Mar 13, 2023: Jim Gordon, World-Class Drummer—And Convicted Killer—Dies

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Derek and the Dominos (l-r): Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle

Jim Gordon, one of rock’s all-time greatest drummers, died March 13, 2023, from natural causes at California Medical Facility in Vacavillle, Calif., after a long incarceration and lifelong battle with mental illness. His death, at age 77, was announced by veteran music industry publicist Bob Merlis.

As one of the elite Hollywood studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew and member of landmark rock bands such as Derek and the Dominos, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Gordon was known as one of the most gifted drummers in rock history. But on June 3, 1983, Gordon attacked his mother, Osa Marie Gordon, first with a hammer then a butcher knife, killing her. He later claimed that voices in his head told him to kill her. Sentenced to 16 years to life in prison, he was repeatedly denied parole; at one hearing he reportedly refused to admit that his mother was even dead. Diagnosed with schizophrenia after his conviction, he remained, according to prison authorities, a threat.

Gordon brought uncommon percussive brilliance to some of the best-known records of his lifetime with the Beach Boys, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and countless others. As a session musician, he played on hits by Gordon Lightfoot (“Sundown”), Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”), Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman”) and Harry Nilsson (“Jump Into the Fire”), among the thousands of recording sessions he packed into his illustrious 15-year career. He played an important part in the music of artists across the spectrum of pop music — from Merle Haggard to Frank Zappa, Joan Baez to Tom Petty.

The San Fernando Valley native began his professional career the day after he graduated high school in 1963 with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame charter members the Everly Brothers. He cut his teeth as a session musician on hit records by Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra and Glen Campbell, among many others.

His greatest fame came via his involvement with Clapton, who hired Gordon as a member of Derek and the Dominos, the supergroup put together by the guitar great in 1970, basically purloining the musicians who’d been working with soul-rockers Delaney and Bonnie. Gordon can be heard on the Dominos’ mega-popular album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and performed with the band in concert during its brief time together. He is credited as the co-author (with Clapton) of the classic title track “Layla” and was initially credited for creating the song’s familiar piano coda, although in recent years Rita Coolidge has claimed that she wrote it.

In 2020, music journalist and author Harvey Kubernik spoke with the Dominos’ Bobby Whitlock. “The rhythm section of Carl [Radle] and Jim propelled the songs we put together,” he said. “Jim Gordon is the most musical drummer I ever heard. All of the drums were in tune literally tuned to a key on the piano. Big kit. But Jim had this wonderful ability to interpret the nuances you could feel but not hear.” (The group’s members also appear on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, also from 1970.)

Related: Our feature story on Jim Gordon–From A-List Drummer to Convicted Killer

He left behind one of the most extraordinary bodies of recorded work by any drummer of his generation. Other artists on whose recordings he appears include Crosby, Stills and Nash, Donovan, Judy Collins, Johnny Rivers, Barbra Streisand, Tom Waits, John Lee Hooker, John Lennon, Traffic, Randy Newman, Hall and Oates, and many others.

Bass guitarist Leland Sklar wrote, “So sorry to hear of the passing of Jim Gordon. One of the saddest stories of the music business. Had known Jim since 1967 and did many albums with him over the years and was always blown away by his creative and solid playing. Then tragedy ensued and it was all over. RIP.”

Musician Marcella Detroit (aka Marcy Levy) wrote, “And now drummer Jim Gordon who was in Derek and the dominoes w EC and my mentor the late Carl Radle. Jim was a great drummer but sadly he suffered from mental illness and he spent most of his life in prison after killing his mother. A tragedy for all. I hope he’s at peace. Carl Dean pls say hi for me 💜💜💜💜🙏🏻.”

Gordon was the subject of a 2024 biography from veteran music journalist Joel Selvin. Drums & Demons: The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon is available to order in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

Related: Musicians we lost in 2023

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3 Comments so far

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  1. 122intheshade
    #1 122intheshade 15 March, 2023, 22:37

    Jim was one of many rock & roll casualties; his denouement just took longer than most.

    What a body of work he left behind! My favorite is “What Is Life”, where he just pushes that song like an afterburner. Especially the remix where they made the drums more prominent.

    Hopefully, he’s finally found some inner peace.

    Reply this comment
    • Bob D
      Bob D 16 March, 2023, 09:02

      Jim Gordon was hardly a ” rock & roll casualty ” . The man had psychological issues . Saying that is like saying John Lennon ” died ” . Jim Morrison was a rock and roll casualty – Janis Joplin was a rock and roll casualty – John Ritchie defined rock and roll casualty . There was a time Jim Gordon was so in demand as a session drummer that he had 3 drum sets leap frogging around L.A. recording studios . His day didnt allow enough time to break the drums down and set them up session to session . Hopefully this mans soul is at peace now . There is no inner anymore . Thats the point of the transition ! Safe journey Jim .

      Reply this comment
  2. Ann
    #2 Ann 12 May, 2023, 00:03

    Jim didn’t steal anything from Rita. She admits in her book that Jim came over to her house and played her the chord progression that he had composed. Jim was a brilliant drummer. It’s too bad that he didn’t get the help he needed. RIP Jim.

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