When drummer Jim Gordon died at age 77 on March 13, 2023, at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, he had spent half his life behind bars. Before that time, over the course of a mere 15 years, he left an indelible mark on rock music. But at the time of his passing, the superstar drummer was a long-forgotten figure remembered mainly for the most gruesome crime in rock history: In 1983, Gordon killed his mother, stabbing her through the heart after beating her in the head with a hammer.

But Jim Gordon wasn’t a murderer; he was mentally ill. Severely. Gordon suffered from an extreme case of schizophrenia, marked by one of the most dire symptoms in mental illness: command hallucinations. Voices inside his head would order Gordon to do things and punish him if he refused, with vicious, violent headaches that would leave him squirming on the floor in pain and wetting his pants. The chief voice in his head controlling his life and torturing him belonged to his mother, Osa Gordon.

Schizophrenia is ridiculously common. It occurs in one in 100 of the general population. By comparison, multiple sclerosis appears in one in 10,000. Nobody knows what causes the condition—current thinking leans toward genetic disposition—and only half of those diagnosed can be treated at all. They are rarely violent toward others, but they are largely swept under society’s carpet, given superficial treatment, and turned back to deal with their frightening, confusing lives on their own. The streets of our cities are crowded with these unfortunates. Jim was in the position to afford some of the best medical care available, not that it did him much good. He was in and out of mental hospitals and residential drug treatment programs for years.

He knew things about the drums that couldn’t be learned

Jim found the drums early in life, and they proved to be his sanctuary. The shamans all know the drums are a beacon to guide them home from out-of-body journeys. In Jim’s case, the same electrochemical system that destroyed his life also gave him an unearthly ability to divide time with drums. Beyond his extensive training and surgical skills, Jim brought a level of intuition to his playing beyond all others. He knew things about the drums that couldn’t be learned. Other drummers marveled at his abilities.

He led an unparalleled career through the recording studios of Hollywood, the most hallowed halls of British rock, and the highest levels of ’70s pop. He brought scientific abilities to the microscopic work of recording and cut his teeth on hit records by the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, and countless others. He unleashed his most explosive work in live performances with Derek and the Dominos, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and Traffic. He played on the George Harrison triple-record masterpiece All Things Must Pass and coauthored “Layla”—one of the defining pieces of classic rock—with Eric Clapton. He played on No. 1 hits by Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, Steely Dan, and Burton Cummings. He drummed for country star Merle Haggard and pop group Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. His playing is all over “Good Vibrations’” by the Beach Boys, possibly the greatest pop record ever made.

Jim Gordon grew up during the ’50s in sunny Sherman Oaks, a burgeoning bedroom community outside Hollywood where Clark Gable kept a horse ranch, and orange and persimmon groves stretched for acres. He studied drums obsessively, took lessons, learned to read music. His percussion instructor at UCLA sent him home with four-mallet Bach homework on the marimba. He belonged to a 75-member marching band that did the annual Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena. He also served as the high school drum major and cut quite an impressive figure on game days, striding down the field with his drum major’s hat atop his 6-foot-4 frame.

While Jim was attending Grant High School in Van Nuys, his buddy Mike Post, long before he became famous for writing television theme music, invited him to join Frankie Knights and the Jesters, who worked three nights a week at a club in Hollywood. Everly Brothers bassist Joey Paige turned up at a Jesters show looking for a drummer and found Jim.

Although Jim’s parents hoped he would study to become a doctor or lawyer, they reluctantly allowed him to accept the gigprovided he enrolled for college in the fall. The day after he graduated from high school in June 1963, 17-year-old Jim Gordon left for the road with the Everlys.

Everly Brothers & Jim Gordon
On stage with the Everly Brothers, Jim’s first professional gig, in 1964. Photo from Riot on Sunset Strip by Domenic Priore (Jawbone Books)

That fall, the band toured England on a bill with Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and a new rock group that had never before left London called the Rolling Stones. While Jim was visiting a swinging London nightspot, Paul McCartney introduced himself to the Everlys’ drummer and offered his compliments.

Los Angeles was waking up as a center of the recording industry. An extraordinary group of musicians came together around producer Phil Spector at a last-minute session in July 1962, young men in T-shirts and jeans who had no problem playing rock ’n’ roll, unlike their snooty New York counterparts who looked down on it as vulgar music for teens. These talented players enabled a new generation of pop visionaries and started spitting out hit records by the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Phil Spector, Glen Campbell, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They made a cottage industry out of surf and car songs and practically invented folk-rock on records like “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds and “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. Studios all over town were busy around the clock.

