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Freda Payne: Coming Back to Jazz

The “Band of Gold” singer returns to her roots

Freda Payne
Freda Payne (photo: Anissa Boudjaoui)

Freda Payne didn’t expect to be known as a soul singer with a hit single that would resonate across decades. She wanted to be a singer of jazz and the Great American Songbook. After all, she’d been recruited (unsuccessfully) by Duke Ellington to be his band’s principal singer when she was only 17. She’d recorded her debut album, When the Lights Go Down and Much More!!!, for a new subsidiary of ABC called Impulse!, with arrangements by Manny Albam. And she’d performed with Lionel Hampton’s band, as well as with Billy Eckstine and his gifted young arranger Quincy Jones.

But Brian Holland, an old schoolfriend from Detroit, had other ideas when he ran into Payne in New York City in 1969. He and his writing partners Brian Dozier and Eddie Holland had left the Motown nest after producing countless hits there to form their own label, Invictus. Bringing Payne back to Detroit to record for Invictus, they wrote an album’s worth of material for her, including “Band of Gold,” about newlyweds working out their differences. That 1970 single would be another hit for Holland-Dozier-Holland and Payne’s first gold record—a legacy that she’s been saddled with, for better or worse, ever since. “It was a double-edged sword,” Payne says. “I wanted a hit so bad to boost my career. Now that I’ve got this hit, people think I’m a soul singer and I’m not. And I have to sing it everywhere. And I had to sing songs that were similar. Jazz was my thing.”

Payne would indeed go on to record more soul music in the ensuing years, but nothing with the massive success of “Band of Gold.” A singer of remarkable tone and range as well as an actress and dancer, she eventually established a long and productive stage, television, and film career. In recent years, she’s returned more actively to her jazz roots; her 2014 Mack Avenue album Come Back to Me Love features both standards and original material from Gretchen Valade, Mack Avenue’s owner. Payne is particularly proud of her latest recording, Let There Be Love, an EP of duets with Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kenny Lattimore, and Johnny Mathis, with arrangements by Gordon Goodwin. The recording demonstrates her ability to sell a lyric vocally and her facility with jazz, swing, and improvisation. All that comes from a lifetime of performing and singing. 

Born and raised in Detroit, Payne was exposed to all sorts of music thanks in large part to her uncle Johnny, who shared his vast and varied record collection with her, starting when she was just four or five. That was the first time she heard Duke Ellington as well as classical giants like Rachmaninoff, Bach, and Mozart. Payne was truly a prodigy, learning to play her grandmother’s piano and eventually studying at the Detroit Conservatory of Musical Arts for a while before settling into private lessons with a Mrs. Ruth Anne Johnson, who gave the young Payne fundamentals in music that would serve her well.

Interestingly, Payne was overshadowed as a singer by her younger sister Scherrie (who would later go on to sing with the Supremes), and it wasn’t until Mrs. Johnson pushed the 12-year-old Freda to sing at a recital that her talents were appreciated. “After that, my mother’s friends would say, ‘Freda can sing, she’s got a good voice, we want her to sing at our luncheon or tea,’” Payne recalls. “And I started singing a little bit in church as well.”

At 13 she went on the Ed McKenzie Saturday Dance Party, a local TV show. “Ed McKenzie was like Detroit’s version of Dick Clark,” she explains. “He would have teenagers dancing to the latest pop and rock & roll tunes. He would feature a headliner, somebody who was really popular at the time like Sammy Davis, Jr. or the Four Freshmen or Della Reese. They also featured a talent contest.” 

Payne won that contest the first time she entered. “I won a trophy and a record player. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a singer. That was the turning point. I remember I took a picture with Sammy Davis because he was the headliner on that show.” She was 14 when she got a job singing on a radio show at Detroit’s WJR-AM. “Then I started singing jingles,” she says. “I did radio commercials when I was 16 and because of that I had to join AFTRA. On my AFTRA card, it says, ‘A member since 1959.’”

