Jim Gordon’s Dire Demise 

The troubled drummer who jammed with everyone dead at 77

Jim Gordon (Image: Wikipedia)

The story of Jim Gordon is a classic tale of how triumph can quickly turn to tragedy without any warning whatsoever.

Once one of the most celebrated drummers of his generation — his work appeared on such classic albums as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, The Byrds’ Notorious Byrds Brothers, Traffic’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, as well as the hit songs “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy and “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams — he was most famously a member of the band Derek and the Dominos and credited as the composer of the piano coda to “Layla,” the title track of the band’s sole studio album. That claim was later disputed, but nevertheless, it still remains intact.

Gordon, who died March 13 at age 77, served as the backbeat for Delaney and Bonnie and Friends and Leon Russell’s traveling extravaganza Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He was also employed as a studio drummer in service to Steely Dan, the supergroup Souther Hillman Furay, Frank Zappa, Art Garfunkel, Bobby Darin, the Righteous Brothers, Johnny Rivers and Alice Cooper.

Indeed, his versatility and precision marked him as one of the most accomplished and creative rock drummers to ever sit behind the skins, and a musician who was destined to be recognized as a master of his craft until a psychotic episode superseded that reputation and brought a brilliant career to a tragic end. 


VIDEO: Frank Zappa, Jack Bruce, Jim Gordon “Apostrophe”

Sadly, Gordon was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia. He had begun to hear voices in his head which caused him to starve himself, prevented him from sleeping and even interfered with his ability to play the drums. The first indication of violent behavior came when he reportedly struck his then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge in a hotel while on tour, effectively ending their relationship. However his illness led to far more dire circumstances when, on June 3, 1981, he attacked his mother with a hammer and subsequently stabbed her to death. With a butcher knife. The voices had told him to do so. 

Naturally, the murder created shock waves throughout the music community and well beyond. A California court found him guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to sixteen years to life in prison. He was eligible for parole ten times, but failed to win release and spent his remaining years at a state psychiatric hospital.

Sadly, it came to light after his arrest that Gordon was suffering from acute mental illness, but due to a technicality in California law, he was unable to use that condition in his own defense.

One can only hope that now, Gordon will be remembered as a brilliant musician whose work contributed to some of the most landmark recordings of the past 50 years. So too, maybe his tragic demise will lead society to better understand the root causes of mental illness, remove the stigma of that disease and provide the treatment for those that need it. Should that occur, Gordon’s unfortunate legacy might somehow be redeemed. 


AUDIO: Derek & The Dominoes “Layla”


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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