Jim Gordon: From A-List Drummer to Convicted Killer

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

Jim Gordon has played drums on hundreds of hit records, with artists ranging from the Beach Boys to Tom Petty, George Harrison to Hall & Oates to Linda Ronstadt. But you wouldn’t find any gold records hanging in his longtime place of residence: For more than three decades, Gordon was locked up, for the crime of fatally stabbing his own mother. His story is one of the great tragedies of the rock world.

It happened on June 3, 1983. Gordon attacked his mother, Osa Marie Gordon, first with a hammer before grabbing the butcher knife. He later claimed that voices in his head told him to kill her. Sentenced to 16 years to life in prison, he has repeatedly been 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. For years, he spent his days and nights in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif.

Listen to Jim Gordon play drums on Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire”

It didn’t start out that way for Jim Gordon, of course. Born on July 14, 1945, and raised in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Gordon was awarded a music scholarship at age 17 and began his professional drumming career backing the Everly Brothers. His credits quickly mounted: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, John Lennon’s Imagine, CSN’s debut and recordings by Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, B.B. King, Carly Simon, Alice Cooper, Traffic, the Monkees, Barbra Streisand, Jackson Browne, Merle Haggard, on and on and on.

You can hear him on Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” (that drum solo!), Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” and Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.” He was, by any measure, a first-call drummer. Check out his Wikipedia page for a more thorough list—it’s fairly amazing.

His greatest fame came via his involvement with Eric 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 created the song’s familiar piano coda. (The group’s members also appear on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, also from 1970.)

That same busy year of 1970, Gordon toured with Joe Cocker’s heralded Mad Dogs & Englishmen troupe and played on Dave Mason’s Alone Together album and much more. But it didn’t take long for things to unravel for him once that decade kicked in; when he wasn’t in the studio or onstage, Gordon’s demons got the better of him. While on tour with Cocker, Gordon allegedly beat his then-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge, in a hotel.

Watch Gordon and a cast of thousands on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour

Although Gordon continued to find work as the ’70s rolled on, with Johnny Rivers, Frank Zappa, Chris Hillman (Gordon was a charter member of the Souther-Hillman-Furay supergroup) and others, his erratic behavior was becoming well known among music business regulars. Misdiagnosed by his doctors, who treated him for alcoholism and missed the schizophrenia altogether, Gordon became increasingly violent as his mental illness took hold of him. By the middle of the decade, it had begun to affect his playing and he lost work.

Related: Our feature on Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominos

Prior to his murder of his mother, Gordon reportedly heard her voice in his head, and on that horrible 1983 day he finally let the voices take him to that very dark place. His lawyers tried an insanity defense but the court wouldn’t allow it. He was convicted of murder and sentenced in July 1984. As recently as 2018, still diagnosed with schizophrenia, Gordon was denied parole again. He died of natural causes on March 13, 2023, at age 77.

Whatever happened to the man, his contribution to rock music will forever be cherished.

Watch Gordon perform with Derek and the Dominos

Veteran music journalist and author Joel Selvin, published a 2024 biography, Drums & Demons: The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon, available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

Related: Our interview with Selvin on the book

Jeff Tamarkin

39 Comments so far

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  1. Rico41
    #1 Rico41 27 February, 2019, 00:15

    In my opinion, he’s the best drummer of all time. Probably still among the most recorded of all time. Anyone who can play with Traffic, Gordon Lightfoot, CSN, the Beach Boys and any other group you can name deserves the top spot.

    Reply this comment
    • Lorraine Costanzo
      Lorraine Costanzo 3 September, 2019, 21:03

      I agree with you….however horrific that day was and still haunts him and his family what’s left,..I prefer to see Jim Gordon for the meticulous, ridiculously perfect drummer he was ….independent of his crime….I listen to the Layla album to this day, in my opinion, the best backing band Eric Clapton ever had….and I believe I read in an interview somewhere he said so himself…fuck mental illness !

