By Boston Woodard
If someone told me I would someday be in a rock ’n’ roll band playing bass with “Superman” on drums, in prison, I would have suggested that they get their head examined. Just so happens, I did indeed play with Superman—a Superman drummer, that is.
James Beck Gordon is that drummer. Gordon, Grammy Award winner, was one of the most sought-out tour and session drummers in the late 1960s and 1970s, recording records with the top musicians of that era. Gordon’s discography is extensive. He worked with such top names as Derek and the Dominoes (with Eric Clapton), Joe Cocker, Alice Cooper, The Byrds, Frank Zappa, Duane Allman, The Beach Boys, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, George Harrison, John Lennon, B.B. King, Steely Dan, Merle Haggard, Neil Diamond and dozens more.
Gordon was born on the East Coast on July 14, 1945. His parents moved to California when he was a toddler. He was drawn to percussion at the age of eight, igniting what would become his life dream and passion—to be a drummer. Precisely placed trash cans in Gordon’s backyard were this precocious kid’s first drum set.
Gordon’s bounteous music career came to a crashing halt on June 3, 1983, when he took his own mother’s life during a drunken stupor, supplemented by a yet-undiagnosed illness of paranoid schizophrenia. In May 1984, he was sentenced to 16 years to life for second-degree murder and sent to state prison. A then-recently passed California law severely restricted the insanity defense that might have held him not responsible for his actions.
Gordon had been in prison for about 12 years when I met him. I was being transferred from higher “Level IV” security prisons (like Folsom and San Quentin) and had requested to be placed in California Men’s Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo because the grapevine said it had one of the most active music programs in the state. I wound up becoming one of several music coordinators at that prison (as well as editor of the prison newspaper, The Communicator).
As a musician and a child of the 1960s, I was eager to meet Gordon. I wanted to see how he was faring and ask if he would be willing to play with some of us in the band room. I had heard that when he first came to prison he had played a little, but had become discouraged, for reasons unknown to me. Now that I know something about schizophrenia, I can guess that his symptoms, like hearing voices or mistrusting people, contributed to his reluctance to play.
Whatever the case, I found it hard to believe that someone with his talent and love for music would not want to play and decided to find out for myself. After all, music had been his life. A singer friend of mine, Bill Friery, who lived in the same cellblock as Gordon, set up a meeting. That day, Friery pointed to a guy standing by himself near a fence on the far side of the prison yard, under one of the gun towers in the corner. The man was chain-smoking and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I later learned that this is typical behavior from someone fighting the horrible effects of psychotropic drugs. Friery looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That’s Jim Gordon. Brother, good luck.”
You didn’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Gordon had some sort of inner conflict going on. I remember my first thought was, “How can the prison system let a man become so wasted and alone?” As I approached, Gordon was lighting another crudely rolled cigarette from the spent end of another. His overall appearance was slightly disheveled, and the tips of his fingers were terribly stained from too many cigarettes held too close to the end. He was looking at me over the rim of a thick pair of glasses and before I could say anything, he pushed the glasses to the top of his nose with one finger, held out his hand and said, “Hi, man, how’s it going?”
We shook hands and I introduced myself. Jim was about six foot two, weighing more than 200 pounds, with gray/white hair. He was soft-spoken and friendly. When I asked him if we could talk about music, he stared at the ground for a moment, then looked up smiled and said he couldn’t think straight because of the medication they had him on. He said his mouth was dry and he needed some water. We walked to the water fountain, and after a drink we began to talk music.
There are a lot of stories about Gordon’s lashing out at people, suddenly erupting in psychotic outbursts. But during our more than two hours of conversation that day, there were no signs of anger, no drifting off, no eruptions of any sort. Before I left, I let Gordon know that we had a weekend session in the prison’s band room and that he was more than welcome to sit in if he’d like to.
