In 1970, Jim Gordon drummed on at least a dozen hit albums, including eight of the most indelible records in rock history: Eric Clapton and Leon Russell’s self-titled solo debuts, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Dave Mason’s Alone Together, Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs, and Delaney & Bonnie’s On Tour with Eric Clapton. Brother in arms Jim Keltner helps us tell the tale.

The 1960s and ’70s were remarkable times for Jim Gordon, whose career epitomized that of the studio musician. Gordon was raised in Sherman Oaks, California, to an accountant father and registered nurse mother. It’s not known how Jim acquired his immaculate sight-reading skills or natural ability to support other musicians, but he apparently gained a goodly amount of his staggering drum technique in the International Independent Order of Foresters youth band, a high-caliber marching corps. (The only available records show the corps playing a late-1950s Rose Bowl Parade.)

It’s widely reported that Gordon passed up a music scholarship to UCLA in 1963 to tour with the Everly Brothers, at age seventeen. Gordon’s career took off as he became a mainstay in the L.A. session world. Before 1970 he tracked with rock, pop, folk, and country royalty, including the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Monkees, Mason Williams, Tom Scott, the Buffalo Springfield, Judy Collins, Lee Hazlewood, Harry Nilsson, Hoyt Axton, Merle Haggard, Bread, and the Mystic Moods Orchestra. Post 1970, Gordon kept his Camco drums busy in sessions for John Lee Hooker, Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, B.B. King, Seals and Crofts, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Gary Wright, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Nils Lofgren, Steely Dan, Ringo Starr, and many others, some now lost to time.

Gordon also recorded the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1972 album Bongo Rock. A group in name only, the Incredible Bongo Band recorded percussion-heavy material with Afro-Cuban influences and instrumentation. The gargantuan 4/4 beat of “Apache” is prime Jim Gordon: a syncopated, swinging, spacious, bass drum-heavy, snare-popping, tom-booming, dead in-the-pocket groove with the perfect amount of flash and edge to make it jump and burn. “Apache” became a hip-hop staple, providing the groove-bed for the Sugarhill Gang’s own “Apache.” Gordon’s massive “Apache” breakdown beat has been sampled for hundreds of songs. It even inspired a documentary called Sample This.

You need only listen to Gordon’s own 1969 album, Hog Fat (credited to Jimmy Gordon and His Jazznpops Band), or Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs to understand his extraordinary talent. His groove supported other musicians with near perfect time, natural flow, and a pocket so wide that Jim Keltner once commented that he felt he almost didn’t need to play when the two collaborated on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of 1970. Gordon was also exceptionally creative in the studio, where, in the extremely busy session atmosphere of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, time was money.

Hog Fat is divided into a jazz side and a “pops” side. Gordon combines a funk bottom with blazing single-stroke rolls in “Satisfaction,” detonates bursting concert tom fills over a swinging boogaloo beat in the title track, executes a dirge-like jazz beat in “Walter L,” percolates a seamless 16th-note feel in “Flying Dutchman,” and swings a samba in “Bluebird.” Gordon’s time, feel, and ideas are memorable throughout.

In 1970, Gordon lifted a piano part from his then girlfriend Rita Coolidge and turned it into the coda to one of the greatest rock songs ever, Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” Gordon is brilliant throughout Assorted Love Songs: the innovative beat turnaround in “Bell Bottom Blues,” the exploding, playful, melodious, sizzling fills of “Keep On Growing,” the dynamic rolls of “Little Wing,” the precise, soulful 8th-note cadences of “It’s Too Late” and “Tell the Truth,” and the tempo-challenging flow of “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”

For a lesson in groove, check out Delaney & Bonnie’s On Tour with Eric Clapton. Video of this amazing band (Clapton, George Harrison, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Horn, Bobby Keys, Carl Radle) performing in Europe is available online and is worth watching for Gordon’s command of the groove and his utter concentration.

