For a long time, I’ve been sort of obsessed with the career of Jim Gordon. The studio system of the twentieth century created a very interesting scenario wherein certain session musicians seemed to appear on every hit song of their time. In LA, We’re talking Carol Kaye, James Burton, Hal Blaine. There were a few standout session musicians who were also successful solo musicians (the Leon Russells, Billy Prestons and and Glen Campbells) and there were a few who were members of successful bands (Plastic Ono Band and Manfred Mann member, Klaus Voormann, pretty much everyone in Bread). And then there was Jim Gordon: One of the most prolific drummers and multi-instrumentalists of his time, Derek And The Dominos member and composer whose life descended, savagely and (seemingly) abruptly, into a bloody nightmare of mental illness.
I’ve often wondered why Hollywood has never gone in on a Jim Gordon biopic, but when it’s time to write it, I hope they come see me (self plug: I crush 3 act structure). It’s one hell of a story. And I mean hell in every sense.
The Layla Curse
When Derek And The Dominos released Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs in 1971, it didn’t perform well. The album was a curveball for Eric Clapton fans. A lot of people didn’t even know he was “Derek”. It failed to chart in the UK. It tanked. And as a single, Layla didn’t fare much better. Released for radio in its original, sub-three minute form, without the piano coda, it peaked at #51.
But a year later, it was re-released at a full 7 minutes (because cocaine, probably) and it was a smash. The full version charted #7 in the UK and #10 in the US. Ten years later, it was released again (this time definitely because cocaine) and it hit #4. It is universally considered one of the best rock recordings ever and includes what is almost unquestionably the most notable coda in modern music.
There are a lot of factors that go into a song’s popularity and chart performance, but one has to think there’s something magical about that piano coda. Layla was a weird recording. Beyond the fact that it was the centerpiece of an album that Clapton wrote with the explicit goal of stealing his best friend’s wife (his best friend was George Harrison…Jim Gordon was George’s drummer too), it was written as an acoustic ballad. Note: in 1992 it was released again as an acoustic single and won a Grammy. During recording, the acoustic ballad became a 2 minute rocker when Duane Allman joined the sessions and wrote the signature riff. Then, legend has it, about a week after completion of the record, Clapton heard Jim Gordon playing a piano composition and convinced him to record it as an appendage to the original song. Jim agreed and recorded the piano part. They pitched it up almost to the key of the other movement, Clapton and Allman played dueling guitar parts, seagull sound, picture wrap, the rest is history.
But magic has two sides, and there is a persistent urban legend that holds that Layla is a cursed song. Maybe it‘s the song’s uncomfortable origins, or the heroic drug and alcohol intake of its creators. Maybe it’s hyper-focus on a bunch of coincidences, but the legend is a spooky one. After the release of Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, Derek And The Dominos disbanded. Duane Allman died in 1971, before getting to see the success of the single. Bassist Carl Radle died of liver failure in his thirties. Clapton himself, riding a flop album and the short end of a love triangle, embarked on a 3 year heroin binge. But the worst casualty of the curse, if there is such a thing, was Jim Gordon. We’ll come back to that.
Jim Gordon was sort of a prodigy. He grew up in the valley. He was classically trained and a skilled composer. And he was one hell of a drummer. He was playing bars and clubs and weddings in high school. He was awarded a music scholarship to UCLA, but decided to pass on it to become Hal Blaine’s protege and go REALLY pro. He started playing drums REALLY professionally at 17, backing the Everly Brothers in the studio and in live performances. Before long, he became a staple of LA session work and developed into one of the most sought-after studio and backing musicians in the game. Like a lot of great drummers, he could play just about anything. He was credited for contributing flute, sax, clarinet, piano, horns, organ and vocals on some of the most recognizable songs in modern history. But the drums. The drums were the thing.
All Things Must Pass
Jim was George Harrison’s drummer of choice for All Things Must Pass, contributing the backbeat to what might be the greatest post-Beatles-Beatles album. And he didn’t limit his talents to George. Jim also played for John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (and some solo Yoko efforts). Hell…he even played for Ringo. That’s a drummer’s drummer.
Jim played on a few Beach Boys albums, including Pet Sounds. He was credited with drums or percussion on a couple Pet Sounds tracks. In some notes, he’s listed as playing the “orange juice cups” on God Only Knows. The clopping percussion on God Only Knows was one of the things that made that record. Orange Juice cups, man. He also performed live with the Beach Boys when they played with the Royal Philharmonic.
John Lennon’s favorite collaborator and Lost Weekend drinking buddy, Harry Nilsson tapped Jim as his drummer of choice on several records including Nilsson Schmilsson. Those classic drum and percussion parts on Gotta Get Up, Coconut and Jump Into The Fire were all Jim Gordon.
The Last Waltz
Jim played with The Band. He didn’t play drums because…you know…Levon Helm, but you can see him in The Last Waltz playing woods and horns. I kid you not.
Looking for the Woodstock sound? Jim played on albums with Crosby Stills and Nash, Country Joe, Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds.
Need a blues drummer? Jim played with BB King, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy.
Country? Jim appears on albums by Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Glenn Campbell, Charlie Daniels, John Denver, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Tasteful folk percussion, you say? Jim appears on hits by Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, The Carpenters, Carole King and Donovan.
Need somebody to drum for the Monkees? Jim Gordon.
Need somebody to drum for the Muppets? Jim Gordon.
