Hey, it’s your 77th birthday Jim Gordon, so in rememberence of all the great music you’ve given us, I suppose it’s appropriate enough to say “happy birthday”.
It’s a safe bet to suggest Gordon is an unknown name to a good percentage of readers, but a safer bet to suggest you know a number of the great records he’s played on…until 1983. Jim could just kill it with the drums, and with…well, we won’t go there. Suffice to say for a long time he was probably the second most in-demand session drummer in the U.S., behind only his friend and mentor Hal Blaine.
Jim was born and raised in the L.A. area, and learned drums and piano at a young age. He was actually offered a scholarship to UCLA for music, but declined so he could drop out of school and concentrate on being a professional musician. Which might have been an iffy idea, but in his case, worked out very well. Soon after that happened, he signed on to be the drummer for the Everly Brothers on a tour of theirs. He learned more from Hal Blaine in the studio and became a member of the unofficial, but prestigious “Wrecking Crew.” He got a few choice gigs in the ’60s, including working with Blaine drumming on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds.
His big break however, was likely touring with Delaney And Bonnie in 1969. With them he met Eric Clapton, who of course knew everybody in rock, it seemed, and was putting together a new band – Derek & The Dominos. He invited Jim to be their drummer, and Gordon did indeed play on their famous Layla, and Other Assorted Love Songs album…and is credited with co-writing, with Clapton, the timeless hit from the album, “Layla.” While “Slowhand” came up with the lyrics and striking guitar bits that open the song, Gordon’s said to have created the counter-melody that runs through the song and comes to the forefront with the piano work (played by Jim) towards the end of the song. He certainly played it on the piano, but there is dispute over who really wrote it. Though officially credited to Gordon, many people swear they’d heard his then-girlfriend Rita Coolidge play that on piano long before Derek & the Dominos came around. Perhaps she gave him that hit. As we find out later, he also could give her a hefty “hit.”
The work with Clapton and Derek & the Dominos led to all kinds of calls for him to work with other artists. One review suggests it’s easier to list stars he didn’t play with in the ’70s than those he did. They may not be far off, especially when it comes to records made in California. He was, at the time, reliable and had a distinctive style. As Daily K-os puts it, “what distinguished Jim’s sound was not so much the notes he played but the spaces between those notes. There is always this distinct silence between one stroke and the next.” He got called in for Bread’s debut album, and Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” , and Seals & Crofts for their classic “Summer Breeze”.
Add in Nilsson (playing the drums and other odd percussion instruments on the quirky “Coconut” among other songs), Albert Hammond’s hit “It Never Rains in Southern California”, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot…not to mention George Harrison’s fantastic All Things Must Pass. And another ex-Beatle, John Lennon on his “Power to the People.” Oh, and he played on a Yoko Ono record for good measure too. From Tom Waits to Tom Petty he was the “go-to” guy when L.A. Studios needed a drummer for top acts on short notice.
So, it might seem he was a great guy with a huge future. Sadly though, such wasn’t the case. His relationship with the lovely Miss Coolidge early in the ’70s? It ended very quickly one night in a hotel hallway. Rita thought he was preparing himself to propose. Instead he hammered her with a punch that “hit me so hard I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway”. She was knocked unconscious. But no one said or did much about it, other than tour staff (they were touring together at the time) who worked as makeshift bodyguards to physically keep him apart from her.
Turns out he was schizophrenic. By 1978 (but probably earlier) he said he was hearing voices in his head which urged him to do things like avoid sleep, not eat, and quit playing drums. He listened. In 1983, they told him to kill his 72 year-old mother, so he obliged them, bludgeoning her with a hammer and stabbing her to death. He was found guilty of murder. The court refused his insanity plea, because while they agreed he probably was mentally ill, evidence suggests he was aware of what he was doing. He got sentenced to 16 year to life, and has been refused parole ten times so far because doctors deem him to be still schizophrenic and a danger to society. He remains in a prison hospital in California to this day.