      Reply this comment
      • KosmoKlyde
        KosmoKlyde 11 July, 2020, 14:24

        Why is he in prison when he should be in a hospital? Clearly he’s mentally ill, not exactly a criminal. He should be treated for his illness. But hell, he’s in his 70’s now.

        Reply this comment
    • Steve
      Steve 5 March, 2020, 16:24

      What a tragedy. I always listen to his drumming on whatever song he’s on. Fantastic drummer.

      Reply this comment
    • Dicky
      Dicky 14 July, 2021, 10:21

      Oh please! Get hold of yourself. As a musical artform, perfect timing, and above all, originality. RINGO STARR!!!!! Not the most schooled, perhaps not the most technically proficient. Simply the GREATEST.

      Reply this comment
  2. Drummerman
    #2 Drummerman 27 February, 2019, 00:28

    One of the greatest drummers to grace this planet. As a drummer also, Jim is a huge inspiration and influence on my playing. Absolutely love the man.

    Reply this comment
  3. Susie
    #3 Susie 27 February, 2019, 01:25

    Sadly, all these years later, there has been virtually no advancement in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
    One can only imagine how far such talent might have risen, had it not come to such a tragic end.

    Reply this comment
    • John
      John 28 February, 2019, 19:16

      Psychologically fragile people can be identified and helped to manage their lives with good therapies and support…reduced stress, good structure, good diet…clearly he overworked himself and the drugs and wild lifestyle didn’t help. Like Syd Barrett and Vincent Van Gogh, he was like a star exploding.
      Yes, sadly today the prescriptions of psychiatry are as bad as they ever were.

      Reply this comment
    • Etowah
      Etowah 4 June, 2019, 22:14

      Perhaps a bit of LSD therapy might bring him back. It’s likely what left him out there in the ether. You know, there are some stains you can only get out by using a bit of what made the stain. It would be worth a try.

      Reply this comment
  4. Suze
    #4 Suze 27 February, 2019, 22:19

    Schizophrenia and many other major disorders with psychosis can and have been successfully treated for decades. I wonder if Mr. Gordon has access to medication and if he chooses to take it.

    Reply this comment
    • John
      John 28 February, 2019, 19:19

      Psychiatry uses awful drugs that may suppress the symptoms, but suppresses the spirit. That’s why people don’t like to take that crap.

      Reply this comment
      • Donna
        Donna 1 March, 2019, 04:50

        Had he been correctly diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia instead of alcoholism, his mother might not have been beaten to death by her son. Suppressing someone’s spirit that thinks they hear voices telling them to bludgeon someone to death doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me!

        Reply this comment
        • Get Help
          Get Help 15 July, 2020, 00:38

          You need psychiatric therapy if you don’t think voices in your head telling you to kill someone is not a bad thing. Wow…

          Reply this comment
          • Tom
            Tom 18 July, 2020, 07:41

            That’s not what donna meant. She was replying to the post that said mentally ill people don’t like to take medicines because they suppress the spirit. This is what she meant wasn’t a very bad thing!

        • DAVE
          DAVE 4 June, 2021, 01:32

          Sadly I have to agree with you about how things may have turned out had he been properly diagnosed in the 1970’s by a qualified psychiatrist and not treated for alcoholism by his physicians.

          I’m not sure if his schizophrenia developed as a result of drinking too much alcohol or taking copious amounts of drugs or if he was born that way – I’m not a doctor, so I can’t make a formal diagnosis.

          Reply this comment
    • mack
      mack 15 July, 2019, 17:48

      I’ve read that he has access and refuses to take it.

      Reply this comment
    • phil allen
      phil allen 22 June, 2020, 14:33

      I’m pretty sure the authorities don’t really care ..

      Reply this comment
  5. BKennyB
    #5 BKennyB 28 February, 2019, 07:26

    I recently read about Gordon (and murdering his mom) in the Rita Coolidge autobiography, Delta Lady. I was quite surprised.

    Reply this comment
  6. Mike
    #6 Mike 5 March, 2019, 12:34

    While working on Layla, Gordon was using the empty studio at night to make his own album. One night he was working on a beautiful piano piece when Clapton entered the studio. Clapton agreed to let Gordon continue his work, but only if he could use Gordon’s piano piece on Layla. It’s on the recorded version of Layla around the three minute mark.

