Jim Gordon – Derek and the Dominos drummer, Layla co-writer, and convicted murderer – dies at 77

Jim Gordon, pictured recording at Command Studios
(Image credit: Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns)

Jim Gordon, a legendary rock drummer who played in Derek and the Dominos, and co-wrote their legendary song, Layla, has died at the age of 77.

His death was confirmed by publicist Bob Merlis, who reported that the drummer died of natural causes. 

In the late '60s and early '70s, Gordon was one of the most in-demand drummers in rock, but his life and legacy came to be overshadowed by his battle with schizophrenia, a battle that culminated in him brutally murdering his 71-year-old mother in 1983 during a psychotic episode. Gordon spent the rest of his life in prison.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gordon took up the drums at a young age, and began his professional career just out of high school, with a gig with The Everly Brothers.

From there, he became a valued member of the loose collective of elite LA studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, playing on a wide variety of classic recordings. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Mason Williams' Classical Gas and Glen Campbell’s Gentle on My Mind all feature Gordon's playing, and helped Gordon land a touring gig – in 1969 – with soul/rock outfit Delaney & Bonnie.

That gig, in turn, brought him to the attention of Delaney & Bonnie associates – and electric guitar heroes – George Harrison and Eric Clapton. Gordon would form part of the backing band on Harrison's seminal proper solo debut, All Things Must Pass, and the core of Clapton's post-Cream and Blind Faith band, Derek and the Dominos.

Though short-lived, Derek and the Dominos – and their only album, 1970's Layla – helped establish Clapton as a songwriter, not just a guitar god. The album's climactic title track – at Clapton's request – came to prominently include a piano piece Gordon wrote with his then-girlfriend, Rita Coolidge.

“Jim and Rita had written this song called ‘Time,’ back in the Delaney & Bonnie days,” Dominos keyboardist Bobby Whitlock told Guitar Player in 2020. “They wanted me to play piano on it, with Rita singing. But I told them, ‘I don’t feel this at all.’ And it turns out that Jim brought it to Eric after we’d already recorded the album [Layla], and Eric wanted to add it to the end of what we’d recorded for Layla [the song]."

It's a testament to the depth of Gordon's discography, though, that that part of Layla might not even be his most endearing contribution to the world of music.

That distinction most likely falls to his drum break from the Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache, which would go on to become a foundational hip-hop sample. 

Despite further session success in the early 1970s, Gordon's life took a sharp – and eventually tragic – downward turn afterwards due to his battle with alcoholism, drug addiction, and later, schizophrenia.

By the early 1980s, Gordon had grown increasingly isolated, and his mental state deteriorated. Finally, on June 3, 1983, Gordon – driven, he said, by dark inner voices – brutally murdered his mother with a hammer and butcher knife.

He was sentenced in to 16 years to life in prison in 1984, and was subsequently denied parole on several occasions.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Jackson Maxwell

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.