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Freda Payne interview page 2

Freda PayneJM: Tell me about your childhood and the music you were listening to. When did you
start singing and what was your original career goal?

FP: I was only nine when my uncle Johnny died, but when I was five or six, I heard some of the albums from his amazing collection. He had albums by Duke and Lionel Hampton and classical records by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, Bach and Tchaikovsky. I listened to and loved them all. I also enjoyed jazz and blues, and my mom took me for piano lessons when I was six. She took me first to the Detroit Conservatory of Music and then a lady came to the house to teach me and my sister Scherrie, who sang with The Supremes in the 70s. I studied piano for eight years and it helped me overcome my shyness. I went to the music store to check out music books by Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rogers & Hart and learned that classic material. I later fell in love with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album and also Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Everything came into focus when I started singing around 13 or 14 and started to enter talent contests. Everyone told me I was good and that I should be a professional. It didn’t take long after that.

JM: Tell me about some of your early professional experiences.

FP: When I was 14, I auditioned for a radio show called Don Larg’s “Make Way for Youth” on WJR Detroit, and to ace that audition I had to be a good sight reader. I was one of only three black girls in the choral group they chose, singing spiritual songs like the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Then Berry Gordy, before he started Motown, heard about me and came to my house to speak with my mother, who knew his family from our church. Berry wanted to sign me at 14 and wrote three songs for me that we recorded at United Sounds. My sister recently found out that those recordings are still in the Motown archives. I didn’t sign with him, but later moved to New York and started singing standards at small clubs and larger supper clubs. I met Quincy and he created arrangements for me of songs he recorded with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. I worked a lot of amazing rooms, including the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village, Baby Grand in Harlem and the Persian Room. I also worked at hotels in the Caribbean, and through my manager got to appear on “The Tonight Show” and Merv Griffin. I patterned myself after another one of my idols Lena Horne. I wanted to look like her and stay in the classy jazz idiom and sing like Ella.   

JM: How did you segue from jazz to R&B and how did you come to record “Band of Gold”?

FP: I had a longtime connection with the famous Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland. Lamont Dozier was a friend from middle school. I had a class with Brian Holland at Central High and Berry brought Eddie Holland to my house when I was 14. In the late 60s, I was living in Central Park West in a community of high rises, and I got a call from the singer Tamiko Jones who lived in the next building. She said Brian was visiting her from Detroit and wanted me to come over to say hi. I met Brian again and congratulated him on his success. He asked if I had a record deal or management and it turned out that all of my contracts had run out. He said they just left Motown and had formed their own label Invictus and were looking to sign new artists. It was like another gift from God, an opportunity to get out there and get a hit. They gave me a lot of great songs to record and just handed me “Band of Gold” and told me they wanted me to learn it. I thought all their songs that I recorded were slammin’ and I had no idea at the time that “Band” would become an outstanding success. 

JM: It often upsets traditional jazz fans and jazz industry professionals when established pop stars like Lady Gaga, Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart do jazz oriented projects. What are your thoughts on that phenomenon? Is it good for the jazz genre?

FP: The first time I saw Lady Gaga sing really well was on “The Today Show.” She did a verse from “Someone To Watch Over Me” before leading into her pop stuff, and I said, ‘Wow, that girl can sing!’ I’ve heard some of the songs she just released with Tony Bennett and think she does a wonderful job. I think she can sing jazz. Not sure about scat, that’s a whole other level, as far as I’m concerned. Her success doing jazz only helps artists like me because she’s out there training and educating kids used to hearing her pop stuff to appreciate this kind of music. I think some jazz people only like a certain kind of music so they might not be as open to a pop singer moving beyond their comfort zone. It’s not much different from young kids listening to hip hop. I recently did a play in Dallas and was on a transport bus with the younger cast members and they were listening to an R&B station playing all rap and hip-hop – not my thing at all! If that’s all they hear, that’s all they’ll know. Gaga is sharing her love for standards with fans and since they love her, I’m sure they’re loving what she’s doing. 

Freda PayneJM: What do you think makes a great jazz singer and what have you enjoyed most about your career?

FP: It’s a singer who has a great ear and great imagination and who can interpret and be creative in their stylizing. And that can mean Ella and Sarah as well as Shirley Horn and Dianne Reeves. I also like Anita Baker who did some jazzy crossover stuff. As for me, I’ve enjoyed being onstage performing. I love dressing up, putting on makeup, getting up there and making people happy through music. I also love the fact that because of my chosen career I have been able to travel all over the world and meet so many interesting people.