Jim Gordon and Frank Zappa in 1972
The studio great was Zappa's choice for his 1972 fusion experiments.
When I was a little kid, before I knew about jazz, I knew about rock music. It was everywhere, the sound of the world, and I loved it.
Thanks to my family, especially my father Vince Sperrazza, some of his friends, and Modern Drummer magazine, I absorbed a lot of info about rock drummers, especially drummers who weren’t ‘in bands’. A few names stood out, were spoken of with real reverence: Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Jim Keltner, and Jim Gordon.
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Shelly Manne, Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Bernard Purdie, and others created the modern studio drummer. They are some of the first and most important players who found a way to bring the drumset, and the African American perspective, into pop music made on the industrial model. Their beat has had the world dancing since the Forties.
Jim Gordon, one of the premier LA studio drummers of the Sixties and Seventies, did his part to spread the message. Born in 1945, Gordon was touring and recording with the Everly Brothers as a teenager. By his early twenties, he was part of the rock-positive studio musicians in LA known as the Wrecking Crew.
Classic Gordon performances from his Wrecking Crew days include the timpani intro to The Beach Boys “I’m Waiting For The Day” from Pet Sounds, Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas”, and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”, written by Jimmy Webb1.
In the late Sixties Gordon found his way to rock aristocracy, starting with Delaney and Bonnie, then moving on to Joe Cocker, before finally recording with George Harrison. From 1970 on, Jim Gordon played on some of the most widely-known music of the era.
Best-known examples of Gordon’s work in the Seventies:
George Harrison: “What Is Life?”, from All Things Must Pass.
The Incredible Bongo Band: “Apache”, one of the foundational tracks of hip-hop2
Eric Clapton: “Let It Rain”, and “Layla”3.
Steve Winwood: “Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys”4 .
Steely Dan: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”5.
Carly Simon: “You’re So Vain”.
Jim Gordon’s work with the Wrecking Crew, Clapton, Harrison, and Steely Dan is widely known. Less commonly known is that Jim Gordon was the only drummer Frank Zappa gigged with in 1972.
In the fall of that year, Zappa eased back into touring after recovering from a near-deadly assault by a concert attendee. He assembled a 20-piece big band for a string of dates, eventually reducing the band to 10 pieces for another leg of the tour. The music was Zappa’s version of jazz: through-composed instrumentals, modal tunes with horn solos, improvised events, and long guitar jams. Zappa was the sole composer, arranger, and conductor of the band, and Jim Gordon was the perfect choice for this Zappa project.
In 2006, the Zappa estate released Imaginary Diseases, a live album by the 10-piece band and the first release documenting Zappa’s shows with Gordon6. I’ve loved it for years.
In Jim Gordon, Zappa had a drummer that could do it all— swing the big band, rock out on a one-chord guitar solo, and play the hard tunes— with style, fire, and humanity. With Jim’s loose, homegrown feel anchoring the band, this is some of Frank’s most accessible jazz-adjacent music. He makes Frank’s music swing and boogie like all those hit records he played on.
When I first heard the album, I was stunned at how well the first-call pop drummer worked with the great rock experimentalist; later, Imaginary Diseases allowed me to hear the depth that Jim Gordon brought to the hit songs.
Gordon’s presence also underlines the heart core of populism underpinning Zappa’s music. No matter how experimental, offensive, or obscure Zappa could be, he wanted the audience to enjoy the show, have a good time, and leave humming the melodies. What better choice for Frank in 1972 than Jim Gordon?
Music is beautiful. Let’s check out Imaginary Diseases. I’ve given YouTube links to every tune:
Rollo. At first, the brass hits and Gordon’s great fills sound like Maynard Ferguson or Chicago, but almost immediately, the music goes somewhere else. Jim and bassist Dave Parlato are the perfect connective tissue for the wild juxtapositions that Zappa uses. Just like Terri Lyne Carrington with Wayne Shorter, Gordon gives Zappa’s compositions life and juice. He’s right at home with Frank, playing supportively and letting Zappa’s audacious, playful spirit come shining through.
Been To Kansas City in A Minor. Imaginary Diseases alternates Frank’s through-composed pieces with improvised tunes, mirroring how the shows were structured. This is a nice blues/rock jam, perhaps a bit long, and possibly made up on the spot. I bet Frank just told the band, “Slow blues, A minor. Gary [Barone, trumpet] take the first solo.” For Gordon to play a rocking blues and a fully scripted piece like “Rollo” with the same intensity is high-level musicianship.
Farther O’Blivion. This is the one to hear, the big tune, 16 minutes of pure Los Angeles pop avant-garde. It starts off as a gentle waltz in F minor, and Gordon’s feel is perfect. He’s relaxed and swinging, playing the cymbal, making the hits, and talking to Frank’s guitar. If Mel Lewis had been a rock drummer, this is what he might have sounded like: his fill at 1:06 really suggests Mel!