Shortly thereafter she attracted interest from an ambitious young neighborhood man, who’d been writing and plugging songs with limited success. Several years before he founded Motown, Berry Gordy, Jr. was a regular visitor to Payne’s dance classes; he wrote some songs for her (including “Father Dear, Your Daughter Done Fell in Love,” “Applications for Love,” “Moon Rock,” and “Can You Give Me a Star?”), which they recorded as demos at United Sound in Detroit. However, before Gordy could shop the songs to a label in New York, pop music’s hub at that time, he had a sit-down with Payne’s mother. “I was sitting on the stairway between the dining room and the living room when they were talking business—about him wanting to manage me,” Payne recalls. “My mother kept asking questions. At the end, my mother wouldn’t let me sign because he would not alter anything in the negotiations.” Payne admits to wondering sometimes how things might have been different, but she has no regrets: “You don’t know what would have happened,” she explains. “I believe that everyone has their own fate and their own road. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Payne then auditioned successfully for a background singer/dancer role with Pearl Bailey’s touring show. “We went to Cincinnati, to New York,” she remembers. “We were at the Apollo. That was my first time at the Apollo. It was an eye-opening experience for me because Pearl was a strong woman who was determined. She ruled the nest. She was the boss. After we left the Apollo, we went to DC to work the Howard Theater. After that I went home.” 

Another impresario came to call when Payne was 17. Duke Ellington was performing with his orchestra at the Riviera in Detroit and had heard about the precocious young singer from his son Mercer, who had met a family friend, lawyer Allen Early, at a cocktail party. “Allen started telling Mercer Ellington about me. It was worked out that Mercer Ellington was invited to our home and I sang for him in our living room. He said, ‘You sing pretty good. I want my dad to hear you.’ Duke was in town and staying at the Gotham Hotel. They arranged for me to meet with the Duke. I went to his suite and he had a piano [there]. We did a couple songs, including ‘I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).’ He played with me and then he turned around and said, ‘You remind me of Lena Horne. I wanna hear you sing with the band.’” 

The band was heading to Pittsburgh for an engagement at the Holiday House; Ellington encouraged Payne to get a ride east to sit in with them there, which she did, accompanied by her mother and a pianist named Mac Ferguson. “That night Duke called me up onstage and I sang with the band. After that we drove back home. He called us up and he said, ‘I’m going to send you a contract. I want you to be my band singer.’ He sent the contract to the house. We read the contract. And Allen Early read the contract. We said, ‘We want to change some things.’ The contract was for 10 years! Allen said, ‘This can’t be 10 years, it goes beyond your 21st birthday, so we got to alter this. Furthermore, someone is going to have to travel with you on the road, because you’re just 17 years old.’ My mother would have had to go on the road with me. I had a feeling she really didn’t want to do that. I remember my mother saying, ‘Mr. Ellington, you have my daughter set at a certain salary, but what if in four or five years, you’ve made my daughter a star and she can get offers for thousands of dollars more? Would you alter her salary?’ He said, ‘No.’ After all this back and forth, he said, ‘Oh, forget it.’ He hired Milt Grayson after that. He stayed with Duke quite a few years.” Another negotiation stalled by the intransigence of a visionary with a tough business sense.

Things came full circle more than 20 years later when Payne was booked to headline the Ellington musical Sophisticated Ladies, which had become a hit on Broadway and went on repeated tours around the country. “Every night at the beginning of the second act, I would do ‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ There was a huge picture of Duke, the one with the top hat, on the big screen behind me. I would always turn around and look at the photo and say, ‘Well, Duke, you finally got me.’”

An 18-year-old Payne ended up moving to New York, where she sang around town at clubs and cabarets, eventually meeting yet another legend-to-be. “I met Quincy Jones at a restaurant in New York,” she says. “He was performing at Basin Street East. He was with Jerome Richardson. They came to this restaurant at 48th between Broadway and 8th Avenue after their show and the guy who owned the restaurant, Danny Sims, said to me, ‘I want you to meet Quincy Jones, he’s really doing things. He’s got his own big band and he’s going places.’ He introduced me to Quincy, and we left there to go to another nightspot where they had a trio playing. He said, ‘Why don’t you get up there and sing?’ I got up and sang ‘If I Were a Bell.’ Then around 1963 he called me and said, ‘I’m going into the Apollo with Billy Eckstine. Billy is the headliner and we’ve got Redd Foxx and [dance duo] Coles & Atkins. I would like you to be on the bill.’ I said, ‘YES!’”