Jim quickly gravitated toward the well-paid session work, where his astonishing skills only blossomed. He was booking three sessions a day, six days a week. A cartage company shuttled his drum sets around town. Right from the start, Jim walked a golden path. He was blond, tall, and beautiful. He wore a shy smile and married Jill Barabe, his gorgeous, also-blond high school sweetheart, a professional dancer in the cast of the Dick Clark after-school TV program Where the Action Is. They bought a house and a few cars. At 20 years old, he was making more money than both his professional parents combined. He was living the California dream.

In the studio, his star shone brightly. During a break in sessions for the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson saw Jim fooling around with plastic orange juice bottles and they struck on an idea: Jim took a razor blade and cut four bottles so that each hit a different note when he tapped the empty bottles along to Hal Blaine’s drum part, lighting up the track to the song “God Only Knows.”

Don Randi, Don Peake, Jim Gordon
Session musicians extraordinaire Don Randi, Don Peake, and Jim on Sunset Boulevard in 1965. Photo by Hal Blaine

By fall 1969, Jim was losing interest in the clinical work of the recording studio. Also, having been with Jill for nearly a quarter of his young life, he was bored with married life and wanted his freedom.He left his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Amy, and started spending time at the Skyhill Drive headquarters of Leon Russell, whom Jim knew from a hundred or so studio dates. Russell transformed his four-bedroom house into a sprawling recording studio and kept it stocked with musicians who either lived there or at another location in the Valley called the Plantation. Russell used Jim on a Joe Cocker session at A&M Studios he was producing, which is where Russell’s girlfriend Rita Coolidge first laid eyes on Jim.

Russell had brought the Southern belle with the Cherokee cheekbones back from Memphis the previous year and installed her at Skyhill. They met during the recording sessions Russell helped produce in Memphis by Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, a white version of Ike and Tina Turner, complete with the abusive relationship. Back in Los Angeles, Russell and Delaney Bramlett assembled a loose group of musicians around the soul-singing pair that included another Memphis refugee on organ and vocals, Bobby Whitlock, a bassist Russell knew from his hometown of Tulsa named Carl Radle, and a revolving crew of guitarists. Their drummer Jim Keltner had admired Jim Gordon since Gordon played drums on a record by a group Keltner belonged to. Keltner showed up at the studio, saw Jim’s kit already in place, and pulled up a piece of floor to listen. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Jim Gordon started showing up and sitting in with the band at Snoopy’s Opera House, the little joint in the Valley where Delaney and Bonnie were woodshedding. Russell had produced an album for Elektra Records, who had signed Delaney & Bonnie, but George Harrison heard the tape and made noise about signing the group to the Beatles’ new record label. Nothing came of that except irritating the band’s label, but Harrison played the tape for everyone who would listen, including his best friend, Eric Clapton. Jim traded Keltner studio dates for the drum chair in the band and joined the group when they toured the U.S. as an opening act for Blind Faith, the supergroup Clapton formed with Cream drummer Ginger Baker and Traffic keyboardist Steve Winwood.

The action in the rock world had shifted from the recording studio to the concert stage. British rock groups like the Who and Led Zeppelin used their records as templates for extended, dramatic live performances. Zeppelin drummer John Bonham included a near-half-hour drum solo in the band’s set. Jim and his wife had seen Cream play the year before at the Shrine Auditorium, and Jim had been impressed with the expansive prowess of drummer Baker. At the peak of his career, Jim abandoned the studio to take a job with Delaney & Bonnie at just $125 a week.

Clapton, who had tired of his top-gun status and was bored with the listless, uninspired shows by Blind Faith, threw in with the Delaney & Bonnie bunch, joining the band as special guest on a European tour. After a raucous Royal Albert Hall performance in London, George Harrison signed up for the rest of the tour. When everybody returned to Los Angeles—Clapton in tow, preparing to record his debut solo album—Jim was circulating in entirely different elevated circles. He cut the Dave Mason solo album while waiting for the Clapton sessions to begin and worked club dates around town with Delaney & Bonnie, as well as fitting in a few other sessions.

George Harrison, Jim Gordon
Jim and George Harrison on tour with Delaney & Bonnie in 1969. Photo by Getty

Leon Russell knew well the discontent in the Delaney & Bonnie band and hijacked the rhythm section for the massive group he was putting together on an emergency basis for Joe Cocker, who was due to start a new tour in less than a week. Russell paired Jim Gordon with Jim Keltner on double drums and packed the soundstage at A&M Records to rehearse the unwieldy ensemble. He put together a giant choral group including Rita Coolidge, who had moved out of Russell’s Skyhill place and was living with Jim in actor John Garfield’s onetime guest house in the Hollywood Hills. Amid the extravagant bacchanalia and constant chaos that was the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, Rita and Jim were a sedate couple. While others were off testing the limits of their depravity, Jim and Rita could most often be found after shows watching television in someone else’s room, softly strumming guitars and talking quietly.

