Jim Gordon, An Eric Clapton Drummer and Co-Writer of the Song “Layla,” Dies at the Age of 77

After killing his mother in 1983, legendary drummer Jim Gordon was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in 2016. Gordon had played with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and countless others.

After a long period of incarceration and a lifelong struggle with mental illness, he passed away on Monday from natural causes at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, according to the announcement. He was 77.

Gordon was a member of Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos and is credited as a co-writer of the timeless 1970 hit “Layla.” He also played on countless recordings as a member of the elite session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew.

He was one of the primary drummers on George Harrison’s seminal 1970 album “All Things Must Pass,” and he also played with Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” band and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.

His drum break on “Apache,” by the Amazing Bongo Band in 1972, is a hip-hop staple and has been sampled countless times.

Jim Gordon Murder
Jim Gordon Murder

Any casual fan of 1960s and ’70s rock has heard his playing on songs by the Beach Boys (including the “Pet Sounds” album), Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”), John Lennon (“Power to the People”), Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Nilsson, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and even the Byrds — that whipcrack drum fill at the end of their 1967 cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back” was played by him.

Despite being undeniably one of the best rock drummers of his time, his mother was murdered because of a long-standing mental disorder that was never properly handled. Gordon was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1945 and started playing the drums at a young age.

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After graduating from Burbank High School in 1963, he was offered a music scholarship to UCLA and considered attending there, but instead, he joined the Everly Brothers for a tour of Britain.

One of the most sought-after drummers in the business, he got his start playing on hits by the aforementioned performers and went on to tour periodically with acts like Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker, and Derek & the Dominos.

Yet he had a history of mental illness and in 1970, while on tour with Joe Cocker, he assaulted his lover, the singer Rita Coolidge. According to a quote from Coolidge in Bill Janovitz’s biography of Leon Russell,

“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.”

Before now, Gordon had shown few, if any, symptoms of his disease to his fellow musicians, and he had received therapy privately through outpatient services.

“He was an amazing guy, just really so charismatic,” Coolidge went on.  “[But] after everything happened, I started to recognize that look in his eye and knew that he was not playing with a full deck.”

Gordon is credited with the piano-driven, instrumental second half of “Layla,” though Coolidge says it is actually a song she co-wrote with him that was later released as “Time,” a claim corroborated by two of their bandmates.

However, the tour and Gordon’s busy career continued after the assault, peaking with Derek and the Dominos. (She claims that Clapton’s manager at the time rejected her abruptly when she begged for credit.)

In the years that followed, he collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including Steely Dan, Dave Mason, Alice Cooper, Helen Reddy, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Johnny Rivers, Joan Baez, Tom Petty, and many more.

Drug and alcohol misuse only exacerbated his already neurotic and erratic conduct during the 1970s. He had a violent past and had abused his then-wife, singer Renee Armand, as well as a former girlfriend. When news of his illness spread, he lost his job and was forced to repeatedly check himself into hospitals.

Gordon killed his 72-year-old mother by beating her to death with a hammer and then stabbing her repeatedly in June 1983. He said he had been instructed to do this by voices in his head. Soon after, in 1984, he received a formal diagnosis of schizophrenia and a prison term of 16 years to life.

Rolling Stone published an in-depth interview with him the next year, in which he discussed the voices he’d heard in his head for most of his life and how murdering his mother was like “being guided by a zombie.” In the years that followed, he repeatedly applied for and was denied parole. His first-born child, a daughter named Amy, will carry on after him.

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