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Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and Billy Lee Riley all began their careers at Sun Records – and one man kept rhythm for all of them. We meet rockabilly’s greatest drummer, JM “Jimmy” Van Eaton

People don’t always realise that Great Balls Of Fireis a duet.The rock’n’roll classic features no lead guitar or bass. The only musicians on the disc are Jerry Lee Lewis on vocals and piano, and Jimmy Van Eaton on drums.

“I’m not sure how that happened,” Van Eaton admits, more than 60 years after laying down the track. “We actually cut the song with the full band for the movie Jamboree, but with a lot of that stuff you didn‘t know which take they were gonna release. They would sit down later and listen to ’em and pick different cuts.”

There’s no doubt, however, that the Killer’s pumping piano and Van Eaton’s drums are the perfect match.

“I always said it was meant to be,” Van Eaton says. “My drumming and his piano playing – his left hand – just fit like hand in glove. We kinda knew where we were going with it. I knew when to stop and when not to stop. It worked out pretty good.”

JM ‘Jimmy’ Van Eaton was born and raised in Memphis and began his musical career in junior high school.

“You had to take either a vocal or instrumental class for at least a year,” he recalls. “I got in the junior high school band and played trumpet for a year. That didn’t work out so well, so in the eighth grade they switched me over to drums and I just fell in love with them.”

By the ninth grade, Van Eaton and some school friends had formed a Dixieland band called The Jivin’ Five.

“This was before Elvis. We were listening to big bands like Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. Then Elvis came along and I wanted to be a rock’n’roll drummer, so I kinda forgot about Dixieland and started concentrating on rock’n’roll.”

HIS NEXT BAND, while he was still in high school, was The Echoes. It was “an Elvis type of band” and he decided to follow in Presley’s footsteps with a trip to the Memphis Recording Service at the Sun studio on Union Avenue.

“I wanted to hear what we sounded like and you could go in, like Elvis did, and cut an acetate dub,” Van Eaton explains. “I think they charged me $15 to cut two sides.”

“I saw this set of drums and instead of buying a car, I spent that $500 or $600 on the drums”

The engineer was Jack Clement who had recently produced Trouble Boundby Sun’s latest signing, Billy Lee Riley.

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