James Beck Gordon (July 14, 1945 – March 13, 2023) is an American musician, songwriter, and convicted felon. Gordon was a popular session drummer in the late 1960s and 1970s and was the drummer in the blues rock supergroup Derek and the Dominos.
In 1983, in a psychotic episode associated with undiagnosed schizophrenia, Gordon murdered his mother and was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. As of 2021, he remains incarcerated at the California Medical Facility.
Gordon was raised in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles and attended Grant High School. He passed up a music scholarship to UCLA in order to begin his professional career in 1963, at age 17, backing the Everly Brothers. He went on to become one of the most sought-after recording session drummers in Los Angeles. The protégé of studio drummer Hal Blaine, Gordon performed on many notable recordings in the 1960s, including Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys (1966); Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, by Gene Clark (1967); The Notorious Byrd Brothers, by the Byrds (1968); and the hit “Classical Gas”, by Mason Williams (1968). 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.
In 1969 and 1970 Gordon toured as part of the backing band for Delaney & Bonnie, which at the time included Eric Clapton. Clapton subsequently took over the group’s rhythm section — Gordon (drummer), Carl Radle (bassist), Bobby Whitlock (keyboardist, singer, songwriter) — and they formed a new band, later called Derek and the Dominos. The band’s first studio work was as the house band for George Harrison’s three-disc set All Things Must Pass (1970).
Gordon then played on Derek and the Dominos’ 1970 double album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and also played with the band on subsequent U.S. and UK tours. The group split in spring 1971 before they finished recording their second album. In addition to his drumming, Gordon was credited with contributing the elegiac piano coda for the title track, “Layla”. In later years, Whitlock claimed that the coda was not actually 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. Her boyfriend ripped her off”. Graham Nash (who later dated Coolidge) substantiated Whitlock’s claim in his memoir. “Time” was not released by Priscilla Coolidge and Booker T. until 1973, on their album Chronicles.
In 1970 Gordon was part of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and played on Dave Mason’s album Alone Together. In 1971, he toured with Traffic and appeared on two of their albums, including The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. That same year he played on Harry Nilsson’s album Nilsson Schmilsson, contributing the drum solo to the track “Jump into the Fire”.
Gordon was the drummer on the Incredible Bongo Band’s album Bongo Rock, released in 1972, and his drum break on the LP version of “Apache” has been frequently sampled by rap music artists. In 1972, 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). Also in 1972, Gordon played drums on Helen Reddy’s Top 20 US album I Am Woman.
In 1973 Gordon played on Johnny Rivers’ Blue Suede Shoes as well as on Art Garfunkel’s Angel Clare albums, and toured with Rivers through 1974 appearing on the Last Boogie in Paris live album. Also in 1974, Gordon played on most of the tracks on Steely Dan’s album Pretzel Logic, including the single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. He again worked with Chris Hillman of the Byrds as the drummer in the Souther–Hillman–Furay Band from 1973 to 1975. He also played drums on three tracks on Alice Cooper’s 1976 album, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell.
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