Jim Gordon, a top drummer for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and countless others who was diagnosed with schizophrenia after murdering his mother in 1983, has died.
According to the announcement, he died Monday from natural causes at California Medical Facility in Vacavillle, Calif., after a long incarceration and lifelong battle with mental illness. He was 77.
Gordon was a member of Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos and is the credited co-writer of the classic 1970 hit “Layla,” and played on literally hundreds of songs as part of the elite group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. He was also a member of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” band and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and was one of the main drummers on George Harrison’s epochal 1970 album “All Things Must Pass.” His work on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1972 song “Apache” is one of the most sampled drum breaks in hip-hop history.
Any casual fan of 1960s and ’70s rock has heard his playing on songs by the Beach Boys (including the “Pet Sounds” album), Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”), John Lennon (“Power to the People”), Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Nilsson, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and even the Byrds — that whipcrack drum fill at the end of their 1967 cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back” was played by him. He was indisputably one of the greatest rock drummers of his era, but his long, inadequately treated mental illness resulted in the murder of his mother.
Born in 1945, Gordon was raised in California’s San Fernando Valley and began playing drums as a child. He played with rock bands and the Burbank Symphony as a teen and was offered a music scholarship to UCLA, but instead joined the Everly Brothers for a British tour immediately after he graduated from high school in 1963. He cut his teeth as a session musician on hits by many of the above artists and became one of the most in-demand drummers in the business, occasionally touring with the likes of Delaney and Bonnie, Cocker and Derek and the Dominos.
However, he had a history of mental illness and in 1970 assaulted singer Rita Coolidge, his girlfriend at the time, while both were on tour with Cocker. Quoted in Bill Janovitz’s Leon Russell biography, Coolidge says, “Jim said very quietly, so only I could hear, ‘Can I talk to you for just a minute?’ He meant he wanted to talk alone. So we walked out of the room together … And then he hit me so hard that I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway… It came from nowhere.”
Gordon quietly had received outpatient treatment for his condition and previously exhibited few if any signs of it to his fellow musicians. “He was an amazing guy, just really so charismatic,” Coolidge continued. “[But] after everything happened, I started to recognize that look in his eye and knew that he was not playing with a full deck.”
However, the tour and Gordon’s busy career continued after the assault, peaking with Derek and the Dominos — Gordon is credited with the piano-driven, instrumental second half of “Layla,” although Coolidge says it is actually a song she co-wrote with him that was later released as “Time,” a claim corroborated by two of their bandmates. (She says she was brusquely dismissed by Clapton’s manager at the time, Robert Stigwood, when she asked for credit.)
Over the next few years he worked with Steely Dan, Dave Mason, Alice Cooper, Helen Reddy, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Johnny Rivers, Joan Baez, Tom Petty and many others. But his behavior became increasingly paranoid and erratic as the ’70s progressed, complicated by drug and alcohol abuse. He assaulted singer Renee Armand, to whom he was briefly married, as well as a girlfriend. Work began to dry up as word of his condition spread, and he checked himself into hospitals multiple times.
On June 3, 1983, after weeks of threatening behavior, Gordon bludgeoned and then stabbed his 72-year-old mother to death, claiming that voices had told him to do so. He was then officially diagnosed with schizophrenia and in 1984 was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. The following year, he was interviewed for an extensive report in Rolling Stone, in which he described the voices he’d heard in his head for most of his life, and said that he’d “had no interest in killing” his mother but was “being guided like a zombie.” He was up for parole multiple times in the following years, which was denied.
He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Amy.