Jim Gordon, famous drummer jailed for mother’s murder, dies aged 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 deeper mental health crises and spent the past four decades in custody for killing his mother, died on March 13. March at prison medical facility in Vacaville, California. He was 77.

The death was announced in a statement by his publicist, Bob Merlis. No reason was given.

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

The demand was once so high for Mr. Gordon’s versatility – from bluesy backbeats to whipcrack licks – that he had three times the studio speed of drummers. He spanned genres as diverse as Glen Campbell’s country-influenced odes (“Wichita Lineman,” 1968), Gordon Lightfoot’s folksy ballads (“Sundown,” 1974) and Frank Zappa’s rock-jazz fusion. Zappa gave Mr. Gordon the nickname “Skippy” as a playful nod to his sunny California suburban upbringing.

Seated at his drum set, Mr. Gordon musicians and aficionados as part of the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew, a group of largely anonymous studio players who accompanied top stars. With his athletic 6-foot-3 frame — and his mop of curly hair waving — he could pack the skins-and-cymbals punch for rockers like Joe Crocker and Tom Petty. Or he could lay sharp 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 in history. The 2012 documentary “Sample This” called the Bongo Band’s version “hip-hop’s national anthem.”

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

Even as Mr. Gordon’s reputation grew, his increasingly erratic behavior made other musicians wary. While on tour with Cocker in 1970, he was accused by Coolidge of assaulting her. “It came out of nowhere,” she was quoted as saying in Bill Janovitz’s 2023 biography of musician Leon Russell.

Mr. Gordon sought outpatient treatment for schizophrenic-type episodes — and said he heard voices instructing him when to eat, what to wear and when to work. At times he also disappeared on drugs and alcohol.

The offers and concerts lasted. In 1979, Mr. Gordon with Paul Anka’s band in Las Vegas. After a few bars of the opening song, Mr. Gordon off 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, the police said. She somehow survived that. He then repeatedly threw a butcher knife into her chest, the police said.

At his trial in 1984, psychiatrists testified that Mr. Gordon believed his mother was controlling him through a voice in his head. He felt the voices sometimes made it impossible for him to play the drums, according to the testimony.

“This is not a murder case,” said his defense 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 of 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 going through what happened in that space and time, and it seems kind of detached, like if I reviewed it. on another plane. It didn’t seem right.”

James Beck Gordon was born in Los Angeles on July 14, 1945, and raised in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley as postwar suburbs grew. His father was an accountant and his mother was a teacher.

He started drumming as a child and made his first set of trash cans. As a teenager, he was in a local band that earned $10 an hour. concert while also playing percussion in the Burbank Symphony. He was offered a music scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. Instead, he joined the Everly Brothers on a UK tour shortly after graduating from high school in 1963.

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

In the mid-1960s, the top studio drummer in Los Angeles, Hal Blaine, spread the 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 on the 1971 album “Plastic Ono Band”. The list continued to grow: Harry Nilsson, Nancy Sinatra, the Byrds.

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

Mr. Gordon’s marriages to Jill Gordon, a dancer, and singer Reneé Armand ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Amy, from his first marriage.

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

Mr. Gordon didn’t seem to hold any grudges during an interview with The Post a year later.

“I still want to play with Eric,” he said.

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