I first encountered the name of Jim Gordon while reading the autobiography of a musician I have liked for decades, John McEuen. Gordon was involved in a record or two McEuen made, and McEuen mentioned his name and referenced the tragic story of the talented man.
Gordon got into the music business in the early 1960s as a drummer. Hal Blaine, one of the most sought-after session musicians of that era, was his mentor. Gordon played on records by musical acts from Little Richard through the Beach Boys and the Byrds – and when Eric Clapton formed the group he called Derek and the Dominos, Gordon drummed for that band as well.
He was in the studio with Clapton and Duane Allman one day, not drumming but working on a piano melody he was writing. Clapton and Allman began jamming, improvising around the pretty melody, and Clapton took quite a liking to what Gordon was playing. He got Gordon’s okay to use the piano part as an instrumental coda in a song he was writing for a Derek and the Dominos album he was bringing out, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
The song incorporating Gordon’s piano coda was the title track, “Layla,” still a staple of classic rock. It’s a beautiful melody, a favorite part of the song for many listeners. Clapton didn’t steal Gordon’s work, but gave him co-writing credit for the song.
That co-writing credit has proved to be a blessing for Gordon; he continues to make money off “Layla” royalties to this day.
It was a further feather in his cap as a studio musician as well. Gordon became so active in his work that he was flying back and forth from Los Angeles to Las Vegas almost daily.
Things starting taking a bad turn for Gordon when he followed the lead of almost everyone around him in the music business and began taking drugs, checking into that Hotel California trap that lets one in, but not out.
Gordon’s saga sounds a good deal like that of Beach Boy founder Brian Wilson at this point. The drugs either triggered or exacerbated mental issues hidden in Gordon’s psyche. He began hearing voices in his head that told him to think a certain way, act a certain way, do certain things.
One of the voices he heard was that of his mother. Gordon had developed schizophrenia. His mental illness was robbing him of sleep, the ability to eat, even his skill at playing drums.
In June of 1983, his schizophrenia turned violent, and the victim of it was the mother whose voice tormented him. Gordon attacked her with a hammer, then followed up with a butcher knife. She did not survive.
At trial, the court acknowledged that Gordon suffered from acute schizophrenia, but his counsel was unable to use an insanity defense because of a change in California law. He was given a 16-year-to-life sentence for his crime.
At least as recently as 2018, he was still locked up in a prison mental facility. At least once he has declined even to attend a parole hearing, declaring himself to have no great desire to be free again.
Gordon’s case is a fascinating and sad one, but certainly not a typical one. The vast majority of persons with mental illness are not violent or dangerous, and no one should let a case such as Gordon’s skew their perceptions of mental illness. Music legend Brian Wilson, for example, also has a history of hearing voices in his head, including sometimes when he is on stage. Wilson’s mental disorder is called “schizoaffective disorder,” with mild manic depression. But to my knowledge Wilson never has attacked another person.
What can be validly taken away from the case of Jim Gordon is a reminder of the perils of using mind-altering drugs, and awareness that even damaged minds and souls sometimes can create beautiful things, such as that stirring piano coda in “Layla.”
Thank God for the advances that have been made in understanding mental health and mental illness. And thanks as well to those mental health care professionals who help those among us who need them.