Jim did discover a previously unexplored appetite for drugs on the tour, ingesting, drinking, smoking, and snorting anything offered him. He came backstage with a handful of Owsley LSD tablets and offered them to Keltner, who broke off a small piece of one and took it, watching as Jim gulped down a whole pill. A little while later, Keltner sat on stage behind his drum set, sticks in hand, trying to remember what rhythm even was. He remained frozen in a psychedelic state while Jim kept looking over at him, pounding away at his drums and shouting at Keltner, “Play!” Keltner ran off the stage in tears.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen
The lobby card for the 1971 music doc Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Jim is flanked by Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. Photo by Getty

Although nobody suspected anything was amiss with Jim, he felt like he was being watched by remote, unseen forces. He also grew irritated with his girlfriend after she caught him slipping around with one of the other background vocalists. Sitting around Carl Radle’s room after the New York show, Jim asked Rita to step into the hall. She actually entertained the thought that he was going to ask her to marry him but was quickly and sadly disabused of that fantasy when they got in the hall and Jim hit her in the face as hard as he could. She slumped to the floor unconscious, and Jim stepped over the body to return to Radle’s hotel room as if nothing had happened. The episode barely registered with the rest of the troupe; with all the mad debauchery, nobody could recognize authentic psychotic behavior.

Jim had been home only a couple of weeks when Bobby Whitlock from Delaney & Bonnie called Keltner to invite him to join him, Carl Radle, and Eric Clapton in London to start a new band. Keltner was committed to recording sessions for the next couple of weeks and couldn’t come, but Jim could. He took the next plane to London and started rehearsing the next day in a haze of booze and drugs with the musicians who would become Derek and the Dominos.

Watch on YouTube

After serving as house band for the George Harrison solo sessions, the group made a blistering tour of small halls and clubs in England before jetting to Miami to record their album with producer Tom Dowd, where guitarist Duane Allman joined the sessions. In Miami, the band grew deeply involved with heroin and all returned to England with a daily habit.

When the band returned to Miami to finish the album, Clapton was not satisfied with “Layla,” the title track. He remembered a piano piece that Jim and Rita Coolidge had played on twin grand pianos at Olympic Studios with Delaney & Bonnie. Jim supplied a ham-fisted version of the part, and Whitlock also played the piece. Dowd made a composite of the two versions and tacked it on to the end of the song, which was credited to Clapton and Gordon; no mention of Coolidge, who wrote the piece with Jim as a song called “Time.”

Jim found himself among the British rock aristocracy. He did a John Lennon solo session. He recorded with B.B. King and Harry Nilsson. Jim produced an album with saxophonist Bobby Keys from the Delaney & Bonnie band with Clapton and Harrison on guitars; he and Keys went to Mick Jagger’s wedding in Saint-Tropez. Derek and the Dominos fell apart acrimoniously while preparing to record a second album. Jim joined Traffic for the Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys album and subsequent tours of England and the U.S., but by Christmas 1972, he came back to California, strung out on drugs, sick and disgusted, the final straw coming when he totaled his Ferrari driving drunk and high on a rain-slick road.

In Hollywood, he picked up right where he left off, playing as many sessions as his schedule would allow. He was making hits with Johnny Rivers, Helen Reddy, Albert Hammond, and others. He joined Frank Zappa’s band for tours of Europe and the U.S., cutting “You’re So Vain” with Carly Simon on a rare night off in London. He did almost all the third Steely Dan album, Pretzel Logic, including the No. 1 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and cut smashes with Hall & Oates, the Carpenters, and John Denver. His playing on the B.W. Stevenson hit “My Maria” was a minor masterpiece of percussion. The samba drive he adopted for “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Muldaur made the quirky lite-jazz track sound like a hit record.

But all was not well with Jim. The symptoms of his condition were coming out. His head was now full of voices, chief among them his mother Osa’s. Jim began to experience the dread command hallucinations. Failure to comply with the orders passed down from his own merciless thoughts would result in what he called “white-hot cruelty pain.”

His father, who died while Jim was visiting England with his new girlfriend, songwriter Renee Armand, had joined Alcoholics Anonymous when Jim was a teenager. His mother was a nurse who religiously attended AA meetings and thought Jim’s problems only had to do with drugs and alcohol. Jim sought psychiatric help, meeting with as many as a half-dozen different therapists during the year, but never told any of them about the voices in his head.

