J.M. Van Eaton

Born: December 23, 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee

Back before corporations owned thousands of radio stations across the country and record companies ran focus groups to determine which megahit should flood the airwaves next, the music industry existed on a much more regional basis. In the 1950s, many of the biggest hits of rhythm and blues and early rock were created on small independent labels, each with its own sound and unique roster of artists.

The city of Memphis was one such regional center, and many of its earliest successes were forged in the recording studio operated by engineer/producer Sam Phillips. Phillips’s label Sun Records was ground zero for a style called “rockabilly” that launched the careers of some of the biggest artists to emerge in the ’50s, among them Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Drummer J.M Van Eaton was still a teenager when he began recording at Sun in 1956. He was part of a core of young musicians who were stretching the possibilities of what was “acceptable” in the once staid environment of country music. By laying on heavy backbeats, distorted guitars, honking saxophones, and pumping pianos, these young players gave rockabilly its distinctive sound, and helped define the character of rock.

During Sun’s brief but hot run as a hit-making machine, Van Eaton played on more than two thirds of all the recordings made on the label, including Jerry Lee Lewis’s biggest hits: “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Breathless.” His hard-driving style can also be found on various gems by Cash and Orbison, as well as rockabilly cult classics from Billy Lee Riley (“Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll”) and Bill Justis (“Raunchy”).