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 won’t find any gold records hanging in his place of residence: For more than three decades, Gordon has been 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 remains, according to prison authorities, a threat. He currently spends 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”

Jim Gordon

It didn’t start out that way for Jim Gordon, of course. Born in July 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.

Listen to Gordon on Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”

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.

Gordon is co-credited as the author of “Layla”

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.)

Listen to George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” with Gordon on drums.

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.

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 of this writing he is 73, his future prospects looking dim. As recently as 2018, still diagnosed with schizophrenia, Gordon was denied parole again. He will have another chance in 2021.

Whatever might happen to the man, though, his contribution to rock music will forever be cherished.

Watch Gordon perform with Derek and the Dominos

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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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
  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
  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!

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  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.

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