He and Renee Armand got married, but the union didn’t last six months. She returned home one afternoon with an armload of groceries to find Jim waiting for her, glowering, and holding in his hand a pen, a scrap of paper, and a piece of string. “I know what you’re trying to do,” he said. “You’re making the devil’s triangle.” Jim attacked her, beating her savagely, but Renee managed to break free and get out of the house. The marriage was over. This was Jim’s big psychotic break. Things would go downhill rapidly from here.

His confidence had slipped to the point where he asked Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers,if he could audition for the drum job for the new supergroup Southern-Hillman-Furay that was being put together at the behest of mogul David Geffen, who thought they might be another Crosby, Stills & Nash. He knew Hillman from Byrds sessions, and the job was his for the asking. But after one album and a disappointing summer tour—where Jim’s erratic behavior made him something of a problem and even came to affect his performance—they fired him. Jim returned to doing session work and obsessively plucking weeds out his backyard at the command of voices. Episodes were inevitable.

Jim Gordon
Jim in 1981, two years before the murder. Photo by Michael Rief

When he interrupted a Hall & Oates session by holding a screaming argument with unseen people, the other musicians all left for the control room, where they continued to watch Jim yelling at imaginary adversaries. His legendary reliability faltered, although his playing remained in a realm by itself. Word started to spread, and prestige dates that would have been Jim’s a year before started going to other drummers.

There were other mysterious outbursts and untoward events. People looked the other way and whispered the stories. The music industry could easily accommodate drug addicts, alcoholics, and sex deviants, but someone who was actually insane was a different matter.

The voices were running his life. They made him cut his eating in half. Don’t take another bite! his mother’s voice would command him. The only things that could defeat the voices were the drums—playing shut them out—and alcohol, which in adequate quantities could quiet the rabble in his head. He took desperate measures to control his life, exercising to the point of falling down from exhaustion. Although he had stopped using illegal drugs, he was drinking daily. He drank enough to put on weight despite not eating.

Between his difficult professional situation and his complicated relations with his mother and his young daughter, Jim opted to leave town and accepted a job with Canadian vocalist Burton Cummings, whose album containing the hit “Stand Tall” Jim had recorded. Cummings was little known in the States, but north of the border he was famous as the frontman for the Guess Who, Canada’s most beloved rock group, known for “American Woman,” “No Time,” “Undun,” and others. In October 1976, Jim landed in chilly Winnipeg to begin rehearsals for Cummings’ Canadian tour. As the tour moved to the States, with “Stand Tall” hot on the charts, Jim grew more distant and remote from the other band members. He wasn’t drinking or doing drugs, although he maintained a steady regimen of psychiatric medicine. Touring proved taxing for Jim, and he suddenly quit the band during a brief Los Angeles stopover five days before the next show.

He would starve himself for days, grab a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken, check into the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, and try to wolf the whole thing down before the voices caught up with him. When they did, he would often regurgitate his meal. He continued to seek psychiatric help without revealing the full extent of his symptoms when he met with Dr. Daniel Auerbach in July 1978. Auerbach saw that Jim felt guilty about ending his marriage and was unhappy over his inability to be a good father. He recognized that there had been substance abuse issues but could also see that Jim was a high-functioning professional operating at the top of a highly competitive world. He figured Jim suffered from depression, prescribed some medicine, and made plans to see him again.

Buoyed by the appointment, Jim checked out of the Sportsman’s Lodge, picked up a box of chicken, and moved to another hotel in the Valley. But the voices found him before he could eat and made him check out of the hotel. From a pay phone on the street, he called Dr. Auerbach, and, for the first time in his life, he told a medical professional about the voices that controlled his life. Auerbach told Jim to come directly to Van Nuys Psychiatric Hospital and checked him in.

After several weeks of residential treatment without experiencing any significant improvement, Jim checked out against medical advice and returned home. When he missed a subsequent appointment with Auerbach, the doctor called Jim’s mother, Osa, who went to Jim’s apartment and found him unconscious on the floor from an overdose of the sleeping pills Auerbach had prescribed.

Jim returned to treatment, this time with some success. He attended daily adult living classes at UCLA. Ironically, he moved in with his mother, who still didn’t understand the full extent of his malady. He stabilized enough to find an apartment he liked in Brentwood and graduate from the UCLA program. Although Jim was still not working like he had been, Jackson Browne picked him up for a tour, and for a while Jim stayed on the good foot, running in the mornings with Jackson, playing racquetball, and making great music. He did, however, start drinking again on the tour.

