There are few drummers who can boast a more impressive resume than Jim Gordon. If you don’t know his name, it’s probably because he’s spent the last 30 years in a psychiatric prison. Still, you’ve heard his work.
Drumming with the Wrecking Crew
Gordon’s professional career started with a gig backing the Everly Brothers in 1963. But it was his apprenticeship with the Wrecking Crew’s legendary sessioneer Hal Blaine that paved Gordon’s future path. Blaine was the recording industry’s most in-demand studio drummer. When his schedule became too full to handle incoming requests, Blaine began referring musicians to his protégé. At 6ft-plus, Gordon struck an imposing figure on stage and a powerful rhythm in the studio.
Gordon quickly joined Blaine as one of the premier session guys in the business.
Holding Down the Classics
By the end of the decade, Jim Gordon’s playing had graced numerous landmark records, including The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and The Byrds Notorious Byrd Brothers. Then, in 1970, he joined Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock as the touring band for Delaney and Bonnie. They shared a double bill with a recently solo Eric Clapton.
Forming Derek and the Dominos
Most who were there remember the tour as one filled with tension. Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were a singing duo and a married couple. But both partnerships ruptured on the road.
With the tour over and the band dissolved, the three backing musicians merged with Clapton to form Derek and the Dominos. They added Duane Allman for one record and achieved perfection.
It was also thus that Gordon made his most important contribution to rock and roll history.
Jim Gordon’s Coda?
“Layla” was the title track from the band’s debut album, and a monstrous hit, peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.
As per the copyright, Jim Gordon supplied the epic piano coda that closes out “Layla.” Therefore, Clapton and Gordon share authorship. If you feel inclined to skip the first three minutes of riffing and jump right to the piano part, I recommend watching the death montage from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Rita Coolidge’s Coda?
In spite of the considerable royalties that Gordon has earned for his part in the classic rock staple, first-hand reports suggest that he actually stole it from his then-girlfriend, the up-and-coming soft-rock singer Rita Coolidge. According to Dominos keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, Gordon was on hand as Coolidge composed the piece. She only learned that her portion of the composition was used in the final cut upon hearing the full version of the song on the radio.
A shocked Coolidge contacted Clapton’s manager, Robert Stigwood and said she simply wished to be properly credited for her contribution. Stigwood dismissed her with vague threats.
Rita Takes Her Time
But as Rita recalls in a 2016 interview, “I wrote the bridge and all of the melody. He (Gordon) was not much of a songwriter. … And he wasn’t a great piano player.”
Rita’s original composition–”Time”–would resurface when her sister Priscilla recorded it with husband Booker T. Jones in 1973.
Incidentally, stealing his girlfriend’s piano coda was hardly the worst thing Jim Gordon would do in his life.
Jim Gordon and the Devil
From as early as 1969, there was evidence that the otherwise affable and well-mannered Gordon was prone to episodic fits of psychotic delusion. During recording sessions, he was known to cease playing with no warning in the middle of a take to accuse one of his fellow musicians of being the devil and psychically disrupting his timing.
On one occasion, Coolidge remembered, Gordon turned to her suddenly and punched her without provocation.
At the time, many dismissed Gordon’s bizarre behavior as drug-induced. Certainly, that was a factor.
Gordon Grows His Resume
Still, following the break-up of Derek and the Dominos in 1971, Gordon went on to compile perhaps the single most impressive session and touring drummer CV of the classic rock era. He manned the skins on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Dave Mason’s Alone Together, Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe, Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic and Alice Cooper Goes to Hell.
He also recorded the drum part on the Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache, which is easily one of the most sampled hip hop breaks of all time.
He played with Little Richard, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, John Denver, Hall & Oates, Merle Haggard, George Harrison, John Lee Hooker, Dr. John, Carole King, Tom Waits, Leon Russell, Tom Petty, John Lennon, the Monkees, B.B. King and too many others to name.
Things Fall Apart
And then everything went to shit. By the late ‘70s, the drummer regularly complained of hearing voices in his head. In particular, his mother’s voice tormented him, shamed him, restricted him from eating and even prevented him from drumming. He was diagnosed as an acute schizophrenic and, over the course of just a few years from 1977 to 1983, was admitted for psychiatric hospitalization more than a dozen times.
Gordon’s worsening condition finally came to a head in 1983 when he bludgeoned his mother with a hammer and fatally stabbed her with a butcher’s knife.
Though Gordon clearly suffered from a diagnosed condition and delusional behavior, California state laws ultimately prevented him from entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. He was ultimately sentenced to 16 years to life.
Gordon is medicated and has a reasonable grasp on reality and his crimes, though he remains deeply afflicted by his condition. The one career highlight in the aftermath of his incarceration occurred in 1992, when Eric Clapton’s massively successful Unplugged record returned “Layla” to the charts.
Ironically, this version was performed without even a nod to the purloined piano coda. However, it did win a songwriting Grammy in 1993, earning both Clapton and Gordon trophies. According to his own report, Gordon received congratulations from fellow inmates and was given permission to hold the award statue but was not acknowledged during Clapton’s acceptance speech.
As recently as 2013, Gordon had been deemed a threat to society and denied parole. Until his death in March of 2023, at age 77, one of rock music’s greatest drummers served out his days as inmate #C89262 at the California Medical Facility psychiatric prison.
Re: Hal Blaine
Here are just a few of the ten billion songs on which Jim Gordon’s mentor played…