don't totally get involved. I'm not
hang out in an environment that's going to be detrimental to me. We've done
lot of crazy things, and I've been at some parties where people would get
intoxicated and jump off the roof into the swimming pool and like that - but
when it starts getting WAY out there, I'm gone. The Lord has been good to me
and given me the power of discernment , and there's just certain things
got to turn your back on.
KB: I always tell people that Jerry lee Lewis is my favorite
artist of all
time, but I wouldn't live his life on a bet.
Van Eaton: He's really a tormented guy, I think. He's a great
he doesn't get near the recognition he should for his vocals, I think he's
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.
KB: So you're a fan as well as a collaborator?
Van Eaton: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, I listen to his stuff all the
whether I played on it or not. I like a lot of that stuff. I thought the
guy who did his country stuff was excellent.
KB: Jerry Kennedy?
Van Eaton: Uh-huh. Man that guy deserves a gold medal, because he
some great stuff on Jerry Lee. I don't know if you heard that song in the
"Great Balls Of Fire" movie "Lucky Old Sun?" Man, that's great singing.
KB: I love that stuff too. I often wonder if Jerry Lee would've
made it if he
didn't have a sympathetic drummer like you. I've heard his early acetates,
he didn't seem to have a full sense of groove established.
Van Eaton: Well, I'm not patting myself on the back, but - probably not.
think there was a chemistry in place, it took both to make that happen. I
didn't think it at first, but I can remember the early radio play and people
were commenting as much about the drums as they did the piano playing. So,
maybe I did play a big part in that. That's one thing Charlie Feathers
told me "Jerry Lee woulda never had a hit if it wasn't for you!" (laughs) I
said "All right Charlie - keep on talkin' boy. I like what I'm hearing."
KB: Did you play on any hit records not at Sun? What are some
we should know about?
Van Eaton: I played on "Mountain Of Love" by Harold Dorman, which was
Records. I played on a bunch of stuff with Narvel Felts on the early Hi
there weren't any hits but the I thought the stuff turned out good. I did
stuff with Jack Clement at the little studio he and Stan Kessler had. Did
stuff in Nashville at Owen Bradley's place - we cut on Riley for Brunswick
called "Is That All To The Ball, Mr. Hall?"
KB: Did you like working in Nashville as opposed to Memphis?
Van Eaton: Ahhh...I feel at home in Memphis. Nashville was OK, just
By then we'd started cutting in the other studio [Phillip's new studio on
Madison Avenue] - and at first I didn't think there were any other studios.
But I went to Hi, Pepper, and Fernwood, and I played on some stuff with
Moore and the Jordanaires.
KB: Did you work with Scotty Moore in the studio?
Van Eaton: Oh yeah, he was the engineer when were cutting these Tony
things, and he worked at Phillips for a while. He did some Charlie Rich
KB: You had some records out on Rita's sister label Nita. Were
you singing on
Van Eaton: No they were all instrumentals. And I did some instrumentals
Roland's studio, Sonic. Actually, I did my first vocal at Sonic studio. It
an old Rufus Thomas song called "Jump Back." I think Bear Family put that
on a compilation thing that they had - but that was my only vocal experience
prior to this thing we've got now.
KB: Was "Jump Back" ever released?
Van Eaton: No, not until Roland released it to, I think it was Bear
But I wrote a bunch of instrumentals and cut several of those with Travis
Wammick on guitar. And right after, he got a contract with Atlantic and came
out with a record called "Scratchy." His follow-up was supposed to be my
record, but I ended up just letting him have the whole thing.
KB: So how do you write instrumentals if you don't read music?
Van Eaton: I just get this melody in my mind. The Lord has surrounded
great musicians all my life, so I'd just tell the other players how I wanted
the melody to go, and that wasn't it, we'd just keep changing it until that
KB: Were you able to work as much as you wanted to during the
Van Eaton: As a matter of fact, I got married and started having a
I thought "This just isn't working for me. I need to be more stable." And
Memphis was coming unglued at the time, at least the side of town that I was
on. The Sun people and all that. Stax was starting to come on the scene, but
they already had their studio band. I couldn't get into that. So, I just
of withdrew from music, though I played clubs on the weekend.
