Although he died more than five years ago, James Brown is considered “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”
Kelly Jarrell Gordon has firsthand knowledge that it's true.
“He demanded as much out of us as he did out of himself,” she said. “But I only heard James Brown kind of mess a note up one time. I mean, that's crazy because he'd do all those screams and this and that. But he nailed it every time.”
The Oklahoma City resident for 13 years was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's bevy of beautiful backup vocalists, The Bittersweet. She toured worldwide as part of his spectacular James Brown Revue, appeared with “The Godfather of Soul” and her bandmates in the movies “The Tuxedo” and “Blues Brothers 2000” and in one of her all-time favorite moments shared the stage with “Soul Brother No. 1” and Luciano Pavarotti during a special duet of “It's a Man's Man's Man's World.”
While touring with “The World's Greatest Entertainer” remains one of her longest and most memorable gigs, it is just one aspect of Gordon's eclectic entertainment career, which included cooking for late jazz saxophonist Stan Getz during his last tour in 1991, working as a personal assistant to actress Susan Dey and serving as executive director of the Augusta Opera in her native Augusta, Ga.
“My motto in life, obviously, has always been I don't take no for an answer. If I want something and it keeps coming up for me and it just feels right for me, I will not take no for an answer,” Gordon, 51, said with a grin.
When Gordon was growing up, her mother ran a children's theater company and had her own local TV show, while her stepfather was music and theater director at the Fort Gordon Army base.
“While other 14- and 15-year-olds were out just kind of being idle, I was going out to the playhouse and running lines with people and helping with sets and lighting,” she said. “I stuttered and my whole family's in theater so I needed something a little different because I didn't think I could be in front of people. And I started singing 'cause I heard Mel Tillis, and I thought, ‘Well, he stutters badly and he can sing fine!' So I kind of took that on and started singing.”
She played in various bands, did dinner and musical theater shows. Fellow Augusta resident Brown even invited her to perform with him after seeing her in a local Cole Porter revue.
“My mother had interviewed him once,” she said. “I was only 17 years old, and this was the big disco era and he wasn't very famous at the time because it wasn't his music and it was a lull in his career. ... So I was like ‘Eh, no.'”
She eventually moved to Atlanta, where she did some modeling and studied photography. Her interest in the latter prompted her to relocate in her late 20s to Los Angeles, where she quickly shifted to learning about massage therapy, aromatherapy and macrobiotic cooking. But she couldn't seem to stay out of the entertainment business.
“I was in my kitchen cooking a macrobiotic stew ... and this other girl was sitting around there and she happened to be Stan Getz's fiancee,” Gordon said with a smile. “She said, ‘We just lost our macrobiotic chef and massage therapist for Stan's tour. You should come on tour with us!' ... so I did his last tour.”
Her 1989-92 job with Dey also came about through serendipity, but she extended it through hard work. An aspiring writer friend had been ferrying the actress' daughter Sara back and forth to school but had to quit when she got a job at Spin magazine. The pal recommended Gordon to Dey, who was busily working on the hit TV show “L.A. Law.”
“She said, ‘Now this job is gonna last six weeks just until I can find a full-time housekeeper' ... but I kind of just ingratiated myself. I'd go pick up Sara and say, ‘Do you need me to take that dry cleaning to the cleaners for you?'” Gordon said. “Because of my relationship with Sara, I just stayed on for two years and became her personal assistant.”
Brown was finishing up his stint in prison in the late 1980s when Gordon's path again crossed with “The Godfather of Soul.”
“In Los Angeles, there were these ‘Free James Brown' stickers everywhere ... and I was living in an apartment and I wanted to break the lease. So I told the landlord — and this was not premeditated, it just kind of flew out of my mouth — ‘I have to go back to Augusta because I'm gonna be a backup singer for James Brown,'” she said.
A few months later, she returned to her hometown, opened a massage practice and started a jazz trio that played a regular gig at a local hotel that Brown frequented. One night on a break, she heard Brown sing “I Got You (I Feel Good)” at a fan's request.
“They had a boom box and he acted like it was his whole band behind him,” she said. “So one day, he came back into the hotel, and I took my break. I had a card and said, ‘Mr. Brown if you ever need a backup singer, I can sing, I can dance,' and I was doing all the moves. He was just out of prison and had just hired all these girls to go on tour with him ... and one of the girls didn't work out. So I took her place.”
Not only did she tour with Brown, whom she called “the most complicated person I've ever known in my life,” from 1993-2005, she also met her husband, Gary Gordon, through a mutual interest in “The Godfather's” music. Gordon, the CEO of Samuel Gordon Jewelers, spotted her on a concert DVD and thought she'd be perfect to sing a jingle he was working on. He tracked her down through one of her bandmates, and they became Facebook friends.
The jingle idea didn't work out, but when her relationship status changed from married to single, he traveled from Oklahoma City to Augusta to court her. They married last Valentine's Day.
A relative newcomer to Oklahoma, she recently produced an acting seminar with former Oklahoman and “CSI: Miami” regular Rex Linn, has been studying voice with Oklahoma City University's Florence Birdwell and has been participating in the Oklahoma
“I've always just pursued my interests, and I still do that,” she said. “The thing that I tell people is if you can't afford to take (singing) lessons, always sing in your school, sing in your church and sing along with the radio, do harmonies to those songs you hear on the radio. ... Just do something.”