Jim Gordon, top rock drummer with a troubled life, dies aged 77

Jim Gordon, a talented but troubled drummer who was ubiquitous in the recording studios of the 1960s and ’70s and, as a member of Eric Clapton’s band, helped Derek and the Dominos write the romantic ballad “Layla” – but who suffered and was struggling with schizophrenia nearly 40 years in prison, convicted of the murder of his mother – died Monday at a prison medical facility in Vacaville, California. He was 77 years old.

His death was announced by Robert Merlis, a publicist for Joel Selvin, author of a forthcoming biography of Mr. Gordon. Mr Selvin said he did not know the cause.

“When people say that Jim Gordon is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer that ever lived,” wrote Mr. Clapton in Clapton: The Autobiography (2007), “I believe that’s true, more than anyone else.”

Tall and muscular, with a head full of curly hair, Mr. Gordon first drew attention to himself on a 1963 tour of England with the Everly Brothers. Over the next 15 years he worked on studio recordings with high profile artists including John Lennon (“Imagine”), George Harrison (“All Things Must Pass”), the Beach Boys (“Pet Sounds”), Harry Nilsson (“Nilsson Schmilsson” ), Carly Simon (“No Secrets”) and Steely Dan (“Pretzel Logic”).

As part of the informal group of elite Los Angeles session musicians that became known as the Wrecking Crew, Mr. Gordon was able to book multiple sessions a day across the city.

He supported Joe Cocker on his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and performed with Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa, who nicknamed him Skippy for his quintessentially American demeanor and looks. And in 1971 he was a member of the British rock band Traffic for a few months.

“He had surgical, scientific skills on the drums,” Mr. Selvin said over the phone, “and he had an extraordinary gift of intuition. Every time he played on a record, he brought something special into it.”

After Mr. Gordon did a stint with the white soul band Delaney & Bonnie, with whom Mr. Clapton also recorded and toured, Mr. Gordon became a member of Derek and the Dominos, the band Mr. Clapton formed in 1970, along with the Singer and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock and bassist Carl Radle. The band released just one studio album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, in 1970, with Duane Allman on second guitar.

“Layla,” which was released as a single, peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart the next year.

Credit for writing “Layla” went to Mr. Clapton and Mr. Gordon, but the instrumental second movement called “Piano Exit” was composed by Mr. Gordon and singer Rita Coolidge, his girlfriend at the time. As she recalled in her autobiography Delta Lady (2016, with Michael Walker), Mr. Gordon created a melody to which she responded with a counter-melody that “answered and released the tension of Jim’s chords, building to a dramatic crescendo . ”

Mr. Gordon and Ms. Coolidge made a cassette demo of what they intended to be a separate song and gave it to Mr. Clapton. Ms. Coolidge didn’t know what became of it until she heard “Layla” on the radio and learned that she hadn’t received a loan. She was angry.

“What they clearly did,” she wrote, “was take the song that Jim and I wrote, ditched the lyrics and appended them to the end of Eric’s song.”

When Mr. Clapton released the album “Unplugged” in 1992, his acoustic version of “Layla” reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. When “Layla” received the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song the next year, Mr. Clapton and Mr. Gordon shared it won the award as a songwriter, but the role of Ms. Coolidge received no recognition.

James Beck Gordon was born on July 14, 1945 in Elizabeth, New Jersey and grew up in Sherman Oaks, California. His father John was an accountant. His mother, Osa Marie (Beck) Gordon, was a pediatric nurse.

As a boy, Jim built a drum kit out of garbage cans and played on it until his parents bought him a drum kit. As a teenager, he began performing professionally. In 1963 he was playing with Frankie Knight and the Jesters when Everly Brothers bassist Joey Paige spotted him at a club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, at just 17, Jim traveled to England with the Everly Brothers for a tour that also featured Little Richard and Bo Diddley.

At some point over the next 15 years, Mr. Gordon began hearing voices – his mother’s voices being the most ominous and haunting – and exhibiting erratic behavior. He interrupted a recording session by telling his fellow musicians, “You’re the devil”; he hit Ms. Coolidge in the eye with such force that she was lifted off the floor and thrown against a wall.

According to a 1994 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the sound of his mother’s insistent voice tormented him in his head, causing him pain and preventing him from playing drums. He was treated in hospitals. The work dried up, but he was able to get by on the royalties from “Layla.”

“The symptoms got so severe around 1975 and 1976,” said Mr. Selvin, a former pop music critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. “It was an extraordinary fight. Command hallucinations are the most extreme of all mental illnesses.”

Mr Gordon also used drugs. “I think I was an alcoholic,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. “Before, I drank every night, but I didn’t get up in the morning for a drink; I would stick a needle in my arm. When I stopped taking heroin, I started drinking all day.”

On the night of June 3, 1983, he attacked his mother at her North Hollywood home, first hitting her in the head with a hammer and then stabbing her with a knife.

“When I remember the crime, it’s like a dream,” he told The Inquirer. “I can remember what happened in that space and time and it seems kind of distant, like I went through it on a different level. It didn’t seem real.”

He told Rolling Stone he felt he was being “walked like a zombie.”

He was found guilty of second-degree murder. Although diagnosed as acutely paranoid schizophrenic, he was ineligible for an insanity defense under California law at the time. He was sentenced to 16 years of life imprisonment in 1984 and later paroled several times.

“This is not a murder case,” Scott Furstman, Mr. Gordon’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times after the verdict. “This case is a tragedy.”

Mr. Gordon is survived by his daughter Amy and brother John Jr. His marriages to Jill Barabe and Renee Armand ended in divorce.


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