The following weekend, I brought lead guitarist Joe Shelton, keyboardist Ron “Wolfgang” Cribbs, singer Randy Chaplin and drummer/singer Frierly to the band room. We didn’t see Gordon and surmised he had decided not to come that day. We were not surprised. After we had run through a couple of songs, I noticed someone looking through the door window. It was Gordon.
During a break, I went out to speak with Gordon, who had been standing around the corner listening to us. After a little coaxing, he came in and sat down on a plastic milk crate with hands deep in his coat pockets, staring at the floor. While we played, we made it clear through nods and smiles that we were happy to have Gordon among us.
After a half-dozen cigarettes and a hundred or so quick looks over the rim of his glasses, Gordon out of the blue asked if we knew the song “Crossroads,” a blues/rock standard best played by Gordon’s old band mate Clapton. Of course, we all knew the song. As we began, our drummer, Frierly, turned to Gordon and asked if he’d like to sit in. I fully expected him to decline, but amazingly he said, “Yes, OK.”
It was clear that Frierly was stoked to be playing with a man whose work he had admired and mimicked for years. Frierly was evidently beside himself, as in truth all of us were. Despite all the stories that Gordon had lost interest in music, there he was behind a drum set. My initial hunch had proved right, and I was about to play bass alongside James Beck Gordon.
Gordon asked if could adjust the drum setup, and Frierly said, “Whatever you need.” Gordon moved a couple of cymbal stands, removed an extra floor tom, lowered the drum stool, then without looking up said, “OK, let’s play.” Anyone who had said Gordon had lost his touch would have eaten a large plate of crow that day. We found out in a minute why Gordon had been so sought-out. His drumming was so steady, dynamic, impeccably clean. The man was a human metronome. The word “awesome” sprang to mind.
We played about 15 songs during that first session. He didn’t talk much, but what he lacked in words he made up for with each beat of the drum and crash of the cymbals. Before heading back to his cellblock, Gordon shook our hands and thanked us several times.
We all felt pretty good about getting Gordon to come out of his shell, reconnecting with his love of music. After he left, we talked on and on wondering if he would be part of the band I was organizing. Two of our group were about to be transferred to be closer to their homes, so we were in the process of re-grouping and having Gordon join us would be amazing…the Gordon of the magical percussion, not the withdrawn prisoner.
A few days later, as several of us passed through the last set of gates before the band room, we saw Gordon leaning against the door waiting for us. It was a surprise, but even more an honor. Gordon became an integral part of our new group, which we humorously wound up calling Sounds Incarcerated. Week after week, Gordon progressively became more sociable not only with the band members but also with other prisoners and the staff. He also began to talk about his involvement with music before coming to prison, his tours with people like Cocker and Baez, and particularly about his work with Derek and the Dominoes. He choked up when he talked about Clapton, who he said he loved like a brother.
One day while setting up equipment, our keyboardist Cribbs asked Gordon if he would show him the proper way to play the long piano coda in “Layla,” the song famous for Clapton and Duane Allman trading blues guitars with Gordon’s elegiac power chords behind. Everyone in the room stopped, becoming mesmerized by a piece of music heard on every rock radio station countless times over the past 35 years, now being played before their eyes. It was surreal watching Gordon do his thing but heartbreaking to watch him do it behind prison walls.
As a musician, it was entrancing to hear Gordon reminisce about his musical history. I asked him if I could write a piece about him for The Communicator, and he agreed. So for several days, we talked for hours about his life and music. When we were done, he told me how happy he was to participate in the music program. He became active in helping other musicians in the program and participated in dozens of shows for the always-grateful general prison population.
It’s been many years since I’ve seen Gordon. I had heard he had been in a facility in Vacaville but recently heard he may be back in San Luis Obispo. I can only hope he is well and still involved with what he does like no other, playing drums. My experience with Gordon showed again the power of music and how music can create an island of respite and deep connection even for those of us locked away in prison.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist serving his sentence in Susanville State Prison. Boston has written for the San Quentin News and the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator.