on this day


Jim Gordon, a top session drummer for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and countless others died on Monday, March 13, 2023 from natural causes at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, after a long incarceration and lifelong battle with mental illness. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia after murdering his mother in 1983. Publicist Bob Merlis announced Gordon’s death.
Gordon’s marriages to dancer Jill Gordon,and singer Reneé Armand ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Amy, from his first marriage.
Born on July 14, 1945 in Los Angeles, California, James Beck Gordon was raised in California’s San Fernando Valley. His father was an accountant, and his mother was a teacher. As a child, he made his first set of drums out of garbage cans, so his parents bought him a real set soon after. In high school, he worked whatever gigs he could muster: weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties. His first band, Frankie Knight and the Jesters, played the Hollywood club circuit. He began to attract attention. He passed up a music scholarship to UCLA to begin his career backing the Everly Brothers in 1963 at age 17. He also played with the Burbank Symphony as a teen and was offered a music scholarship to UCLA, but instead joined the Everly Brothers for a British tour immediately after he graduated from high school in 1963. He soon became one of the most utilized session drummers in the late 1960s and 1970s, playing on literally hundreds of songs as part of the elite group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.
“When I didn’t have the time,” seasoned session percussionist Hal Blaine told Rolling Stone in 1985, “I recommended Jim. He was one hell of a drummer. I thought he was one of the real comers.”
Gordon’s drumming features on recordings by John Lennon (Imagine), The Beach Boys, (Pet Sounds), The Byrds (The Notorious Byrd Brothers), Tom Waits (The Heart of Saturday Night), George Harrison (All Things Must Pass), Carly Simon (You’re So Vain), Hall & Oates (Rich Girl), Traffic (The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys), Mason Williams (Classical Gas), Steely Dan (Pretzel Logic), Harry Nilsson (Nilsson Schmillson), Gordon Lightfoot (Sundown), Maria Muldaur (Midnight at the Oasis) and Glen Campbell (Wichita Lineman, Gentle on My Mind).
He also worked with Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Diamond, The Monkees, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Alice Cooper, Dave Mason, Barbra Streisand, Merle Haggard, Helen Reddy, Johnny Rivers, Bobby Darin, Art Garfunkel, Judy Collins, The Righteous Brothers, The Carpenters, Nancy Sinatra, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mel Torme and many others.
He was a member of Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos and is the credited co-writer of the classic 1970 hit “Layla,” and was also a member of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” band, The Souther Hillman Furay Band, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and Frank Zappa’s Grand Wazoo band (Zappa gave Gordon the nickname “Skippy” as a playful jab at his sunny suburban upbringing in California).
Gordon’s work on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1972 song “Apache” is one of the most sampled drum breaks in hip-hop history, making him an unlikely figure in the rise of hip-hop after DJ Kool Herc started inspiring Bronx dancers with Gordon’s drum break. “Everybody started searching for the perfect beat, trying to beat that record,” Herc recalled. “They still can’t beat that record until this day.” The 2012 documentary “Sample This” called the Bongo Band’s version “the national anthem of hip-hop.”
Sadly, Gordon developed schizophrenia and began to hear voices, 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”.
The voices included his mother, which forced him to starve himself and prevented him from sleeping, relaxing or playing drums. On June 3, 1983 Gordon murdered his mother Osa Marie Gordon by pounding her head in with a hammer and stabbing her three times with a butcher’s knife. A diagnosed schizophrenic, it was not until his trial in 1984 that he was properly diagnosed.
Although at the trial the court accepted that Gordon had acute schizophrenia, he was not allowed to use an insanity defense because of changes to California law due to the Insanity Defense Reform Act. He was sentenced to sixteen years-to-life in prison in 1984 at the California Medical Facility, a specialist medical and psychiatric prison in Vacaville, California where he would die.
As Gordon remembers it, the voices were not a part of a childhood that, on the surface anyway, seemed normal. In memory, his youth in Sherman Oaks, California, a pleasant suburb in the San Fernando Valley, was a bright patchwork of Rose Parades, Renaissance Fairs and Saturday night football games. His mother was a nurse, his father an accountant who instilled in Gordon a disciplined financial sense. Old date books show that Gordon meticulously recorded every expenditure while he was on the road, down to 15 cents for toothpaste.
Just when the voices began to torment Gordon is hard to say. Biographer Jan Walker says Gordon once showed her a letter his father wrote in 1969 urging him to get psychiatric help, although it made no reference to voices. The voices came in many forms, some benign, some malevolent.
In 1970 , Gordon assaulted singer Rita Coolidge, his girlfriend at the time, while both were on tour with Joe Cocker. Quoted in Bill Janovitz’s Leon Russell biography, Coolidge says, “Jim said very quietly, so only I could hear, ‘Can I talk to you for just a minute?’ He meant he wanted to talk alone. So we walked out of the room together … And then he hit me so hard that I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway… It came from nowhere.”
The punch sent Coolidge sprawling and gave her a black eye which throbbed for the rest of the tour. At the time, the blow was inexplicable. But looking back, it’s clear that these were signs of paranoid insanity. After he cooled down, Gordon apologized and sent her poetry books and various love songs. But Coolidge wasn’t willing to take him back.
Gordon quietly had received outpatient treatment for his condition and previously exhibited few if any signs of it to his fellow musicians. “He was an amazing guy, just really so charismatic,” Coolidge continued. “[But] after everything happened, I started to recognize that look in his eye and knew that he was not playing with a full deck.”
Over the next few years he found steady work, but his behavior became increasingly paranoid and erratic as the ’70s progressed, complicated by drug and alcohol abuse.