She got her first record deal shortly thereafter with ABC-Paramount, which had just created the Impulse! jazz imprint. Her debut album, produced by Bob Thiele, featured jazz stalwarts such as Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Art Davis, Phil Woods, and Zoot Sims on Ellington’s “Blue Piano,” Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” and other standards. She went to Europe for a tour and ended up staying in Stockholm for three months. “They loved me in Stockholm,” she says. “They wanted to keep me there in Europe and build me into a big star there. But I didn’t want to stay in Europe that long on a permanent basis.” She did record a jazz album there—Freda Payne in Stockholm—which featured Toots Thielemans on his own composition “Bluesette.”

Her fortuitous reunion with Brian Holland happened shortly after her return to New York and for the next decade or more, thanks to “Band of Gold,” Payne would be pigeonholed as a soul and R&B singer, even doing some disco tunes. At the same time, she was spreading her creative wings by hosting an innovative talk show, Today’s Black Woman, and appearing in numerous Broadway and theater productions, including a long run with Sophisticated Ladies and an appearance in the production of Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song. She also acted in various movie, such as The Book of Numbers, Private Obsession, Ragdoll, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Fire and Ice; she’ll be in the upcoming Netflix film Family Reunion. Through it all, she continued to sing jazz and standards, mostly at clubs around L.A.

Payne’s very public “return” to jazz happened in 2013, when she recorded Come Back to Me Love, which features arrangements by pianist Bill Cunliffe for a big band of L.A. vets like Bob Sheppard, Pete Christlieb, and Joe LaBarbera. Along with new material from Valade and Tom Robinson, she sings classic tunes like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and “The Island.” Payne admits to a particular love for the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman: “They are in that category of Gershwin and Porter … they write some heavy tunes.”

The current EP came about when the Brazilian producer Rodrigo Rios contacted Payne about doing some duets with Bridgewater, Mathis, and Elling. It was her idea to bring in Lattimore. Mathis sounds as silky-smooth as ever crooning with Payne on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” while Payne and Elling take “Love Is Here to Stay” from a slow tempo to a fast-paced scat performance. (“I think he’s one of the baddest male scatters, aside from Jon Hendricks, who I think was the best,” Payne says about Elling. “I worked with Jon in Cologne, Germany for a tribute to Duke Ellington. It was such a wonderful week. Jon was such a delight.”) Most of the songs were picked by Rios, but Payne chose the two songs for the duet with Bridgewater. “I always wanted to do ‘Doodlin’’ and I started singing it in my head and I said to myself, ‘I hear “Moanin’” here,’” she says. “I told Gordon [Goodwin] and he came up with the great arrangement for it. To do it with Dee Dee was a real pleasure.”

According to Bridgewater, the setting made a difference. “The recording session in the magical Studio A [at Capitol] was like walking into a Sunday family hangout,” she wrote in an email to JazzTimes. “The energy was so positive, you could feel the love and mutual respect when you walked into the control room. Everyone had their phones out taking pictures and filming. Michael Goetz, her executive producer, made sure everyone was comfortable recording, he did a fabulous job. And her musical producer Rodrigo Rios took great pains to make sure Freda and I were comfortable both with the music and when recording our duet. Studio A is known to be the Grammy studio. Projects recorded there go on to win Grammys. I recorded some of my double Grammy-winning CD Dear Ella there! And I got to hang a bit with Johnny Mathis, a teenage crush. He’d just finished golfing and stopped by.”

Bridgewater also affirmed Payne’s talent as a bona fide jazz singer. “She’s a most gracious human being and I have a lot of admiration for her,” Bridgewater wrote. “And she’s got great jazz chops! It’s rare to have the opportunity to record with another female vocalist known from another musical genre, so I was flattered she asked me to collaborate with her.”

With such a storied life, it should come as no surprise that Payne is writing a memoir, which she hopes will come out in September. “I didn’t keep a diary,” she explained. “I had to go by my memory. I just did the best I could do.”

In memory of Eulis Cathey, who made significant contributions to this story.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

After the Lights Go Down and Much More!!! (Impulse!, 1964)
Freda Payne in Stockholm (Sonet, 1965)
Band of Gold (Invictus, 1970)
Come Back to Me Love (Mack Avenue, 2014)
Let There Be Love (The Sound of L.A., 2021)