Jim Gordon, a session drummer in the 1960s and 70s who contributed to hits by the Beach Boys, Steely Dan and dozens more, has died aged 77.
He died in a psychiatric prison in Vacaville, California. Gordon had been incarcerated since 1983, after he killed his mother during a psychotic episode. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and sentenced to 16 years to life, but never attended parole hearings and never left prison.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gordon was a prodigiously talented drummer who turned down a music scholarship to UCLA to pursue music full-time in his teens – an early gig was touring the UK with the Everly Brothers aged 17.
He was championed by fellow drummer Hal Blaine and joined his loose collective of session musicians, the Wrecking Crew. He played with Bobby Darin, Judy Collins, the Righteous Brothers and more, and by the mid 1960s had appeared on the Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds, the Byrds’ far-out fifth album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and the instrumental US No 2 hit Classical Gas by Mason Williams.
He formed a new group, Derek and the Dominos, with Eric Clapton in 1970, its members initially doing session work for George Harrison’s solo classic All Things Must Pass. The group scored a major hit with Layla, co-written by Clapton and Gordon, the latter playing the long ruminative piano coda as well as drums. His girlfriend, musician Rita Coolidge, claimed she had written the piano part; their relationship had ended when he physically assaulted her in a hotel corridor.
Gordon recorded another 1970s classic, the Incredible Bongo Band’s instrumental Apache, which has since become one of the most sampled tracks of all time. He drummed on Steely Dan’s much-loved third album Pretzel Logic; Harry Nilsson’s album Nilsson Schmilsson; Maria Muldaur’s 1974 hit Midnight at the Oasis; and albums or tours with Traffic, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Art Garfunkel and more.
His career faltered as his mental health deteriorated. He reported hearing voices in his head, which he said “started out friendly, they were giving me little pointers” but later, “I had to make sacrifices, and I had to do what they said”. He often heard his mother’s voice, claiming it tormented him and told him to eat less. He was violent towards a series of girlfriends, and developed problems with heroin and alcohol as he used them to blot out his mental condition, but despite frequent medical interventions he didn’t maintain steady treatment.
In June 1983, he attacked his mother, 71-year-old Osa Marie Gordon, with a hammer and knife, fatally wounding her. “I had no interest in killing her,” he said in 1985. “I wanted to stay away from her. I had no choice. It was so matter-of-fact, like I was being guided like a zombie. She wanted me to kill her.”
He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and the diagnosis was acknowledged by the court, but changes to California law had placed a high threshold on insanity defences, and Gordon was found guilty of second-degree murder.
After his imprisonment, Gordon resisted contact with lawyers and often resisted taking medication for his mental health condition. At a 2018 parole hearing, which he did not attend, he was still deemed to pose “an unreasonable risk of threat to public safety”.
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