Unfortunately, not many at the time were aware that Gordon was an outpatient at UCLA Medical Center who was treated for schizophrenia. After some twenty-five years of heavy session work, tours, and the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, which exacerbated his substance abuse, in 1984 Gordon went off his meds, gave in to the paranoid voices in his head, and killed his mother. Today Gordon resides at California Men’s Colony San Luis Obispo, where he no longer responds to “Jim Gordon.”

For years, Jim Keltner has wanted to tell the world about his mentor and friend, Jim Gordon. They played together in Mad Dogs & Englishmen, traded gigs and sessions, and enjoyed that amazing time of music, innovation, and celebrity that was in full force in 1970, and the decade to come.

“I first met Jim in 1967,” Keltner tells Modern Drummer. “I had just joined this band, MC Squared. They were signed to Warner Bros. for their first record. When we went into the studio, Jimmy was there to play on the first single, ‘SST.’ It was the beginning for me, really. I’d been playing with Gary Lewis and the Playboys, then I joined Gábor Szabó. On the MC Squared session, Jimmy played drums all by himself in the big room at T, T and G Studios in the middle of Hollywood. They hired me to be the drummer in the band, but they wanted Jim on the single. I took seeing and hearing Jimmy in the studio as a way to learn. I asked him if I could sit next to him on the floor while he played and he said, ‘Sure.’ Eventually we became good friends.

“What made Jim different at the time was that he played harder and with more power. Every time I saw him play, he dug right down deep, as deep as he could get.”

“I was twenty-five,” Keltner continues. “Jimmy was twenty-two, but he was already at the peak of his game. He was a good-looking guy, always impeccably dressed. And he had a really cool cymbal bag. At the MC Squared session he had these new Remo Sparkletone drumheads. He was playing a Ludwig blue sparkle set, like Hal Blaine’s. By the time we were doing Mad Dogs & Englishmen he was playing Camco drums.”

The first thing that impressed Keltner was Gordon’s sound. “He was coming from Hal Blaine,” says Keltner, “who played on all the big pop records of the day that I listened to. It was back in the days when everything was live: strings, horns, background singers, drums, percussion, multiple guitars, and sometimes two bass guitars. And Jimmy Gordon was oftentimes the percussionist. That’s how he picked up so much from Hal.

“Jimmy told me about playing on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds sessions,” Keltner continues. “They took a break for lunch and everyone would walk across the street to a taco joint. So during one break, he gathered several plastic juice bottles, cut them with razor blades, and put them together in a row. He cut them in such a way that the pitch was different between each of the four bottles. And that’s what he played with his fingers on ‘God Only Knows,’ that little sound. That fascinated me. Jim would experiment, and obviously he was in the right place at the right time playing on all those sessions. Being able to hear him in the studio was like going to Berklee.

“Then he began playing more drums on sessions. He played on ‘Marrakesh Express’ by Crosby, Stills & Nash, for one. It’s just so beautifully constructed. That’s what I loved about his playing most; he had an innate thing that he learned from watching Hal. What made Jim different at the time was that he played harder and with more power. Every time I saw him play, he dug right down deep, as deep as he could get.”

After leaving MC Squared, Keltner joined Delaney & Bonnie—a gig that Gordon coveted. “Jimmy would see me and say, ‘Hey man, I’ll trade you some record dates for a live gig with Delaney.’ Jimmy really wanted to play with Delaney & Bonnie. We were a killer band. That’s where we met Eric Clapton. I was on their record Accept No Substitute [aka The Original Delaney & Bonnie].”

As so often happens, Gordon finally got the chance he’d been hoping for when Keltner had a scheduling conflict. “We were doing a guest spot on a TV show Harper Valley PTA,” recalls Keltner, “but I had a record date in New York with Gábor Szabó and Lena Horne [for the album Lena & Gabor] that I didn’t want to miss. I got a sub for the TV show, and Delaney wasn’t happy with that and had no choice but to fire me. Jim Gordon replaced me.

The next time Keltner saw Gordon was on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen gig, which they both were a part of. “Jim’s playing was so precise and powerful,” recalls Keltner. “When we started rehearsals with Mad Dogs together, I realized, ‘There’s no reason for me to work real hard here, because Jim’s got such a strong groove.’ It was a very valuable lesson in how to play together with another drummer. And Jim was a time machine. It needed to be strong because there were a lot of people onstage. We were a big rock revue band.”