After many transitions, an early version of “Be-Bop Tango” is heard. (“Be-Bop Tango” is an iconic Zappa tune with many septuplets and a wildly intervalic melody, sung unforgettably by George Duke on 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere album.)
After “Be-Bop Tango”, we get a fast 3/4 Mingus-like vamp for a trombone solo, with Gordon on the ride cymbal, his signature sound. The trombone solo gives way to a Jim Gordon solo, one of very few drum solos he recorded7. It’s a great solo, not in the vein of “Moby Dick” or other rock drum solos. Instead we get a casually recurring 7/8 motif, beautiful tomtom melodies, and a noticeable lack of tricks. Godon’s solo is pure music, perfect for Zappa’s composition.
D.C. Boogie. Another jam. First up is a good Zappa solo over a D pedal, very classic rock. Then we get some choice Zappa shenanigans, as he asks the audience to vote on how the song will end, offering them a boogie, a ballad, a march, a polka, or a dog food jingle. The boogie wins, and Gordon and Parlato play a mean John Lee Hooker one-chord shuffle for guitar solos and horn backgrounds. Big fun.
Imaginary Diseases. A funky march, this is the only Zappa song that could plausibly have been played by the Henry Threadgill Sextette. I note that Zappa and Threadgill were both devotees of Edgard Varese.
Gordon’s one-handed 16th’s on the hi-hat are loose, propulsive and ear-catching. His brief solo at 1:15 is an air-drumming viral video in waiting.
After the melody, it’s another long Zappa guitar jam. This sort of thing can seem dull, especially after “D.C. Boogie”. It’s just one chord, no dynamics, no obvious arc. It just hangs in one place and goes on and on…..
True enough, but that misses the point. A rock guitar solo is good if it rocks; in other words, if it pushes deeper into the tonality and rhythm, as opposed to getting away from it, as a jazz player might. It’s sort of like driving on an endless highway— the scenery doesn’t really change, nor does the elevation, but you could go forever.
Zappa was one of the best of his generation at this. Gordon, Dave Parlato (who has some great moments on this track, going high and getting in there with Frank) and rhythm/slide guitarist Tony Duran get down and rock out, creating the right texture for a classic Zappa solo and a perfect example of what jamming was all about.
The solo winds up, we get another iteration of the melody, and it’s over. Zappa thanks the audience, this is the natural ending place for the album.8
Jim Gordon’s musicianship and accomplishments were not enough to spare him the effects of his violent paranoid schizophrenia. By 1980, he was no longer able to work, as his condition had made him erratic and unreliable. Tragically, in 1983, paranoid and hearing voices, Gordon killed his mother. He was diagnosed, tried, convicted, and spent the rest of his life incarcerated, never playing music again. He died in March 2023, and here’s his NY Times obit.
The sad and violent end of Gordon’s career can’t be dismissed or written off, but neither can his remarkable achievement as a musician. The songs Jim Gordon played on are heard today, and they’re songs we’ve loved for almost 60 years, connecting generations, known across the globe.
We remember Gordon for his beat and his energy, but in his brief time with Zappa, we realize we could have known him for that, and a lot more.
All respect and gratitude to Jim Gordon, Frank Zappa, and their community, and as always, thank you all.
Gordon’s playing on “Wichita Lineman” is sublime, worthy of its own article.
Gordon is playing drumset on “Apache”. The vocal-like bongo part on the famous break was played by legendary percussionist King Errisson.
“Layla”, the song, and album, are of course properly credited to Derek and the Dominos, which consisted of Clapton, keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle, and Gordon. For the recording of their only studio album, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, Duane Allman guested on many of the tracks. And now I’ve written rock history.
Of course, Low Spark Of The High Heeled Boys, the song and album, is really by Traffic, the band led by Winwood on and off from 1967 to 1975. I credit it to Steve Winwood because, usually, when I mention Traffic to people my age and younger, I’m met by blank stares. Steve Winwood is much more recognizable.
Gordon is on most of Pretzel Logic, the Steely Dan album that starts off with “Rikki”.
The Zappa estate has since released a concert by the 20-piece band (Wazoo), a second live album by the 10-piece band (Little Dots), and their complete final concert at Winterland (available as part of the Waka/Wazoo box set). Gordon is featured on at least two Zappa studio tracks (“Apostrophe”, “Down In De Dew”), but for all of that, I find that Imaginary Diseases remains the best example of what Gordon brought to Zappa.
I thought this was the only solo Jim recorded, but a reader (pb) pointed out that he solos on Derek and the Dominos Live At The Fillmore on “Let It Rain”, which I completely overlooked.
The final track, “Montreal”, is another one-chord jam, less engaging and more monotonous than “Imaginary Diseases”. Of course, everyone sounds great, and I’m sure some folks love it.