KB: What were you doing as a day job then?
Van Eaton: That's when I got into the vending machine business. Then,
went through a divorce, the Lord moved into my life, and things just didn't
seem the same, and so I quit playing. Then this friend of mine called me
he said "There's some guys trying to get this gospel group thing together,"
and then he asked if I'd be interested, and I said "I sure would."
KB: When was this?
Van Eaton: It was about 19, 20 years ago.
LEFT: The man and his drums (these are REALLY his drums, if you see pictures of a
blue drum kit, they are the Sun studio set -- the copper color drums are JM's,
the famous "calfskin" drums were lost to a fire years ago). CENTER:
Nice 1979 profile of JM while playing with the gospel oriented "The Seekers."
RIGHT: The man and his drums!
KB: Tell us about the Gospel group.
Van Eaton: It was group called The Seekers, and we started out just
and playing gospel songs for our own pleasure, because we loved it. It was
just a good fellowship time. They had a deal here in Memphis out at
on Saturday night they had a country show, but on Friday they were going to
start a gospel show. So, we put this little group together and we started
singing and lo and behold. man - people started liking it. (chuckles) We
started out for the fun of it, then people liked it and we started drawing
bigger crowds. So we became more serious about it, and that's when we
to go into the studio and cut an album, but we didn't have any original
material. By the time we started the album, until the time we finished, the
Lord had given me four songs, and I had never really written any songs other
KB: So the gospel numbers were your first songs with lyrics?
Van Eaton: First songs with lyrics, gospel music. And, two of 'em
to be really good, and got a lot of airplay and that kinda stuff. One was
called "Your Walk Talks Louder Than Your Talk'll Walk" - in other words,
not what you say but what you do. The other one was called "Smile, Smile,
Smile," which turned out to be more of a children's type thing but we had a
good version of that. Like I say, these were good friends of mine that I'd
play with in clubs, and we hadn't seen each other in a long time. But they
a conversion experience in their lives too, and it's kind of ironic that we
just bumped into each other again and started this up all over again, with a
whole new story to tell.
KB: Who were the people in the Seekers?
Van Eaton: Gary Climer, who also played horn with Riley on his 706
stuff, and his son was just a baby when we were cutting the gospel stuff,
now his son Brent is the horn player on my new CD. Gary's wife, Sheila
was one of the back-up singers. The piano player was a guy named Wendell
and he's still with me. That nucleus stayed together but we added other
singers and we had three albums out. Terry Graves and Judy Graves also
out with us, but then we replaced them with a guy named Danny Smith and
KB: What label were these albums on?
Van Eaton: Stan Kessler had a label at the time. So we had an outlet
gospel stuff, because you could sell those off the back of the bus. So we
didn't actually need distribution for that. On the last album, we had 12
on there, and I think I write 10 of the 12. That really gave me the bug to
write songs. With that group, it got to be so hectic, that we had to either
get into it full-time, or get out of the business. We were playing Friday
night, Saturday night, three times on Sunday, and we all had day jobs. So,
just went our different ways. I still play at the church I go to.
I'm still there every Sunday morning. I still enjoy music, y'know - and I
don't have a problem with a lot of secular music like that on my CD.
KB: You're an investment banker now. I'm not exactly sure what
Van Eaton: We do stocks and bonds. We sell tax-free municipal bonds,
municipalities that issue debt, that type of stuff.
KB: I take it you're pretty good at it since you've been there
15, 16 years?
Van Eaton: I've been here since 1983, I've managed to hang on. (laughs)
KB: How have you kept your hand in music during this time?
Van Eaton: After I got out of the gospel group, the Smithsonian started
getting these people up. It was Tennessee's year to be honored at
D.C. - and they were trying to get different groups to come to Washington to
play for this Smithsonian American Music Festival. They got bands from all
across the state of Tennessee. They got bluegrass bands from up in the hills
of East Tennessee, country music from Nashville, and they had blues. Then
got a group together out of Sun, and that's how the Sun Rhythm Section got
started. So they talked me into going back with those guys to do that.
