Jim Gordon, preeminent drummer for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and countless others diagnosed with schizophrenia, died after his mother was murdered in 1983.
According to the announcement, he died Monday of natural causes at a California medical facility in Vacaville, Calif., after a lengthy prison term and a protracted battle with mental illness. He was 77 years old.
Gordon was a member of Clapton’s group Derek and the Dominos, the credited co-writer of the 1970 hit classic “Layla,” and played on hundreds of songs as part of the stellar crew of musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. He was also a member of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and was one of the principal drummers on George Harrison’s landmark 1970 album All Things Must Pass. His work on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1972 song “Apache” is one of the most sampled drum breaks in hip-hop history.
Any casual 60’s and 70’s rock fan heard songs by the Beach Boys (including the album “Pet Sounds”), Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), and Carly Simon (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”). You’re So Vain”), Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Nilsson, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and even The Byrds—the end-1967 whipcrack record fills a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin'” Back” game. He was indisputably one of the greatest rock drummers of his time, but his prolonged, improperly handled mental illness killed his mother.
Born in 1945, he grew up in San Fernando Valley, California and began his professional career the day after graduating high school in 1963, playing with the Everly Brothers. He cut his teeth as a session musician on the hits of many of the aforementioned artists, occasionally touring with the likes of Delaney, Bonnie and Cocker, Derek and the Dominos.
However, he had a history of mental illness and his behavior became unstable in the late 1960s. While touring with Cocker in 1970, he assaulted singer Rita Coolidge, his girlfriend at the time. Quoting Bill Janowitz’s biography of Leon Russell, Coolidge says, “Jim said very quietly, so I could just hear, ‘Can I just talk to you for a minute?'” He meant he wanted to talk on his own. So we walked out of the room together… Then he hit me so hard that I lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway… It came out of nowhere.”
While being treated for mental illness, Gordon had previously shown few if any signs of unstable behavior to his fellow musicians. “He was a wonderful guy, really charismatic,” Coolidge continued. “[But] After it all happened, I started to recognize that look in his eye and knew he wasn’t playing with a full set.”
Nevertheless, touring and Gordon’s busy career continued, culminating with Derek and the Dominoes—Gordon is credited with the piano-driven second half of “Layla” (although two of his bandmates insist the composition was written by Coolidge). His career continued through the 1970s by working with Alice Cooper, Steely Dan, Dave Mason, Helen Reddy, Frank Zappa, Johnny Rivers, and many more.
In June of 1983, he stabbed his 72-year-old mother to death, claiming that the voices told him to do so. Then he was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia and in 1984 he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. He was up for parole several times, which was denied.
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