“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview”
While Freda Payne will always be associated with “Band of Gold,” the million selling 1970 hit single that established her as a major R&B/pop star, the Detroit born and raised singer has a powerful foundational history in jazz, dating back to her performances with The Jimmy Wilkins Big Band at age 14. When she moved to New York City at age 20 in 1963, Payne worked with greats like Quincy Jones and Pearl Bailey, and her recording debut a year later, After The Lights Go Down and Much More!!!. was a jazz album on the legendary Impulse! Label, Her pop-oriented follow-up How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore was arranged and conducted by saxophonist Benny Golson.
Further establishing her jazz bona fides, Payne performed at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem alongside Billy Eckstine backed by Jones and His Orchestra, comedian Redd Foxx and the dance team Coles & Atkins. She also shared the stage with Duke Ellington for two nights in Pittsburgh, after which he composed “Blue Piano” just for her. Her multi-faceted career over the years has included being the understudy for Leslie Uggams for a Broadway production of “Hallelujah Baby!”; hosting her own talk show in the 80s (“Today’s Black Woman”); acting in films (including “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”); performing in the musical play “Ella Fitzgerald First Lady of Song,” which earned her a rave review in the Washington Post this year; playing arenas on British pop legend Cliff Richard’s “Soulicious” Tour in 2011; and performing at clubs and concert halls throughout the world.
Bringing her career full circle, Payne’s critically acclaimed new album Come Back To Me Love on Detroit based Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Records, finds her tapping into her jazz roots with big bands, strings and small trio settings. Co-produced, arranged and conducted by Grammy Award winning pianist Bill Cunliffe, the 14 track set features six new pieces penned by Mack Avenue owner Gretchen Valade and co-writer Tom Robinson, along with eight personally selected classic Payne favorites, including “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.”
JazzMonthly: What is the concept of the new album? How is it different from other recent projects of yours and how did it come together?
FP: It’s different because it’s more jazz and not commercial or R&B oriented, except a few of the originals by Gretchen and Tom that I would say are on the borderline of urban pop and smooth jazz. When Mack Avenue signed me, they wanted me to record some of their songs and also others of my own choice – and since it’s a jazz label, that meant no Motown type stuff. The project connects me to my roots in so many ways, not only because the label is in Detroit but because my first album deal was with the ABC/Paramount jazz label Impulse! I was singing jazz standards in big bands in my teens. The last two albums, Come See About Me in 2001, and On The Inside in 2007, were very different. The first was in the R&B pop vein and I was not involved in the artistic creation of it or pick any of the material. On the Inside was an independent R&B/pop project produced by Preston Glass that didn’t even have a proper label. On Come Back To Me Love, I had 100 percent creative involvement. Bill and I worked together on picking the Gretchen and Tom originals we thought we could do the best job on. Others that I chose, including an old Ivan Lins favorite “The Island” were mostly songs I had never performed before and always wanted to. The only one I had ever sung before was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”
JM: What brought you back to the studio after so long and how did the Mack Avenue deal happen?
FP: I was singing at a club called the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which is owned by Gretchen Valade. I would perform a few nights then return a few months later, like a return engagement. She asked me if I wanted to record for her label and I was really excited. Then, as these things often go, I didn’t hear anything for four months, and thought it could be another one of those situations where someone shows interest and then disappears. But I got a call from their A&R man Al Pryor (the album’s co-producer) and he said Gretchen was excited and wanted me to do the album. I was over the moon. I hadn’t been on a label for years, and to be signed to an established company and be able to do jazz was wonderful. That’s really where I’m at these past years. I felt it was a blessing from God.
JM: You have an extensive jazz background and started your career in jazz. But for
most people in our culture, your name is synonymous with “Band of Gold.” What are the positives and negatives of being known by so many as a one hit wonder?
FP: The upside of having that big hit was that it got my name out there and made me a viable commodity to get bookings and a lot of work as a singer. Of course the opportunities were primarily based on me doing that kind of music, where the audience expected me to be a soul singer. I was happy to get out there and the fact that I had a growing fan base. I still get fan mail from people who love the song and who share their memories! “Band of Gold” is still the magnet, still the draw. The downside, however, was and has long been that I was no longer getting respect as a serious jazz singer. Most people still think of me as an R&B/pop singer and I’m really not. I was a jazz singer who became a soul singer but remained a true jazz singer.
JM: How do you combat that perception when people say, “Wow, Freda Payne did a
FP: By doing jazz and doing it well and showing them that’s the kind of artist I am. I’m not a one trick pony. And showing them that with so many of the greats I admire like Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter gone, I’m still out there bringing the art form to people. I’ve had fun doing Ella shows of my own and doing the First Lady of Song show that’s directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines. I did it first in 2004 at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ and more recently at Metro Stage in Alexandria, VA. I’m not the only jazz performer out there with a strong affinity for R&B. When I go see Christian McBride, he’ll do an artistic jazz composition that blows people out of the water, and then do a song like Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” or a James Brown tune. He does that to connect his audience with the basic grassroots of R&B. Most of the time, I’ll sing “Band of Gold” at the end of my shows. At the release party for this album at BB King’s in New York, I sang it and walked off and people in the audience were calling out “Bring the Boys Home,” which was a popular follow-up hit. When I was signing autographs later, one gentleman said he came to see me specifically to hear that and was disappointed that I didn’t do it.
JM: 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.
JM: 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.
Interview - Jonathan Widran
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