The Forgotten Drummer Story
Jim Gordon is a drummer. Jim Gordon is the co-author of “Layla”. Jim Gordon is schizophrenic. Jim Gordon is in prison.
Jim Gordon is a drummer. Jim Gordon is schizophrenic. Jim Gordon is in prison. Jim Gordon is the co-author of “Layla”.
When one thinks about drummers who shaped the sound of modern rock music, there are three that stand out, Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, and Jeff Porcaro.
All three did more than just keep time, they transcended the role of hired hand or sideman.
Blaine is most famously known as a member of the Wrecking Crew, studio wizards who helped Phil Spector create his “Wall of Sound”.
Jeff Porcaro was most notably the drummer for the band Toto, but he is considered to be “one of the most recorded drummers in history” until his untimely death in 1992.
Sandwiched between Blaine and Porcaro is Jim Gordon.
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 anymore.
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 late 1960’s. With all that was happening during that time, inventive was readily available but reliability wasn’t always a strength of the creative set in LA back then.
Lucky for Gordon, he was both inventive and reliable.
After touring with Delany & Bonnie, he went off on Joe Cocker’s appropriately named Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. When that tour ended he went right to work on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
Given that was peak drink and drugging time, just to have survived those three things would have been an accomplishment, let alone be an active creative participant.
While I am certain you have heard Jim Gordon’s work, perhaps his most famous gig was being a member of the backing band on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. The core of that band would then go on to form Derek and the Domino’s, led by guitar-slinging deity Eric 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.
When Clapton refused to market it as an “Eric Clapton” album their record company did what record companies did, and still do, best — they acted like petulant children by refusing to market the record. Funny thing though, music fans are smarter than most record company honchos.
Laya and Assorted Other Love Songs quickly became one of the most definitive albums of the early 1970’s.
Here’s where I’m certain 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). “Layla” is a rock & roll staple.
Besides the brilliant and instantly recognizable guitar intro and Clapton’s anguished pleas, it’s Gordon’s piano coda that haunts this song and bookends it with Clapton’s intro to make it one of the most sorrowful pieces of music in rock &roll.
Jim Gordon wasn’t just a drummer, he was a genius. Even after Derek and the Domino’s imploded, Eric Clapton still considered him “The best drummer in rock and roll” but only used him on his self-titled solo debut album.
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.
Jim 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 jump from genre to genre so adroitly and impact each song so perfectly was almost schizophrenic. There’s a reason for that.
Jim Gordon is schizophrenic.
The majority of 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 subsequently convicted and sentenced to 16 years to life and has been incarcerated in California since 1984.
However, Jim Gordon’s story is more than just his illness and his crime and his music. It’s a cautionary tale of drug abuse as well as an indictment of the medical establishment at the time, Los Angeles authorities, and the permissive nature permeating the entertainment industry.
The most definitive writing I have found on Gordon was from Barry Rehfeld in Rolling Stone from 1985, “When the Voices Took Over”.
To dismiss Jim Gordon off as “crazy” is simple-minded and negates both his illness and undermines his creative contributions.
Which begs the question, has enough time passed that we can re-examine Jim Gordon independent of his crime?
In no way I am suggesting ignore his crime.
In our society, mental illness is a form of societal leprosy. To acknowledge it in any fashion is to immediately become ostracized.
Something as complicated and messy as schizophrenia is exponentially worse than depression or bipolar disorder. There have been advances in comprehending and treating mental health issues. Unfortunately, as permissive as the entertainment industry is, it still ignores mental illness.
So it’s not surprising that many of Gordon’s friends and colleagues turned away from him after he was arrested and convicted.
Gordon is currently in prison and I’m not entirely sure he’ll be released from prison. He’s been denied parole 10 times to date and is eligible again in 2021.
Based on what I know (admittedly, little) I would not make an argument for parole.
The music that Jim Gordon created and contributed to building the foundation for an entire genre of music that would come to define a generation. Songs that continue to inspire people to this day.
While it may be the drummer's plight to remain in the background there are those that truly rise above and deserve a more critical examination than a drummer who can simply play to a click track and keep 4/4 time.
Jim Gordon is the kind of drummer that warrants critical examination.
His artistic contribution to so many artists on so many songs is simply too important to discount or have him be so easily dismissed as “crazy.”
What we know as fact is that he killed his mother and he is genuinely ill.
What we also know as fact is that he was peerless for the period of time he was a practicing musician.
We also know that his story is tragically complicated and made even more tragic by slowly letting his creative contributions be ignored.
Has enough time gone by that we can look at his work independently of his crime?
Led Zeppelin received a Kennedy Center Award. Am I the only one who read Hammer of the Gods?
Look, I’m not suggesting or petitioning for any sort of award or admittance into any “hall of fame”. I just think that maybe his musical skills and contributions are worthy of a more critical examination.
The pantheon of rock & roll is chock-full of people who did horrible things to other people. Just listen to the podcast Disgraceland.
There may be someone 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. If I am, it’s subconsciously. What the entire Gordon family has experienced is something no family should ever have to experience.
There may be someone reading this thinking I am a Jim Gordon apologist.
I’m not. I have no illusions about what he did. He bludgeoned his mother with a hammer and stabbed her. That is a fact. I also know addiction and drug abuse increases the odds of violence among schizophrenics. The disease wreaks havoc on not only an individual but also the family and ultimately, the society.
But isn’t Jim Gordon more than his crime? Isn’t he more than his illness?
Isn’t Pablo Picasso more than just a racist? Or pedophile?
You may find that analogy hyperbolic but just consider some of the artists he’s worked with:
Hall & Oates
Crosby, Stills and Nash
That should impress you. I’m still impressed and I’ve known about this for…well, for many years.
There is precedent for overlooking murder in the creative community. I won’t list names, but I assure you that it exists.
As more years go by his contributions to music continue to be marginalized and that just adds another tragic layer to an already epic tragic tale.