Jim Gordon, famous drummer imprisoned for the murder of his mother, dies at 77

Jim Gordon, a drummer who played with dozens of rock stars and shared songwriting credits with Eric Clapton on the hit ‘Layla,’ but faced worsening mental health crises and spent all four decades in custody for killing his mother, died March 13 at a prison medical facility in Vacaville, California. He was 77 years old.

The death was announced in a statement from his publicist, Bob Merlis. No cause was given.

Mr. Gordon’s collaborations included tracks from George Harrison’s first post-Beatles album, “All Things Must Pass” (1970); the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds” (1966) and Steely Dan’s 1974 song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”.

Demand was once so high for Mr. Gordon’s versatility – from bluesy backbeats to whiplash – that he commanded three times the studio rate for drummers. He spanned genres as diverse as Glen Campbell’s country-influenced odes (“Wichita Lineman,” 1968), Gordon Lightfoot’s folk ballads (“Sundown,” 1974) and Frank Zappa’s rock-jazz fusion. Zappa gave Mr. Gordon the nickname “Skippy” as a playful jab at his sunny suburban upbringing in California.

Sitting on his drums, Mr. Gordon dazzled musicians and aficionados in the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew, a group of largely anonymous session musicians who backed the biggest stars. With his athletic 6-foot-3 frame – and his waving mop of curly hair – he could beat the punch of drumheads and cymbals for rockers such as Joe Crocker and Tom Petty. Or he could establish cutting rhythms that defined a song.

His work on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 song Apache (a remake of a 1960 hit by the Shadows) was discovered by hip-hop artists and became one of the most sampled drum breaks ever. the story. The 2012 documentary “Sample This” called the Bongo Band’s version “the national anthem of hip-hop”.

Mr Gordon, who also played keyboards, was credited with the second piano coda to “Layla”, which appears on the 1970 album, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”, by Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominoes. (Rita Coolidge, a singer and songwriter, claims she helped write the song, but was denied credit.)

Even as Mr. Gordon’s fame grew, his increasingly erratic behavior made other musicians suspicious. While touring with Cocker in 1970, he was accused by Coolidge of assaulting her. “It came out of nowhere,” she reportedly said in Bill Janovitz’s 2023 biography of musician Leon Russell.

Mr Gordon sought outpatient treatment for schizophrenia-like episodes, saying he had heard voices telling him when to eat, what to wear and when to work. Sometimes he also disappeared under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

The offers and the concerts are linked. In 1979, Mr. Gordon was with Paul Anka’s band in Las Vegas. After a few bars of the opening song, Mr. Gordon left the stage.

Just before midnight on June 3, 1983, Mr Gordon arrived at the North Hollywood home of his 71-year-old mother, Osa Marie Gordon. He hit her four times in the head with a hammer, according to police records. She somehow survived that. He then repeatedly thrust a butcher knife into his chest, police said.

At his trial in 1984, psychiatrists said Mr Gordon believed his mother was controlling him by a voice in his head. He felt that the vocals sometimes prevented him from playing the drums, according to the testimony.

“This is not a murder case,” said his attorney, Scott Furstman. “This case is a tragedy.

Mr Gordon was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison. A California law, new at the time, blocked the use of insanity as a defense. But the judge, James Albracht, noted Mr Gordon’s apparent ‘profound mental illness’.

Mr Gordon was sent to inmate medical facilities for treatment for schizophrenia. Over the decades, parole was denied.

“When I remember the crime, it’s kind of like a dream,” he told the Washington Post in 1994. “I remember experiencing what happened in that space and in that time, and it seems a bit detached, like I was crossing it on another plane. It didn’t seem real.

James Beck Gordon was born in Los Angeles on July 14, 1945, and grew up in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley as post-war suburbia swelled. Her father was an accountant and her mother was a teacher.

He started playing drums as a child, making his first kit out of trash cans. As a teenager, he was part of a local band that made $10 a gig while playing percussion in the Burbank Symphony. He was offered a music scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles. Instead, he joined the Everly Brothers for a UK tour shortly after graduating from high school in 1963.

His difficult habits stood out. He carefully unpacked and folded his clothes in hotels, even at an one-night concert. His money was carefully saved and compiled – even expenses for toothpaste – influenced by his father’s meticulous bookkeeping. “He partied like a rock star, but managed his money like a CPA,” Martin Booe wrote in a profile in The Post.

In the mid-1960s, LA’s top studio drummer, Hal Blaine, spread word that a rising new talent was in town. Mr. Gordon soon had his choice of artists. He worked with Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain” (1972) and John Lennon on “Power to the People,” a track from the 1971 “Plastic Ono Band” album. The list kept growing. : Harry Nilsson, Nancy Sinatra, the Byrds.

Later, behind bars, Mr. Gordon dutifully managed his ongoing royalties from “Layla” and other work that generated recurring payouts such as the “Apple Jam” session with Harrison.

Mr. Gordon’s marriages to Jill Gordon, a dancer, and Renée Armand, a singer, ended up divorcing. Survivors include a daughter, Amy, from his first marriage.

In 1993, Mr Gordon watched on television as Clapton accepted the Grammy’s Best Rock Song for an acoustic version of “Layla” on his album “Unplugged” (1992). Mr. Gordon was noted as a songwriter on the Grammy program, but Clapton did not mention him in his acceptance speech.

Mr Gordon did not appear to hold a grudge in an interview with The Post a year later.

“I would always love to play with Eric,” he said.

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