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James Beck Gordon: The Drum Czar

By Boston Woodard

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.”

This photo, taken on March 19, 1996, is Sounds Incarcerated. From L-R: Randy Chaplain, Boston Woodard, Jim Gordon, Joe Shelton, Wolfgang Cribbs.

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.

woodard-book-adA 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.

 

18 comments to James Beck Gordon: The Drum Czar

  • Leo R Dumas

    I really enjoyed reading this about Jim Gordon. Growing up in the 60′s and listening to him play with so many people who we all looked up to. I’ve often wonder how he was doing. So sad in so many ways that his career took such a awful turn. Thanks for the insight.

  • also on the website is a link to my Facebook page…
    Jim, I love hearing something-anything-about how you are doing. I treasure the work we did together..you will always be my favorite drummer. It would be a pleasure to hear from you if at all possible. I am 71 now and still playing concerts a few times a year..music has always been my life and I am grateful I got to share some of it with you…Jerry Riopelle

  • Great article about a great musician. It’s too bad that music therapy couldn’t be incorporated with his “drug therapy”. I hope that they didn’t allow this talented artist to fall through the cracks. Good luck, Jim. I hope you’re well.

  • Babe Magnus

    As a drummer myself,Jim Gordon is truly one of the all time great drummers of our time. Ive practiced many hours to his drumming. It is a very sad story. He is missed by all of us who in my terms is a true icon!

  • Michael J Dohoney

    Thanks for this article Boston and for your efforts. I am a fellow drummer and longtime fan of Jim Gordon. I remember playing a regular gig at a place called Chadney’s in Burbank, CA in the early 80′s. Jim used to come by and occasionally sit in and play. I would always welcome him and sit close to watch one of my heros play. It came as a shock to find out about his illness and what had happened with his Mom. I have thought about him many times over the years and I’m so glad to know that he was able to play despite being locked away. Blessings upon you for reaching out along with the other fellow musicians. I know that must have surely been a comfort to him. We still remember you Jim! MJ

  • Richard Freeman

    Glad to read the story of Jim connecting musically; thank you for making it available. Jim is simply one of the five best drummers I’ve ever heard.
    His immense talent is found on so many records. Two that stand out for me are: (1) his work on the live 2-CD Derek & The Dominos, especially my favorite track “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad; just listen to that pocket on the out head vamp, and the way Jim rolls so very smoothly to the last note, and (2) believe it or not, Jim plays on a Minnie Riperton record (“Adventures in Paradise”) with Joe Sample and Larry Carlton (don’t recall the bassist now) – simply great work, every track. Thanks Jim, and wish you the best.

  • Barry Trump

    Can we see the article that was in the Communicator?

  • Dan

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gd3U4iglrQY

    “Sample This” tells much of Jim’s tragic story. It includes an interview with his second wife Rene Armand.

  • patrick robert

    Thanks for sharing this. Jim Gordon is an amazing drummer. It’s sad whatever happened but his drumming lives on and on.

    Cheers

  • Steve

    Thanks for the article Boston. I’m glad to hear that Jim Gordon is still playing.

  • Mark Kuefler

    Thank you for the article about your experiences with Jim Gordon. I just finished reading a new book about “The Wrecking Crew”,and learned Jim Gordon was a MAJOR contributor to the music of our lifetime. I pray that he can someday find peace in his life. Take care.

  • ~Thank you for this article~Looks like Jim’s still the greatest drummer in the world. This side or that side it’s still the same world~Bobby Whitlock~

  • Very excited to see Sample This which will at least tell a little more of Jim’s story. Thanks again to Boston for the article about one of my main influences on the drums. If anyone gets around to telling the whole story, I’d be honored to help in whatever way I can. Thanks again also to Jim himself for all the great music which stands the test of time. I hope that wherever he is, he’s well and playing. I would hope to meet him in person someday just to thank him face to face. Here’s to Jim Gordon.. ‘THE ROCK’.

  • Stewart Surgener

    This was a great story. To think that Jim picked up the sticks and played right where he left off brings joy to my heart. I’ve been studying his drumming for several years now, and with each new track I hear him play on, I learn more and more about what great touch, feel and rhythm he had….he is truly a master. He is simply one of the best we will ever hear.

  • Why is Jim Gordon still in prison ? – Such a sad story .

  • Stewart Surgener

    Jim is still in prison, or rather a state institution for the mentally ill, because he is schizophrenic. He was recently turned down for parole due to his refusing to cooperate in taking his meds regularly and for not continuing psychotherapy. 100% compliance on those two issues would be the least he would have to do to make parole. At least we have his incredible body of work to listen to until he gets out.