Burgess was the lead singer, and Paul Burlison played guitar, Smoochy Smith
was on piano, Marcus Van Story, and Stan Kessler and myself were in it. It
was a lot of fun. We were playing outside in these festivals, I enjoyed
and we began to draw huge crowds. You wouldn't believe how popular that band
got! Guys like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen's band were coming to hear
play. So they started booking and we were playing in New York and what have
you, and I couldn't keep it up. Number one, they weren't making a lot of
money. And they did some stuff I didn't want to do, plus they were traveling
lot, which I didn't want to do. So I said "Look guys, I'm gonna have to
Y'all will have to find you another drummer, because I'm leaving too much
money on the table, and this is not what I really wanted to do anyway." So
they got DJ Fontana to come in and take my place, and for a long time they
stayed pretty active.
KB: Did you do any recording with the Sun Rhythm Section?
Van Eaton: I played on a couple of those things, In fact, that first
did was really a pretty good little ol' record. The thing where we're
about how it all started, that was the best one of the bunch. We only did
about 400 copies, because we didn't know if that group was going to keep
playing or not. So we sold all those at that Smithsonian place, and we sold
'em like hot cakes. That one turned out quite well, but the things we did
after that didn't turn out quite as good, to be honest with you. And then
group started going downhill a bit, because I think everybody had other
interests. So, I would play with them occasionally when D.J. couldn't come,
say if there was a festival here in Memphis and he didn't want to come and
it, well I'd play that with 'em. Then I got talking to Riley - me and Riley
and Roland thought we were going to get a deal going, to try and get Riley
back out of retirement. Then Roland backed out at the last minute, it wasn't
that he didn't want to but he couldn't get things together quite right, or
something. So I took Riley, and we went into Sun, and cut the 706 Reunion, I
thought that was pretty good.
KB: Tell us about working with Jerry Lee again in 1980. Was that
just as a
favor or were you seriously thinking of getting back in the business at the
Van Eaton: No, as a matter of fact, he got mad at me again, because he
me a job and I said I'd have to think about it. So when I told him I had to
think about it he said "Well, if you gotta think about it - forget it!" I
didn't really want to go out, but it was pretty enjoyable. His manager at
time, J.W. Whitten had got in touch with me to sign some release documents
use my name for the movie "Great Balls Of Fire," and during the conversation
asked "How's Jerry doing? Where y'all playing, blah-blah-blah." And he said
"As a matter of fact, he's got these three gigs this weekend and they're
looking for a drummer - how'd you like to go?" I said "Well man, I don't
think I'd want to do something like that - I haven't played with Jerry since
Lord knows when...I think I'd better pass. But give me your phone number
anyway, I might change my mind." So I got home and started talking to my
about it and she said "You oughta go, you'd enjoy that!" Stuff like that. So
thought "OK, I'll call. I'm sure they got somebody by now, and that'll get
off the hook." I called and they said "Naw man, we're still looking for
somebody - meet us at the airport." So my wife took me to the airport, and I
boarded Jerry's private Leer jet and I was thinking "Man, this is where I'm
going to lose my life. I'm going to die in an airplane crash with Jerry Lee
Lewis!" But it wasn't that way at all. I didn't have to hang with them, I
my own room, and the only time I saw them was onstage and on the airplane.
the music was GREAT! I don't have any problem playing with him - I could
with him right now and we'd have that same chemistry.
KB: How did you meet our mutual friend Tommie Wix and how did
you get into
the Wayne Keeling sessions?
Van Eaton: Well, Tommie has been a fan of Riley's and the Sun Records
dating all the way back to the Ray Smith era. I played on Ray Smith's Sun
records like "Rockin' Bandit." So she knew that, I'd see her about once
three or four years, She knew about the Seekers, I had given her a copy of
what we doing and so on. But she would speak to Riley more than she would
and Riley told me about her husband passing away and how she was trying to
her mind off that and was trying to cut Wayne some songs. I don't know, we
just kinda got back together and rekindled our friendship. We talk quite
now. I try to keep in touch with her, make sure she's OK.
KB: Did you like playing on Wayne Keeling's stuff and being back
Van Eaton: Oh yeah! But I'd been playing on a lot of other people's
before I played on his stuff. We did live radio shows, we did the Today Show
NBC came in and we did a thing for them one morning. So Wayne's recordings
weren't my pilgrimage back to the Sun studios, I'd been doing stuff for
KB: And you had recorded with Charlie Feathers on his only major
and with Riley for his Hightone disc.
