Jim Gordon, a drummer who played with dozens of rock stars and shared songwriting credits with Eric Clapton on the hit “Layla,” but faced deepening mental health crises and spent the past four decades in custody for killing his mother, died May 13 at a prison medical facility in Vacaville, Calif. He was 77.
The death was announced in a statement by his publicist, Bob Merlis. No cause was given.
Mr. Gordon’s collaborations included tracks on George Harrison’s first post-Beatles album, “All Things Must Pass” (1970); the Beach Boys’ epochal “Pet Sounds” album (1966) and Steely Dan’s 1974 song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
The demand was once so high for Mr. Gordon’s versatility — from bluesy backbeats to whipcrack licks — that he commanded three times the studio rate for drummers. He spanned genres as different as Glen Campbell’s country-influenced odes (“Wichita Lineman,” 1968), Gordon Lightfoot’s folksy ballads (“Sundown,” 1974) and Frank Zappa’s rock-jazz fusion. Zappa gave Mr. Gordon the nickname “Skippy” as a playful jab at his sunny suburban upbringing in California.
Sitting at his drum kit, Mr. Gordon dazzled musicians and aficionados as part of the Los Angeles-based Wrecking Crew, a group of largely anonymous studio players who accompanied top stars. With his athletic, 6-foot-3 frame — and his mop of curly hair waving — he could pound out the skins-and-cymbals punch for rockers such as Joe Crocker and Tom Petty. Or he could lay down sharp-edged rhythms that defined a song.
His work on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 song “Apache” (a remake of a 1960 hit by the Shadows) was discovered by hip-hop artists and became one of the most sampled drum breaks in history. The 2012 documentary “Sample This” called the Bongo Band’s version “the national anthem of hip-hop.”
Mr. Gordon, who also played keyboards, was credited with the piano-led second coda of “Layla,” which appears on the 1970 album, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” by Clapton’s band, Derek and the Dominos. (Rita Coolidge, a singer and songwriter, claims that she helped write the song, but was denied credit.)
Even as Mr. Gordon’s renown grew, his increasingly erratic behavior made other musicians wary. While on tour with Cocker in 1970, he was accused by Coolidge of assaulting her. “It came from nowhere,” she was quoted as saying in Bill Janovitz’s 2023 biography of musician Leon Russell.
Mr. Gordon sought outpatient treatment over schizophrenic-type episodes — saying he heard voices that directed him when to eat, what to wear and when to work. At times, he also would disappear on drug and alcohol binges.
The offers and gigs trailed off. In 1979, Mr. Gordon was with Paul Anka’s band in Las Vegas. After a few bars of the opening song, Mr. Gordon walked off the stage.
Just before midnight on June 3, 1983, Mr. Gordon arrived at the North Hollywood home of his 71-year-old mother, Osa Marie Gordon. He struck her four times in the head with a hammer, police records said. She somehow survived that. He then repeatedly plunged a butcher knife into her chest, police said.
At his trial in 1984, psychiatrists testified that Mr. Gordon believed his mother was controlling him through a voice in his head. He felt the voices sometimes made it impossible for him to play the drums, according to the testimony.
“This is not a murder case,” said his defense attorney, Scott Furstman. “This case is a tragedy.”
Mr. Gordon was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison. A California law, new at the time, blocked the use of insanity as a defense. But the judge, James Albracht, noted Mr. Gordon’s apparent “profound mental illness.”
Mr. Gordon was sent to inmate medical facilities for treatment of schizophrenia. Over the decades, parole was denied.
“When I remember the crime, it’s kind of like a dream,” he told The Washington Post in 1994. “I can remember going through what happened in that space and time, and it seems kind of detached, like I was going through it on some other plane. It didn’t seem real.”
James Beck Gordon was born in Los Angeles on July 14, 1945, and raised in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley as postwar suburbia swelled. His father was an accountant, and his mother was a teacher.
He started drumming as a child, making his first kit out of garbage cans. By his teens, he was in a local band earning $10 a gig while also playing percussion in the Burbank Symphony. He was offered a music scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. Instead, he joined the Everly Brothers for a British tour soon after graduating from high school in 1963.
His fussy habits stood out. He would carefully unpack and fold his clothes at hotels even on a one-night gig. His money was carefully saved and tabulated — down to expenses for toothpaste — influenced by his father’s meticulous bookkeeping. “He partied like a rock star, but managed his money like a CPA,” wrote Martin Booe in a profile in The Post.
In the mid-1960s, the top studio drummer in Los Angeles, Hal Blaine, passed the word that a rising new talent was in town. Mr. Gordon soon had his pick of artists. He worked with Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain” (1972) and John Lennon on “Power to the People,” a track on the 1971 “Plastic Ono Band” album. The list kept growing: Harry Nilsson, Nancy Sinatra, the Byrds.
Later, from behind bars, Mr. Gordon dutifully managed his ongoing royalties from “Layla” and other work that brought in recurring payments such as the “Apple Jam” session with Harrison.
Mr. Gordon’s marriages to Jill Gordon, a dancer, and Reneé Armand, a singer, ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Amy, from his first marriage.
In 1993, Mr. Gordon watched on television as Clapton accepted the best rock song Grammy for an acoustic version of “Layla” on his album “Unplugged” (1992). Mr. Gordon was noted as a songwriter on the Grammy program, but Clapton did not mention him in his acceptance speech.
Mr. Gordon didn’t seem to hold any grudge during an interview with The Post a year later.
“I’d still like to play with Eric,” he said.