Jim Gordon: The drama of the drummer.
He's a drummer of exceptional talent. He's credited as the co-author of “Layla." He has schizophrenia... and he's in prison.
There are many, but three stand out when one thinks about drummers who shaped the sound of modern rock music: Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, and Jeff Porcaro.
All three did more than keep time; they transcended the hired hand or sideman role.
Blaine is most famously known as a member of the Wrecking Crew, studio wizards who helped Phil Spector create his “Wall of Sound.” He passed away in 2019.
Jeff Porcaro was a famed studio musician who rose to fame as the drummer for the band Toto. Porcaro is considered by many to be one of the most recorded drummers in history. He passed away in 1992.
Sandwiched between Hal Blaine and Jeff Porcaro is Jim Gordon. He is still alive… and incarcerated.
Gordon earned his chops as a session drummer in Los Angeles, playing the gigs that Hal Blaine couldn’t make… making him a tertiary member of the Wrecking Crew, although most won’t admit that today.
He was so good that immediately after graduating high school, he got a job touring Europe as The Everly Brothers’ drummer.
Back in LA from the tour, he began building a reputation as an inventive and reliable session drummer in the mid to late 1960s. With all that was happening during that time, innovative music was being created, but reliability wasn’t always a strength of the creative set in LA back then.
Lucky for Gordon, he was both.
While I am sure you have no idea who Jim Gordon is, there is no doubt that you have heard his work. His CV is a name check of every famous A-list classic rock artist you could think of.
After landing a gig touring with Delany & Bonnie, he went off on Joe Cocker’s appropriately named Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. When that tour ended, he went to work on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
Given that it was peak drink and drugging time in rock & roll, just to have survived those three events would have been an accomplishment, let alone being an active, creative participant.
That said, after serving as 1/4 of Harrison’s backing band on that seminal album (Eric Clapton, Carl Radle, and Bobby Whitlock rounded out the band), the four men would go on to form - along with Duane Allman - Derek and the Domino’s, led by the guitar-slinging deity Clapton.
We now know Derek and the Domino’s album Laya and Assorted Other Love Songs as a classic staple of rock music. But that wasn’t the case when it was released.
Considering it a band album, Clapton refused to market it as an “Eric Clapton” album; the record company responded in kind - acting like petulant children and refusing to market the record. But that’s the funny thing about good music and talent - it often transcends insolence.
Laya and Assorted Other Love Songs quickly became one of the most definitive albums of the early 1970s.
Here’s where I’m sure you’ve heard Gordon’s work — the band’s signature song, “Layla,” was written by Clapton and Gordon.
Clapton wrote the music and lyrics and Gordon the piano coda (although to be fair, there is an argument that he did pinch it from his then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge). In any event, the angsty love anthem “Layla” is a rock & roll staple.
Besides the brilliant and instantly recognizable guitar intro and Clapton’s anguished pleas, Gordon’s piano outro haunts this song. That combination helped make “Layla” one of the most sorrowful pieces of music in rock & roll.
Even after Derek and the Domino’s imploded, Eric Clapton still considered Jim Gordon “The best drummer in rock & roll” and used him on every one of his solo albums through Slowhand.
The list of albums Jim Gordon contributed to is as long as it is varied. He effortlessly floated from genre to genre, from Mel Torme’ to Merle Haggard to Linda Rondstadt to commercial jingles to Muzak and everywhere in between.
Gordon set a platinum standard for what it meant to be not just a session drummer but a drummer as a musician. Gordon’s ability to play so many styles adroitly and impact each song perfectly was almost schizophrenic.
There’s a reason for that.
Jim Gordon has schizophrenia.
Despite pop culture’s portrayal of mental health illnesses like schizophrenia, most people with schizophrenia are not violent.
Unfortunately, Jim Gordon is not one of those.
On June 3, 1983, Jim Gordon’s illness overcame him, and he killed his mother.
He was convicted and sentenced to 16 years to life and has been incarcerated since 1984. Now 77, he is currently at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California.
However, Jim Gordon’s story is more than just his illness, crime, and music. It’s a cautionary tale of drug abuse and an indictment of the medical establishment at the time, Los Angeles authorities, and the permissive nature still permeating the entertainment industry.
Although many articles have popped up since I first started writing about Gordon in 2012, the most definitive writing I have found was Barry Rehfeld’s 1985 article in Rolling Stone, “When the Voices Took Over.”
In our society, mental illness is a form of societal leprosy. To acknowledge it in any fashion is to be ostracized.
So, it’s not surprising that many of Gordon’s friends and colleagues turned away from him after he was arrested and convicted. Matricide is a certain kind of murder, and our broad misunderstanding of schizophrenia means it scares most people.
I’m not sure Jim Gordon will ever be released from jail. He’s been denied parole numerous times. And I am not going to advocate for it. As it stands today, I don’t want him freed.
While in prison, he is being treated for his illness. Unfortunately, he has repeatedly said he would stop taking medicine if released.
To dismiss Jim Gordon as “crazy” is simple-minded, reductive, negates his illness, and ultimately undermines his creative contributions.
This begs the question, has enough time passed that we can re-examine Jim Gordon independent of his crime?
The music that Gordon created and contributed to helped build the foundation for an entire genre of music. It may be the drummer’s plight to remain in the background, but some genuinely rise above and deserve a more critical examination. Jim Gordon is the kind of drummer that warrants that kind of examination.
His artistic contribution to so many artists on so many songs is too essential to discount or have him be so easily dismissed as “crazy.”
What we know as a fact is that he killed his mother.
We also know that he is genuinely and clinically ill.
What we know as a fact is that he was peerless for the period he was a practicing musician.
We also know that his story is tragically complicated and made even more tragic by slowly erasing his creative contributions.
Over the past ten years, we have been forced to address whether or not an artist should be examined independent of their private, and sometimes criminal, behavior.
Someone may be reading this thinking I am overlooking or discounting the surviving Gordon family members or ignoring the memory of his mother, Osa Marie Gordon. I’m not. What the entire Gordon family has experienced is something no family should ever have to experience.
It’s hard to listen to “Layla,” George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” or Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” and not think: “This guy on the drums killed his mother.”
There may be someone reading this thinking I am a Jim Gordon apologist.
I have no illusions about what Jim Gordon did. He bludgeoned his mother with a hammer and stabbed her. That is a fact.
It’s also a fact that during Gordon’s prime, drug and alcohol abuse was rampant, and we know addiction and drug abuse increases the odds of violence among people with schizophrenia. The disease wreaks havoc on not only an individual but also the family and, left untreated, ultimately, society.
But isn’t Jim Gordon more than his crime? Isn’t he more than his illness?
Led Zeppelin received a Kennedy Center Award. Am I the only one who read Hammer of the Gods? Even if 10% of those stories are accurate…
Isn’t Michael Jackson?
You may find those analogies hyperbolic or inflammatory. And I suppose they are. But that doesn’t mean the stories around the artists aren’t true.
At a time when studio musicians were more than just hired guns; they were considered collaborators; consider some of the artists Jim Gordon has collaborated with:
Hall & Oates
Crosby, Still and Nash
That should impress you. I still find it impressive. Even today, I periodically stumble on an artist or song he contributed to and am amazed.
As more years go by, Jim Gordon’s contributions to music continue to be marginalized, adding another tragic layer to an already epic tragic tale.