LOS ANGELES — Jim Gordon, the rock ‘n’ roll session drummer who played on classic records by Eric Clapton, George Harrison and The Beach Boys but suffered from growing mental health problems and spent the second half of his life in prison for killing his mother, has died at 77.
Gordon died Monday at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed Thursday. It’s believed he died of natural causes, but the official cause will be determined by the Solano County coroner. Gordon, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been in prison for four decades.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, few drummers were more in demand than Gordon, a Los Angeles native and protege of the all-time versatile session man, Hal Blaine. Gordon had been drumming since his teens and — early in his career — was part of Phil Spector’s celebrated studio ensemble, “The Wrecking Crew,” which featured Blaine.
“When I didn’t have the time, I recommended Jim,” Blaine told Rolling Stone in 1985. “He was one hell of a drummer. I thought he was one of the real comers.”
Gordon eventually played on the Beach Boys’ landmark, experimental “Pet Sounds” and the Byrds’ “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” Harrison’s post-Beatles triple album “All Things Must Pass” and Steely Dan’s jazz-rock “Pretzel Logic.” He worked with a wide range of top acts, from Joan Baez and Jackson Browne to Merle Haggard and Tom Petty. One of his notable credits was a drum break on the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” that has been frequently sampled by rap music artists, among them Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and Kool Moe Dee.
Gordon also toured with with Clapton, bassist Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock: the core of what, in 1970, became Derek and the Dominos, one of rock’s greatest one-shot groups.
Their only studio album, the double record “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” has often been called the creative peak of Clapton’s career. He was tormented at the time by his unrequited love for Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, and channeled his despair into such anguished blues and hard rock jams as “Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad?”, “Bell Bottom Blues” and the seven-minute title track.
The first half of “Layla” was a high-volume showcase for Clapton and guest guitarist Duane Allman, the second half a mournful piano coda of disputed origins. Gordon was officially credited as co-writer for “Layla,” but Whitlock later claimed Gordon took the piano melody from his then-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge. In her 2016 memoir “Delta Lady,” Coolidge wrote that the song was called “Time” when she and Gordon wrote it. They later played it for Clapton, who — Coolidge alleged — used it for “Layla.”
“I was infuriated,” Coolidge wrote. “What they’d clearly done was take the song Jim and I had written, jettisoned the lyrics, and tacked it on to the end of Eric’s song. It was almost the same arrangement.”
By the early 1970s, Gordon was already becoming a danger to others. Coolidge wrote in her memoir that the couple was touring with Joe Cocker when Gordon attacked her one night in a hotel hallway. Gordon hit her in the eye, she wrote, “so hard that I was lifted off the floor and slammed against the wall on the other side of the hallway.” She was briefly knocked unconscious.
With two weeks left on the tour, Coolidge performed with a black eye. She didn’t file battery charges against Gordon but did sign a restraining order, and their relationship ended.
In June 1983, Gordon attacked his 71-year-old mother, Osa Gordon, with a hammer and fatally stabbed her with a butcher knife. He claimed that a voice told him to do it.
It wasn’t until after his arrest for second-degree murder that Gordon was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Gordon was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. However, he was denied parole several times after not attending any of the hearings and remained in prison until his death.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed reporting from New York.