Van Eaton: Yes, but we did that over at Sam Phillips' studio over on
KB: Which studio do you like better? The old Sun studio or Sam
Van Eaton: Well, I like 'em both - but going back to Sun is like going
home. If you've ever traveled and then come back to your old homeplace -
always neat to see that, and that's the way Sun is to me. Phillips' new
probably has more bells and whistles soundwise, and it's a much bigger room.
But they've got more going on a Sun than just a recording studio. They have
the record store, the cafe, all that kind of stuff. They bought the whole
building and they brought it back to life, and that's why I enjoy going down
there. I really haven't had a reason to go back over to Phillips other than
say hello to Roland, Knox, or Jerry Phillips or somebody. They never call me
to play on any of their stuff like they do at Sun. And the reason they don't
call me is because they're cutting a lot of stuff like rap - just to pay the
bills. We cut all the Seekers stuff at Phillips, and Stan Kessler was also
with that group and he did our soundboard in that group, and he was also the
one that did the engineering on our records.
KB: Tell us a bit about the revamped Sun studios, have they made
Van Eaton: I think they're doing all they can do - and I think it's a
place to record. They do a lot of great things in there. The sound is still
fantastic - I think there's a certain spirit about that place that you can't
get anywhere else. U2 recorded in that same room - and they did a thing for
Ireland, they brought some guys in and did a radio thing on tape that was
awesome. So that studio is capable of doing whatever! I thought the Billy
sessions were pretty good. Mark Bell and them - they're constantly
What they need in order to get recognition is for another hit to come out of
there. That's why, whether it's my stuff or somebody else's, I'd just like
see them get something they can make money out of that's theirs.
KB: Let's talk about your new album The Beat Goes On. I was
surprised at how
many good songs were on this.
Van Eaton: Well, I appreciate it. A guy came by here today to pick up
more discs, so it looks like the disc is selling slowly but surely. What
me feel real good is people come back and say "I was playing this for
somebody else and I need to get them their own copy." That's happened to me
lots of times. One of my customers in Georgia works in a credit union, I
called over there, and when they put me on hold I heard my record. That was
pretty neat. Plus, the BBC is playing it, this guy sent me a tape of it on
national radio show. So, believe it or not, I'm more pleased than I was when
it first came out, because of hearing being played in the mix with other
music. they "Making Sure The Beat Goes On" in between a Bill Haley and a
Turner record and it fit! It sounded great, and I knew I wouldn't have to go
crawling under a table or be embarrassed by it all. In fact, the music
was as good as theirs, in my opinion.
KB: The drums are very crisp here, there's a lot of fine horn
work, but I was
stunned to learn how good you were on the harmonica.
Van Eaton: That was a trip! When Roland and I had this club band for a
that's when I started singing, because you had these four hour gigs and man
somebody had to sing. And when you get these people out there drinking and
carrying on, they don't care if you're singing on key or what. So you can
away with a lot of that stuff. And I had played harmonica when I was a kid,
then I started playing some of this Jimmy Reed stuff in the band with
Jimmy Reed was a cool harmonica player.
KB: Are you getting any airplay around Memphis?
Van Eaton: There's a couple of local FM stations are playing it, and
turning out better than I thought.
KB: In the song "Memphis in '55," you mention listening to Red,
Hot, & Blue
with Dewey Phillips. Is that what got you into rock'n'roll?
Van Eaton: I think every kid who grew up in Memphis in the 50s was
by Dewey Phillips. Like the song says, Dewey Phillips didn't come on until
late at night, when we were supposed to be asleep, we were upstairs
to Red, Hot, & Blue, and what he's playing - that's what all the kids are
listening to. That's where we first heard Elvis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard,
and all of those guys were probably first played for white ears on that
We had country music or you had WDIA which played nothing but black music -
and Dewey Phillips played what the teenagers liked, Joe Turner, the Platters
and other stuff we thought was pretty cool.
KB: Tell us a little bit about Marcus Van Story's contribution.
the former Sun bassist, died several years ago.]
