Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneer Jimmy Van Eaton Dies at 86

( – Jimmy Van Eaton, a drummer who performed with music legends including Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley, has died at the age of 86. The Memphis native, who signed with major label Sun Records as a teenager, died at his home in Alabama, his sister confirmed. Terri Van Eaton Downing said her brother had been battling “health issues” for the past year.

James Mack Van Eaton had a long and varied musical career and started by playing trumpet in a school band in his home state. In a 2015 interview, Van Eaton said he moved on to drums because they “intrigued” him. He formed his own band, The Echoes, and recorded at a studio owned by Sam Phillips, who later introduced him to Riley and Lewis.

Van Eaton played drums on iconic hits, including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” with Jerry Lee Lewis and “Red Hot” with Billy Lee Riley. He later worked on the music for a film about Lewis’s life entitled “Great Balls of Fire.”

A member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Van Eaton withdrew from music for a period during the 1960s after he married and worked in the vending machine business for a time, but returned in the 1970s having been inspired by the rise of Elvis Presley. He took up a career in the municipal bond business in the 1980s before returning to the music scene in the 1990s and releasing a solo album, The Beat Goes On, which featured drum tracks and self-written songs.

Throughout his career, he performed with Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Charlie Feathers, Bill Justis, and Ray Smith. In 2000, Sam Phillips said, “The hardest man to play with in the world was Jerry Lee. I told every musician to stay out of this man’s way. The one exception was JM Van Eaton.”

Mr. Van Eaton is survived by his wife, Deborah, his daughter, two sons, and one stepson.

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