Famed and prolific ‘70s drummer Jim Gordon, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia after murdering his mother in 1983, has died at the age of 77. Gordon died at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville after a lifelong struggle with mental illness, reports Variety.
Musically, Gordon is best remembered for his work with Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos. In 1970, after joining the band, Gordon co-wrote the hit song “Layla.” As a member of the prolific session musicians group Wrecking Crew, Gordon played on hundreds of song recordings, including Incredible Bongo Band’s 1972 song “Apache,” Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People.”
Born in 1945, Gordon was raised in California’s San Fernando Valley. His interest in drumming started at a young age, and his parents supported his aspirations, even if they meant not pursuing higher education in lieu of the life of a performer. He carved out a career starting in the early ‘60s, touring with the Everly Brothers right after his high school graduation.
After linking with Clapton, Gordon quickly became one of the most in-demand drummers of the time, contributing to George Harrison’s 1970 album All Things Must Pass and Beach Boys’ iconic album Pet Sounds. Throughout his career, he worked with Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Nilsson, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, The Byrds, Duane Allman, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, and more.
However, Gordon also has a history of disturbing and violent behavior in his personal life. The same year he co-wrote “Layla,” Gordon hit the road with Joe Cocker and his band Mad Dogs and Englishmen. His girlfriend at the time, musician Rita Coolidge, joined him, and in Bill Janovitz’s Leon Russell biography, she detailed the moment Gordon assaulted her.
“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,” Coolidge said. “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.”
Work continued to flow in for Gordon after the assault. Over the years he played drums for Dave Mason, Alice Cooper, Helen Reddy, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Johnny Rivers, and Tom Petty. Despite hushed visits to the hospital for outpatient treatment, Gordon’s mental health—complicated by substance abuse—began to erode. Most of his fellow performers wrote it off as the typical rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and Gordon did his best to hide his mental health issues from his bandmates.
Gordon would go on to assault his partner Renee Armand, breaking her ribs, as well as another girlfriend, who woke up one night to Gordon choking her in bed. As word on his condition and paranoid behavior began to circulate, work slowed for Gordon.
In 1983, after weeks of increasingly concerning behavior, he bludgeoned and stabbed his 72-year-old mother to death, saying that the voices in his head told him to kill her. For years, his mother’s voice ran through his head, one of many voices that protected him and deluded him. He soon received an official schizophrenia diagnosis and was sentenced to 16 years in prison for second-degree murder.
In 1985, Rolling Stone interviewed Gordon from prison. “I really don’t feel that crazy,” he said from the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. “I get along with people. I think I’m pretty normal.”
The interview charts the story of Gordon’s life, and how the voices were always with him. He talked about his mother in great detail, and the years leading up to the murder.
“I had no interest in killing her,” Gordon says. “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.”