Jackson Browne
Backing Jackson Browne in 1978. Photo by Getty

Jim was in and out of hospitals over the next year or so. In September 1978, Bob Dylan called Jim and asked him to join the band for his Slow Train Coming gospel tour. His mother’s voice refused to allow Jim to take the job, so he hung up the phone. Distressed at turning down Dylan, Jim took a bandstand job with Paul Anka in Las Vegas. He came to the rehearsal the afternoon of opening night, sat behind the kit, and played a single note. His mother’s voice thundered in his head, and he put down his drum sticks. He told the musical director he couldn’t play—that he suffered from psychiatric problems—and went home. It was effectively the end of his professional music career.

Over the next several years, Jim grew to be something of a recluse, ordering food delivered to his North Hollywood condo, putting on weight from all the drinking he was doing, and snorting a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of cocaine daily. Sessions were long gone. His phone stopped ringing. He made a couple of attempts to join bands that came to nothing. In 1982, he wound up working in a five-piece bar band called the Blue Monkeys, playing a regular Monday-night gig in Santa Monica. Jim was making $35 for a four-set night, but at least he was playing music again. These were grim, difficult times for Jim, but his bandmates never knew anything was wrong. Jim kept everything hidden.

The voices grew louder and his head more crowded with noise. The voices demanded he throw away his gold records and drums, and although he resisted, eventually the pain proved too great. He carefully stacked his gold records and drums by the condo dumpster, returned to his apartment, and guzzled vodka until the voices died down. Then he went and retrieved his precious possessions. He did this every night, sometimes several times a night. The voices were building to a climatic cacophony. Jim checked into one treatment program and left almost immediately. He went straight to Van Nuys Psychiatric, where he was given a Valium and told to sleep it off. Disgusted with being ignored by the staff, who did not understand his urgency or know his case, Jim went home.

It was his mother’s voice that first made the suggestion: Why don’t you kill me? He had considered suicide, but never murder. He battled the thoughts through the day and into the night. He called his mother late that evening and told her he knew what she was doing and that she needed to leave him alone. “I sure will, Jim,” she said.

After drinking himself into a stupor that passed for sleep, Jim woke the next day with a sense of relief. He knew what he had to do, and the voices took charge. All he had to do was follow them. He went to his mother’s house that afternoon, but when he found she was not home, he returned to his condo and drank more.

Osa settled into her living room chair to watch some TV after going to dinner and an AA meeting with a friend when Jim showed up around 11 that night. He brought a hammer and a knife, presuming that he could knock her unconscious with a blow and she wouldn’t feel anything. He struck her with the hammer four times and stabbed her through the heart three times, so savagely the knife stuck in the floor beneath her body.

“I did it. I did it,” he said. “I killed my mother.”

He washed up in a gas station bathroom and repaired to a Mexican restaurant for drinks. He wanted to get drunk, and he moved on to Chadney’s, the Burbank watering hole across the street from NBC Studios where Jim had occasionally hung and swung, even sitting in with the house combo on occasion. He greeted friends and slurped down Long Island iced teas. People who saw him there remembered him being especially quiet and distant. Some noticed the cuffs of his pants were caked with what looked like mud but wasn’t.

The police quickly figured out who their main suspect was. They found Osa’s notes on the phone conversation from the night before and a letter from her other son John that pointed to Jim. When police pulled up at Jim’s door around six in the morning, they found him in a fetal position under his coffee table with two empty bottles of vodka. As the detectives approached, Jim started sobbing.

“I did it. I did it,” he said. “I killed my mother. She’s been tormenting me for 15 years. I did it. I’m sorry.”

At trial, six psychiatrists testified that Jim suffered from schizophrenia, but a recent change in laws made insanity defenses much more difficult, essentially holding that you needed to not know what you were doing when you were doing it to qualify as insane. The judge knew Jim was mentally ill, but he had no choice but to find Jim guilty of second-degree murder and sentence him to 18 years to life in prison. He never set foot out of jail again.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Fall 2023 issue. Explore the full mag in our archive, buy a copy here, and subscribe for more.




CREEM Print + Digital package
  • 4 issues / year
  • Digital archive access
  • 15% off shop + events
  • Free CREEM t-shirt
  • $150 value (save 47%)
CREEM Fan Club pack
  • Annual gift at $60 value
  • 4 issues / year
  • Digital archive access
  • 20% off shop + events
  • Free CREEM t-shirt
  • $250 value (save 47%)

Subscribe to Digital and get access to our issues and the archive on your internet devices.

$29 / Year


The Archive Collection, Mister Dream Whip T-Shirt


Boy Howdy! T-Shirts

Boy Howdy!

Boy Howdy! glassware


CREEM +001

Back Issues


What we’re listening to and other musings.
It’s free!