Van Eaton: A while back, I was also trying to produce some records
guy named Martin Anderson. And I still had the 24-track tapes with Martin
doing the vocals on "After It Rains" and "Rockin' To the End." I kept the
track off both of those, and removed all the instruments because we had to
change the key, but I wanted that funky slap-bass sound of Marcus'. So we
overdubbed an electric bass to play the correct notes, but I still had
playing bass with that slap on it. I saved that obviously back when Marcus
was still with us, so I thought it'd be neat for people to recognize that.
kept the same arrangement, but we had different guitar leads, but I had to
change the key - I couldn't sing it in the key it was originally recorded
KB: That's the only song on the disc I'd call a real rockabilly
Van Eaton: When I heard Martin we he wrote and sang it, I said "That's
best rockabilly record I've heard in years." He's got a much better version
KB: Where did you get the ideas for songs like "Sinkin' Spell'"
Van Eaton: Well, "O.D.R." - there was this young kid who worked with
was right out of college, he was talking about his girlfriend and I heard
say "Oh, she's O.D.R.!" I said "What do you mean O.D.R.?" "On down the
So I started playing with it - wrote a few verses for it, and didn't think
about it again for years. When the opportunity to do this album came up, I
wrote another verse. "Sinkin' Spell," that's been a Southern expression for
years, but actually it was on that trip with Jerry Lee when I was waiting
Kenny Lovelace when I heard that as a song idea. He was standing there,
almost asleep and he said "Man, I'm having a sinkin' spell." I thought
be a good idea for a song for John Anderson.
KB: It's also A Billy Lee Riley type song, back when he was
doing stuff in a
more funk type bag.
Van Eaton: I tried to get him to do this song, and he was in the midst
last session he did. I tried to get him to listen to that song and do it -
Riley didn't really grasp it like he can now. He just might record "Making
Sure The Beat Goes On," for a new label though.
KB: Tell us why you decided to record this album.
Van Eaton: I was sitting at the cafe [at Sun] , and I said "Look I've
songs that I need to get documented before I get so old I can't even
how they go." Maybe leave something behind for my kids and grandkids - you
never know when they might come up with a band and want to play some of
grampa's music. So we went next door and started putting this stuff down in
demo session - which is all this was meant to be. Normally what I do is,
it like you heard there, then I go out and get a real singer to come in and
'em right. But Mark Bell came in and said "Look, I think the songs are all
right, but I want you to do 'em, I'd like that better. I can sell that."
rest is history - as they say. So, I started gathering up everything I've
KB: Are there any future recordings in the works for you?
Van Eaton: Future demos maybe. (laughs) It all hinges on how this one
but since this has come out, I've written three songs that I really want to
get recorded, that I feel are as good or maybe even better. Couple of 'em
should make really good records. You know, I am pleasingly surprised with
this. And if it wasn't for James Lott, helping me and being patient with me,
this thing wouldn't have turned out near as well as it did - and I wouldn't
have let it come out. There's still some bad places, overall it's pretty
music I think, and I'm proud of it - I'll play it for anybody.
KB: I'll give you the final word. What would you like to say to
both old and new?
Van Eaton: I appreciate their loyalty, and for the people who've bought
I've played on, I hope we've provided them with something enjoyable through
the years. It does mean a lot that people appreciate what you do, and it
doesn't seem to die, because it's not just my generation, but younger
generations seem to like it and I appreciate that very much. I'd like to
continue to do that and God Bless 'em.
JM and Mojo Nixon, who played JM in the movie "Great Balls of Fire."
My heartfelt thanks goes to J.M. Van Eaton for making the time to do this
interview TWICE. The first taped interview mysteriously ended up blank, and
J.M. graciously consented to talk again, with enthusiasm and in detail.
our sincere gratitude goes out to Tommie Wix for setting this whole thing up
for us. Those wishing a copy of J.M. Van Eaton's disc The Beat Goes On
write to 706 Records, 706 Union Ave., Memphis, TN 38103. Tell 'em the
Rockabilly Hall of Fame sent ya! Or write directly to
J.M. Van Eaton, 6750 Poplar Ave. Suite 300, Memphis, TN 38138. For information on J.M.'s work
with Wayne Keeling on the Wix label, e-mail LESTERSD@aol.com.
©Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®