I guess I was an alcoholic,” Gordon told Rolling Stone in 1985. “Before, I was drinking every night, but I wasn’t getting up in the morning for a drink; I would put a needle in my arm. When I stopped taking the heroin, I began to drink all day.”
Despite taking speedballs several times a week (cocaine laced with heroin), Gordon always managed to show up to the studio whenever a record producer called him. He was the one guy who never stepped aside to do a line during work. His reputation was solid.
When Jim became sober, bought a new house in Sherman Oaks, and began seeing his daughter again. He also married singer-songwriter Renée Armand. Still, Gordon suffered and didn’t remain wasn’t 100% clean forever. Shortly after, he went back to abusing drugs. He assaulted Armand, then work began to dry up as word of his condition spread, and he checked himself into hospitals multiple times.“
I couldn’t cope with being outside anymore,”
 Gordon said. “The voices were chasing me around. Making me drive to different places. Starving me. I was only allowed one bite of food a meal. And, if I disobeyed, the voices would fill me with a rage, like the Hulk gets.”
The most powerful voice of the ones that bedeviled the drummer was that of his mother, Osa Marie Gordon, psychiatrists testified during his trial. By all accounts, she was a caring and concerned mother, but when her voice would roar in Gordon’s ears, whether from across town or across the country, it sought to destroy him.
The voice denied him food. Gordon would starve himself for days. Then, trying to hide, he would check into the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, California with a box of fried chicken, wolfing down as much as he could before the voice would inexorably seek him out and force him to stop.
As his mother’s voice grew louder and more relentless in his head, Gordon said it even threatened to destroy his gold records. The voices would also rivet his body with excruciating pain. It would not let him sleep or relax. He became sullen and uncommunicative, given to violent outbursts. Worst of all, the voice refused to let him play drums. It controlled his hands, and muddled his sense of rhythm. Gradually, Gordon’s reputation began to succumb to stories of his tirades that occurred as he battled the voices.
Beginning in 1977, Gordon seemed caught in a revolving door of more than a dozen hospital stays. According to Scott S. Furstman, the lawyer who defended Gordon on murder charges, he would check himself in for treatment, only to leave before he stabilized.
But his substance dependence and reputation for abusing women led to problems including hallucinations and in-studio confrontations. In 1979, he turned down a tour with Bob Dylan. Between that time and his arrest, Gordon checked himself into hospitals more than a dozen times for treatment. His mother’s voice had grown louder and more relentless in his head, Gordon said, even threatening to destroy his gold records.
The final blow came in 1979 when Gordon, whose work had dwindled to almost nothing, accepted a gig with Paul Anka in Las Vegas. After a few bars of the opening song, Gordon walked off the stage, unable to play. In his final years of life, Gordon said he no longer heard the voices, but he seemed haunted by the memory of them.
“I just snapped,” he admitted to detectives the day after the murder. Although at the trial the court accepted that Gordon had acute schizophrenia, he was not allowed to use an insanity defense because of changes to California law due to the Insanity Defense Reform Act. On July 10, 1984 he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison and served his sentence in Vacaville, with his first eligibility for parole in 1992.
“He used to talk to me about hearing voices, but I told him that it was his consciousness speaking to him. He said it was someone else,” Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominos tells Rolling Stone in an email. “Evidently he never stopped or even lightened up on his drug and alcohol intake. The end result was the destruction of his family.”
“I had no interest in killing 
[my mother],” Gordon told Rolling Stone 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, and good riddance to her.”
“When I remember the crime, it’s kind of like a dream,” 
he told The Washington Post in 1994. “I can remember going through what happened in that space and time, and it seems kind of detached, like I was going through it on some other plane. It didn’t seem real.”
“I had no idea that he had a psychotic history of visions and hearing voices, from an early age,” 
Eric Clapton told Rolling Stone in 1991. “That was never apparent when we were working together. It just seemed like bad vibes, the worst kind of bad vibes. I would have never said that he was going mad. To me, it was just the drugs.”
In 2005, Gordon told the panel he believed his mother was alive, a concern highlighted during the 2013 hearing, which he declined to attend.
In April 2013, he was denied parole until at least 2018 at a hearing where a California board panel deemed the musician “a danger to society if released from prison,” citing his resistance to court-ordered medication and counseling, according to a hearing transcript obtained by Rolling Stone.
“Thirty years after Gordon confessed to stabbing his 71-year-old mother to death at her North Hollywood home, he continues to show symptoms of schizophrenia and is medically and psychologically non-compliant,” Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Alexis de la Garza told the three-member panel. “This is one of the saddest cases that we have in prison. We have an individual who is seriously psychologically incapacitated, and he is a danger when he is not taking his medication.”
Gordon is perhaps best known for playing the piano climax of Derek and the Dominos’ 1971 hit “Layla,” for which he took credit for writing with Eric Clapton and which won him a Grammy. Rita Coolidge later claimed that he stole the melody line from her, an accusation that is given credence by Graham Nash who supports her claims. Regardless, the song still paid Gordon well, From behind bars, Gordon dutifully managed his ongoing royalties from “Layla” and other work that brought in recurring payments such as the “Apple Jam” session with George Harrison. According to California’s deputy district attorney, for years inmates had solicited money from Gordon, which he had allegedly given them.
“In terms of parole plans, because of his condition it is our opinion that, not only for the good of society but for his good, what needs to be done is work on getting him a conservator, because I do believe he has a substantial amount of income,” de la Garza said at the hearing. “The question is, would people be preying on him on the outside, as they have on the inside, because of his finances?”

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