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. Suffice it to say though that you have heard and are intimately familiar with his work.
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, hands down, the recording industry’s most in-demand studio drummer. When his schedule became too full, Blaine started referring gigs to his protégé. At 6ft-plus, Gordon struck an imposing figure on stage and a powerful rhythm in the studio.
In just a few years, Gordon had, himself, become a most-wanted session guy.
Indeed, by the end of the decade, his playing anchored more than a few 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 backing band for Delaney and Bonnie. They shared the bill with Eric Clapton and, immediately following the tour, merged with the recently solo superstar to form Derek and the Dominos.
It was thus that Gordon made his most important contribution to rock and roll history. The multi-instrumentalist supplied the piano coda that transforms “Layla” from a heady, riff-driven rocker into an epic road saga (with no small amount of help from Duane Allman). According to the copyright, Clapton and Gordon share authorship. If you feel inclined to skip the first three minutes and jump right to the piano part, the best way is to watch the death montage that rounds out Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
In spite of the considerable royalties that Gordon has earned for his part in authoring 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. It would resurface when her sister Priscilla recorded a song called “Time” with husband Booker T. Jones in 1973.
Incidentally, stealing the piano coda was hardly the worst thing Jim Gordon would do in his life.
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 session takes, Gordon would reportedly stop playing without warning 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.
Given the nature of the rock scene at the time, it was easy to excuse even Gordon’s most bizarre behavior as drug-induced. Certainly, drugs were a factor.
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 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, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
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.
He also recorded the drum part on the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” which is easily one of the most sampled breaks of all time.
Also, if you can find a more ridiculous video, good for you:
Gordon’s career was humming along at an incredible velocity in the mid-’70s.
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.
Though Gordon clearly suffered from a diagnosed condition and delusional behavior, California state law prevented him from entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. He was ultimately sentenced to 16 years to life.
Today, Gordon is medicated and has a relative grasp on reality and his crimes, though he remains deeply afflicted by his condition. Gordon’s one career highlight of the last three decades came improbably when, in 1992, 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 trophies for both Clapton and Gordon. According to his own report, Gordon received congratulations from fellow inmates and was given permission by guards to hold the award statue but was not acknowledged during Clapton’s acceptance speech. Gordon expresses no bitterness toward his past bandmates or colleagues, none of whom have attempted to contact or visit the drummer since the start of his incarceration.
As recently as 2013, Gordon was deemed a threat to society and denied parole. Today, one of rock music’s greatest session drummers is inmate #C89262 at the California Medical Facility psychiatric prison.