According to Keltner, he and Gordon would share drum fills. “You can tell his fills because he had a more military feel,” he explains. “He’d had marching band experience with the International Independent Order of Foresters youth band, a high-level marching band from Sherman Oaks in the Valley.

“You can clearly hear Jim’s strength and power on the Delaney & Bonnie On Tour album,” Keltner continues, “especially in the songs’ breakdowns, where it’s only vocals and drums. Those kind of jump parts were originally played by Al Jackson Jr., who played on their first Stax record, Home. So whoever played with Delaney & Bonnie copied those parts. And Jimmy played those parts better than I did. Jimmy got to England before me, so he played with Derek & the Dominoes and got the gig, which was supposed to be mine. But I never held that against him. I knew when Jimmy played with them that he was going to get the gig.”

Keltner always enthusiastically points out how big an influence Gordon was on him. “I’ve always wanted him to know that,” he tells MD. “A perfect example of his drum approach is on Judy Collins’ Who Knows Where the Time Goes and Steely Dan’s ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.’ And I always loved the way he played on Eric Clapton’s ‘After Midnight.’ ‘This is the guy,’ I told Jeff Porcaro. I said, ‘Jeffrey, don’t bother listening to my stuff, man. Listen to Jim Gordon; listen to everything that he’s playing on. And if you listen, you’re going to hear it.’ He had everything a musician could possibly want. Everything that Jimmy played on was a masterclass.

“In the studio,” Keltner continues, “Jim was a quick thinker. That’s the X factor—you don’t know how to explain it, except that it’s just there. Obviously experience helps, going from one session to another. You’ve learned what works, and you’re referencing all the time. In those days Jimmy and I were talking about different drummers. He knew that Roger Hawkins and Al Jackson were my favorites. I told Jimmy, ‘Your drumming is closer to Roger than a lot of others.’ Jim was a version of Roger Hawkins.

“I was working almost every day then,” says Keltner, who insists that he wasn’t a “proper” studio musician at the time. “I played with so many famous people that it looked like I was all over the place,” he says. “I would play with Randy Newman on a Saturday and then Dolly Parton on the following Wednesday, and then a Harry Nilsson record, and then Steely Dan. It started to look like, ‘God, he’s everywhere. He’s a studio guy.’ But in fact, real studio guys played on all kinds of jingles and things. Jimmy Gordon was a quintessential record date guy; he played every kind of date.”

Today Keltner says that the depth of his relationship with Gordon—and with other musical icons of the era—was fueled by their shared experiences and their youth. “Jim and I both played on Harry Nilsson records,” he begins, “but those were the days when everyone was so loaded, especially Harry. Harry was like the ring master. But kids talk to me now and want to know about this and that. I always tell them, ‘You’ve got to know this: There’s a window of youth that’s this big, and it starts to shut little by little the older you get.’ You don’t know this at the time; nobody tells you that. And even if they did tell you, you’d say, ‘Okay, I’m good.’ But that’s the thing, man. That’s why that stuff happened, all those records. That’s why there were all these brilliant things happening during those days.”

There were also some frightening moments, which sealed their friendship as well. “One night when we were both living in England,” Keltner recalls, “I went to his place. He was working with Derek & the Dominoes at the time. We were talking—we used to talk about all kinds of stuff. He knew that I admired him as a player. And there were certain parts of my playing that he liked too. Jim instinctively knew that he was a better musician than me at that time. But he wasn’t a jerk about it. We were good friends.

“So, while I was there at his place, I wasn’t feeling well. I stood up to go downstairs to use the bathroom to be sick, but at the top of the staircase, just as I stepped down those tiny little steep English steps, I started throwing up and falling backwards. I just knew I was going to hit my head really hard on the top stair—like when you’re falling, and everything seems to be in slow motion. Then all of a sudden I felt somebody catch me. Jim caught me. He saved my life that night.

“I always wanted Jim to know how much I respected him as a person and a player, and how important he was to me in the early part of my career.”