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Oklahoma City woman relishes memories of singing with James Brown

Kelly Jarrell Gordon spent 13 years touring with “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business” as a member of his backing band The Bittersweet.
by Brandy McDonnell Published: June 1, 2012

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.”

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by Brandy McDonnell
Entertainment Reporter
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more than 1...
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