JIM GORDON – ” Session Drummer Extraordanaire “

Posted: March 1, 2019 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Jim Gordon has played drums on hundreds of hit records, with artists ranging from the Beach Boys to Tom Petty, George Harrison to Hall & Oates to Linda Ronstadt. But you won’t find any gold records hanging in his place of residence: For more than three decades now, Jim Gordon has been locked up, for the crime of fatally stabbing his own mother. His story is one of the great tragedies of the rock world.

It happened on June 3rd, 1983. Gordon attacked his mother, Osa Marie Gordon, first with a hammer before grabbing the butcher knife. He later claimed that voices in his head told him to kill her. Sentenced to 16 years to life in prison, he has repeatedly been denied parole; at one hearing he reportedly refused to admit that his mother was even dead. Diagnosed with schizophrenia after his conviction, he remains, according to prison authorities, a threat. He currently spends his days and nights in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California.

It didn’t start out that way for Jim Gordon, of course. Born in July 1945, and raised in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Gordon was awarded a music scholarship at age 17 and began his professional drumming career backing the Everly Brothers. His credits quickly mounted: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, John Lennon’s Imagine, CSN’s debut and recordings by Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, B.B. King, Carly Simon, Alice Cooper, Traffic, the Monkees, Barbra Streisand, Jackson Browne, Merle Haggard, on and on and on.  At the height of his career Gordon was reportedly so busy as a studio musician that he flew back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas every day to do two or three recording sessions and then returned in time to play the evening show at Caesars Palace.

You can hear him on Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” (that drum solo!), Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” and Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.” He was, by any measure, a first-call drummer. it’s fairly amazing list of tracks.

Listen to George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” with Jim Gordon on drums. His greatest fame came via his involvement with Eric Clapton, who hired Gordon as a member of Derek and the Dominos, the supergroup put together by the guitar great in 1970, basically purloining the musicians who’d been working with soul-rockers Delaney and Bonnie. Gordon can be heard on the Dominos’ mega-popular album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and performed with the band in concert during its brief time together. He is credited as the co-author (with Clapton) of the classic title track “Layla” and created the song’s familiar piano coda.  In later years, Bobby Whitlock claimed that the coda was not written by Gordon: “Jim took that piano melody from his ex-girlfriend Rita Coolidge. I know because in the D&B days I lived in John Garfield’s old house in the Hollywood Hills and there was a guest house with an upright piano in it. Rita and Jim were up there in the guest house and invited me to join in on writing this song with them called ‘Time.’... Her sister Priscilla wound up recording it with Booker T. Jones.Jim took the melody from Rita’s song and didn’t give her credit for writing it.

(The group’s members also appear on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, also from 1970.)

That same busy year of 1970, Gordon toured with Joe Cocker’s heralded Mad Dogs & Englishmen troupe and played on Dave Mason’s Alone Together album and much more. But it didn’t take long for things to unravel for him once that decade kicked in; when he wasn’t in the studio or onstage, Gordon’s demons got the better of him. While on tour with Cocker, Gordon allegedly beat his then-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge, in a hotel.

Gordon was also part of Frank Zappa’s 20-piece ‘Grand Wazoo’ big band and the subsequent 10-piece ‘Petit Wazoo’ band. Perhaps his best-known recording with Zappa is the title track of the 1974 album Apostrophe (‘), a jam with Zappa and Tony Duran on guitar and Jack Bruce on bass guitar, for which both Bruce and Gordon received a writing credit (Zappa, when introducing Gordon onstage, frequently referred to him as “Skippy”, because of his youthful appearance).

Although Gordon continued to find work as the ’70s rolled on, with Johnny Rivers, Frank Zappa, Chris Hillman (Gordon was a charter member of the Souther-Hillman-Furay supergroup) and others, his erratic behavior was becoming well known among music business regulars. Misdiagnosed by his doctors, who treated him for alcoholism and missed the schizophrenia altogether, Gordon became increasingly violent as his mental illness took hold of him. By the middle of the decade, it had begun to affect his playing and he lost work.

Prior to his murder of his mother, Gordon reportedly heard her voice in his head, and on that horrible 1983 day he finally let the voices take him to that very dark place. His lawyers tried an insanity defense but the court wouldn’t allow it. He was convicted of murder and sentenced in July 1984. As of this writing he is 73, his future prospects looking dim. As recently as 2018, still diagnosed with schizophrenia, Gordon was denied parole again. He will have another chance in 2021.

Whatever might happen to the man, though, his contribution to rock music should be forever cherished. With but a dim possibility for parole, Jim Gordon is the man rock- and-roll forgot. Except, perhaps, for one brief moment on February. 24th, 1993, when, along with Eric Clapton, he was awarded the rock songwriting Grammy for ”Layla”.

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