In the late 60’s and 70’s, Jim played with artists as stylistically diverse and disparate as Neil Diamond, Mel Tormé, Yoko Ono, Frank Zappa, Nancy Sinatra, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Mama Cass, Hall And Oates, Steely Dan, Leon Russell, Judy Collins and Cher. A complete catalog of Jim Gordon’s contributions to popular music would be hard to assemble, but just his explicitly credited studio work reads like an exhaustive history of late-60’s and 70’s hits.
Wichita Lineman? Jim Gordon.
You’re So Vain? With Kalus Voormann on bass? The big build and tasteful cymbals and wood block? Jim Gordon.
Power To The People? Again with Voormann? And the forever morphing Ringo-style fills? Jim Gordon. Note: there is a documentary on the unbelievable career of Klaus Voormann. I can’t find it in the US, but will report back when I do.
Jump Into The Fire? The long and awesome drum/percussion solo? That’s him. Also, Klaus Voormann again!
Grazing In The Grass? The drum break before the guitar solo? That’s him too. Can you dig it?
Sundown? Digging that nice pocket for the acoustic guitar? Yep.
Wasn’t Born To Follow? Driving with the jazz triplets then freaking out with the flange? Guess who?
The aforementioned clopity-clops on God Only Knows? Same guy.
Those perfect snare rolls on Dry Your Eyes? That’s Jim too.
As a matter of fact, here’s a playlist of all of those songs, plus Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Rich Girl, Marrakesh Express, The Carpenters version of There’s A Kind of Hush, It Makes No Difference, All Things Must Pass, Joan Baez’ cover of Simple Twist of Fate, Classical Gas, and The Rainbow Connection, for good measure.
The man had an amazing career. And now the tragic part.
The Tragic Part
In 1983, Jim Gordon attacked his mother in her home and beat her with a hammer before stabbing her to death with a butcher knife. When authorities arrived, Gordon revealed to them that he had been hearing voices in his head, most prominently that of his mother. At the time of her death, his mother had been very present in his life and treating him better than anyone on the planet, but he viewed her as a mystically malevolent being and accused her of urging him to do all manner of things, including murder her. Later he would vacillate between the knowledge that he had murdered his mother and the belief that his mother was still alive and wreaking evil on the world.
And the voices weren’t new. Jim Gordon was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. He had been hearing voices since his youth, had suffered with paranoia and had engaged in several violent (sometimes public) episodes, almost entirely involving the women in his life. He had been an abuser. He had treated ex-wives and girlfriends violently, often believing that they were somehow silently harming him, conspiring against him, putting curses on him, etc. And, like many paranoid schizophrenics, he had a deranged and obsessive focus on his mother. And people knew it.
Also Jim Gordon was an addict. Throughout his career, he consumed absolutely mythical quantities of alcohol, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, LSD and, one would assume, whatever else was on the table. And while doing so, he remained highly functional and professional…until he didn’t. He was self medicating for well over a decade, and doing a damn good job of it by most accounts. He never missed a gig, he never missed a cue, he never missed a beat and he never wrote a stinky part. Because of his singular talent and ability, Jim Gordon was able to keep working at the highest level of his industry despite several violent incidents. But eventually, the wheels fell off. Jim became unable to keep it together. He started working less, he turned down a personal invitation to tour with Bob Dylan, he isolated, and eventually, he sought help for his mental illness. But because of the times, or because of America’s cultural denial of mental health as reality, or because he drank a ton, doctors dismissed him and treated him (with sedatives) for alcoholism. Things only got worse. Eventually he was medicated, but he was never involuntarily detained. Jim Gordon spent his final years as a free man checking himself in and out of psychiatric hospitals, drinking heavily to keep his head quiet and preparing for the end of the world.
It was only at Jim Gordon’s murder trial that he was given a concrete diagnosis and an appropriate prognosis. That prognosis ended up being documentary rather than cautionary. By the time Jim gordon made it to court for the murder of his mother, he didn’t have a grasp on reality, he had attempted suicide multiple times and, frankly, his record spoke for itself. In 1984, Jim Gordon was sentenced to 16 to life.
I Bet You Think This Song Is About You
The 60’s and 70’s were wild times. And the music industry, back when it was relatively music-friendly and run by music people, was a goddamn bacchanal. But the fact that this sort of clear and present decline is allowed to play out in plain sight is a cultural failure. And this isn’t just a historical failure.
If Jim Gordon was working today, we would cancel him. Everyone would tweet their indignation, but no one would help him. And no one would provide continuing support for his surviving victims. Cancel, tweet, repeat. That’s how we do. In the arts, as in many industries, we tend to willfully ignore mental illness. Most of us honestly still don’t know a lot about mental health, and when mental illnesses, mood disorders and substance abuse combine, they can present a virtually indecipherable and inconsistent combination of symptoms. And despite the chaos and operational inconvenience, if the work is still good and the cash machine is still printing, acute schizophrenia can be ignored. And when it can’t? Cancel, tweet, repeat.
But I suppose that’s also just one person’s opinion. And opinions, they say, are like assholes.
Jim Gordon remains incarcerated in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He is 75 years old and is still considered a danger to himself and others. He has surviving family. I don’t know what he or they would think of this version of his story. I know he’s done and has to live with horrible things, but I don’t know if he’s aware of that. I don’t know what kind of man he is or what his personality is like. Nobody’s heard it from the horse’s mouth in a long time…and that too, is a shame. But maybe I’ll send him in a letter. And maybe I’ll hear back. And I’ll let you know.