‘Can That Boy Play!’: In Session With The Masterful, Tragic Jim Gordon

The work of one of rock’s finest session drummers, from ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘All Things Must Pass’ to Derek and the Dominos.

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Jim Gordon photo - Courtesy: Brian Cooke/Redferns
Jim Gordon photo - Courtesy: Brian Cooke/Redferns

When the roll call of rock’s finest session drummers is made, great players from Jim Keltner to Hal Blaine would be among the first to insist (with inevitable caveats) on a place in the list for Jim Gordon. Born on July 14, 1945, he became a fixture on a truly remarkable catalog of famous recordings. Gordon was also a noted keyboard player and listed as co-writer of the rock classic “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos.

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Gordon’s later life has been blighted by turmoil and tragedy, but even a swift scan of his credits as a player is awe-inspiring. He played drums on Pet Sounds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, All Things Must Pass, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Nilsson Schmilsson, Pretzel Logic and countless other genuine landmark records.

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In addition to his close association with George Harrison and as a member of Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos, Gordon also played with the archetypal who’s-who of 1960s and ‘70s stars. They ran from Joan Baez to Jackson Browne, Joe Cocker to Alice Cooper, Leon Russell to Linda Ronstadt and Glen Campbell to Carly Simon.

His work also embraced groundbreaking rock’n’rollers like Little Richard and Gene Vincent, Clapton-associated acts such as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and historic live events such as Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. The NME praised Gordon’s “powerhouse” work on the Cocker album of the same name.

That record was released in 1970 just a few months before the almost simultaneous appearance of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Disagreement remains about whether or not Gordon wrote the piano coda on “Layla” itself: vocalist Rita Coolidge again claimed in her autobiography Delta Lady: A Memoir to have composed it. But Gordon is listed as co-writer of the timeless track with Clapton.

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‘Fantastic’ on drums

Among far too many other credits to do justice to, he is also thought to have played drums on “It’s So Hard” from John Lennon’s Imagine album of 1971. Describing the disc in advance for the NME in the summer of that year, Lennon said: “There’s Jim Gordon on drums, Alan White on drums, Jim Keltner on drums, and they’re fantastic.”

In 1983, Gordon, an as-yet undiagnosed schizophrenic at that time, was found guilty of murdering his mother and sentenced to 16 years to life imprisonment. In 2013, he was denied parole until at least 2018. But the career that predated those dreadful events drew huge accolades for his musical achievements.

Listen to the official Derek and the Dominos Best Of playlist on Spotify.

“It seems redundant to praise Gordon when the world is at his doorstep,” wrote Fusion magazine in 1971, “but, goddamn, can that boy play! His rhythmic ideas are as open and fluid as Clapton’s melodic ideas, and they complement each other perfectly. Rock on, Jim Gordon.”

Buy or stream Jim Gordon’s work on Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.



  1. Matthew Berryessa

    July 15, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Truly one of the greatest and a unbelievable short career.

  2. JOSEPH KURT Nothernz

    July 25, 2015 at 12:28 am

    ONE of the greatest drummers to ever play!!! my Favorite of his work is ” The Letter”…. from the soundtrack for “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”…. And the MOVIE of MDAE….he just flew on the drums!!!!


    July 14, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    i don’c care who the fuck he played with or how good he was…HE KILLED HIS MOTHER….u only have one of them and they are the most important person in your life!….ROT IN JAIL DUDE!
    i don’t miss you

  4. billy m.

    July 16, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    We are not doctors but from everything i read about him he needed much. More help than he got its a very sad case for sure.

  5. B

    December 26, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    one of the finest drummers ever


  6. David Parker

    June 11, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    Organ? Anyone know any examples of him being credited with playing organ? He played piano on Layla, of course, but I’ve never heard of him being a “noted organ player.”

    • Jb

      July 28, 2018 at 4:33 am

      It’s an all too common mix-up I’m afraid. James Beck “Jim” Gordon, the great L.A. drummer (and sometimes pianist) as cited in this article, versus an accomplished fellow L.A. studio musician (and multi-instrumentalist) named James Wells “Jim” Gordon (organ, piano, synthesizer, clarinet, horn, saxophone, flute, etc). Their paths surely must have crossed at certain points during their respective careers, as both were active during the same two decades (60’s-70’s), and both recorded with some of the same big-name artists. In fact on Maria Muldaur’s self-titled debut album from 1973, both Jim Gordon’s can be found listed in the credits together, one on drums (“Midnight At The Oasis”) and the other on organ (“Three Dollar Bill”) and clarinet (“Vaudeville Man”). Who would have thought that Los Angeles could be such a small place?!

  7. Classe

    July 14, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    Bobby Whitlock obvoiusly overdoubed Jims piano on Layla. Jim Gordons grow on drums did not make it through on the piano. According to BW.

    • Jb

      July 28, 2018 at 2:18 am

      No that is Jim Gordon indeed tickling the ivories on Layla’s famed coda, which is based on a piano piece he and Rita Coolidge co-composed earlier. It is actually based on a piano riff that he came up with and played for Rita one fine day at her pad in Hollywood when she was his girlfriend, which she elaborated on by introducing the counterpoint found within (and adding some lesser known lyrics, thus effectively bringing the tune to fruition). This is according to Rita herself, who has never claimed that she composed the piece solely herself, or that the initial chord progression that it’s largely based on was even her inspiration.

  8. David Wilson

    July 15, 2017 at 12:32 am

    I heard him play as part Traffic in the early 70s. He was a brilliant drummer made more so by his brilliant musicianship. I for one wish him well and hope he is released in 2018.

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