  • I sat 5 feet away from Jim Gordon, in the drum booth at Trident Studios in London, as he recorded Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain in 1972. I was Carly’s road drummer and played on a few tracks on her No Secrets album, however I wasn’t cutting it when we recorded You’re So Vain. So Richard Perry, the producer of that album brought in the heavyweights. Jim Gordon, Klaus Voorman, and Nicky Hopkins to record You’re So Vain. Carly’s road band, which included me, was sidelined for half the tracks on that album, except for Jimmy Ryan who played on everything and played that great guitar solo on “You’re So Vain”. Anyhow, I was totally cool with Richard Perry’s decision to bring Jim Gordon in. I was in London for the duration of that album, as road bands often were back then, on call at any time. I saw this as an opportunity to watch Jim up close. I had been listening to Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner ever since Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I asked Jim if he would mind if I sat in the drum booth and watched him play. He was totally cool with that. So I watched Jim do 40 takes (Richard Perry was famous for doing a lot of takes) of You’re So Vain. You see, back then the live performance in the studio had to contain all the magic in the basic backing track. There was no fixing it or replacing parts after the track was recorded. You could repair little things but the vibe and groove had to be all there in the performance. Perry pushed players right to their limit. I liked his style. He had a vision and wasn’t going to stop till he got it out of the musicians. He made great bloody records that all stand up today under scrutiny. He always used the best players on his records. As a player, working for Richard Perry was a step up the ladder in session world. It meant something. Anyhow, I watched Jim like a hawk for 4 or 5 hours, playing that song over and over again. It’s one thing to hear a player on a recording but to see a player playing live is a whole different ball game. Body language reveals so much about where a drummer is coming from. Seeing Jim play up that close, and fine tuning his drum part, was like getting intra veinous Jim Gordon…his DNA being injected into mine. And I got it, big time. I saw what he had and what I didn’t have. But not for long. I really understood where his notes were coming from and went away from that session knowing what I had to do to improve my act. Jim never played a rim shot on 40 takes of You’re So Vain. He hit the middle of the snare drum so hard that the head was completely caved in, in the middle. It was a 6 inch crater in a perfect circle. He hit the exact same spot every time he hit the snare drum. That means all his backbeats sounded as identical as humanly possible. Engineers love consistency from players. I was suffering from total rim shot dependency, playing tight, funky and snappy, New York style, like Bernard Purdie. I am a New Yorker. Jim had that West Coast lazy thing going on. His notes seem to have length. They breathed. Legato drumming I call it. There was all this air around each of his notes. And his groove was so relaxed and secure and comfortable. It was like sitting in a giant arm chair that fit perfect. He made all the other players sound amazing right from Take One. And he made the recording sound like a real hit record right from Take One. I was blown away. The tom tom fills were like thunder. I still copy him doing that today and think about him in that room every time I do it. I put my left hand on the high tom and my right hand on the floor tom and play straight 8th notes (both hands in unison) that crescendo into a chorus. Just like You’re So Vain. His drumming was intelligent and impeccable on that record. There was no click track either and Richard Perry was very demanding when it came to tempo. (By the way, click tracks have ruined pop music today). Don’t get me started. That’s something else I had to improve on. Playing time. I’m still working on that. Jim nailed that track at least 40 times and every take on the drums was brilliant and useable as a final drum track. However Richard Perry wanted to hand pick where Jim played certain fills and all the other cats too. So that’s where a studio musician’s discipline comes into play. You have to play the same track for hours and maintain the feeling and learn every note in your part till it’s written in your DNA. Then on top of that, you have to take instructions after each take from the Producer telling you exactly what to amend or delete in your part. It’s a lot of mental work going on. Not all players are cut out for this kind of disciplined playing, and designing a part. That’s what great records are. Great parts. Jim was like a computer. He did everything Richard Perry asked of him and still kept all the other stuff going in his part, take after take after take. And he hit the drums so damn hard. His snare drum was monstrous and it wasn’t even a rim shot. I was stunned at the power in all his notes. He saw that whole drum part in his head as if it was written on paper and handed to him. And take after take, for maybe 4 or 5 hours with breaks, he played it spot on every time. I got it…big time. Thank God I was replaced by Jim that day. What I got from that experience took my playing to another level completely. I put funky drumming on the back burner after watching Jim and started trying to make my notes real long, relaxed, with lots of air around them, giving each note it’s full sustain value, and even tuning my drums so that the notes would sustain for their full value. And every note was thought out. That’s what Jim did. He didn’t play any throw away notes. Not one!! Not even an unintended grace note on the snare drum. That’s what making records is all about. You have to own and believe in every note you play. Every 8th note on your high hat has meaning and character and tells a story. You can’t just be playing mindless time with a back beat. Drummers who do that sound bored and uninvolved. A drummer has to be involved in every note and put life into each one. This is what Jim did. I know this for sure. It’s a subtle thing but it makes all the difference in a player. Discipline, restraint, and conviction in every note. That’s when real music starts to happen. Can’t we all start a movement to get him out. Sounds like someone should talk to him. Like me. On the other hand, maybe he wants to be exactly where he is. I respect that too. Returning to “real life” after this many years might be too overwhelming. I can relate to that. By the way, my birthday is 14 July, the same day as Jim Gordon’s birthday. Can people visit Jim? Or writer e-mail him? Feed back is welcome which is why I am posting my e-mail address under my name.
    Andy Newmark
    andrew.newmark@zen.co.uk

  • Benny Landa

    I love everything Jim played on and I’m sure I haven’t heard everything and never will. He was the cat for sure. But I Hope he is at peace in whatever he’s doing.

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