    Reply this comment
    • golem
      golem 14 April, 2019, 20:24

      According to Rita Coolidge, she wrote that part of Layla. Clapton never gave her publishing credit for it.

      Reply this comment
    • MP
      MP 4 June, 2019, 01:12

      he stole the piano piece and took credit for it

      Reply this comment
      • Etowah
        Etowah 4 June, 2019, 22:17

        He may not have realized it, sort of like The Eagles “stealing” Hotel California” from Jethro Tull. Anderson said he didn’t care… but it’s obvious. I doubt he realized it.

        Reply this comment
    • Mick
      Mick 16 March, 2023, 03:50

      Hello ,I understand JG gave EC the guitar riff for Layla and it came from an Everlys song .do you know which song

      Reply this comment
  7. Stiggs
    #7 Stiggs 15 July, 2019, 02:13

    It is hard to understand after decades in prison his mental illness has not been addressed.

    Reply this comment
  8. Audreymina
    #8 Audreymina 3 March, 2020, 00:17

    On the Jim gordon article, it was Hal Blaine who played the drums on ‘these boots’

    Reply this comment
    • Cousin Mark
      Cousin Mark 18 July, 2020, 07:30

      I agree that Hal Blaine played drums on “These Boots”, and probably other records on Gordon’s list in this article. That’s not to say that Gordon was not a fantastic drummer. But if Hal Blaine was the real “First Call” drummer, then Jim Gordon was surely next on the list.

      Reply this comment
    • Brian
      Brian 15 November, 2021, 08:46

      It was Jim Gordons Ludwig Club Date drum set, but Hal Blaine played on the track. Gordon may have played percussion?

      Reply this comment
    • Jon
      Jon 5 May, 2022, 22:51

      According to contract info..Hal Blaine wasnt even there..Donald Frost was the drummer on these boots are made for walking..look it up

      Reply this comment
  9. Teddy
    #9 Teddy 16 July, 2020, 01:54

    He also beat his ex-wife, the singer-songwriter Renee Armand and scolded guitarist Dean Parks over his hand movements during a Johnny Rivers session.

    Reply this comment
  10. Rick
    #10 Rick 18 January, 2021, 18:09

    How truly sad. Hopefully he’ll be released one day. Though he’ll never be the same

    Reply this comment
  11. Tomas
    #11 Tomas 12 April, 2021, 18:09

    Jim Gordon did not play on John Lennon’s IMAGINE album. That was predominantly Alan White with jim Keltner on a few track.

    Reply this comment
  12. Ram58
    #12 Ram58 20 June, 2021, 21:10

    Woman beater and a murderer! Doesn’t matter he could play drums. He is a killer

    Reply this comment
  13. Baybluesman
    #13 Baybluesman 14 July, 2022, 23:39

    Very interesting article, as always.

    I was fairly aware of Jim Gordon’s many 1970s recording credits, but never knew his credits were so diverse, going back to the earlier days of rock/rock and roll, as well as pop music.

    Brilliant drummer – such a shame that mental illness (and perhaps substances that headed him to that state) took away his mind, and hence, any sense of human judgement, resulting in his fatal actions.

    Forget the single/AM radio version of “Layla” –
    To me at least, Layla without Jim Gordon’s extended and enchanting exit piano coda (yes, he played piano on this song) and Sky Dog’s masterful slide work throughout and ending lilting bird notes on the coda, Layla isn’t the same at all.

    Reply this comment
  14. Bill Napanee
    #14 Bill Napanee 21 October, 2022, 10:48

    I interviewed Jim Gordon in 1977 for a half hour when he was drumming on the tour for Burton Cummings’ first album. He was very pleasant and forthcoming.

    Reply this comment
  15. Mike Horsley
    #15 Mike Horsley 4 June, 2024, 15:39

    Drums & Demons….Great Read!!

    Reply this comment

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