Freda Pays Tribute To Ella

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[Entertainment: Music]

Freda Payne had a date the day we interviewed. 

However, before heading to a French dinner, she took time to chat with me. 

The winner of two gold records “Band of Gold,” and “Bring the Boys Home,” Freda looks amazing.  She is in preparation for her upcoming engagement at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York, where she will feature her tribute show to Ella Fitzgerald.  Located at 51st Street and Broadway, the club headlines Ms. Payne from August 6-9th for their 8:30 and 10:30 pm sets.

Recently in town, Freda participated in a project to record the unrecorded music of Harry Warren, the songwriter of  "At Last,”an R&B version Etta James successfully recorded, later crossing it over to pop.  “The song, written in 1942, was initially recorded by another artist but Etta put it on the map,” said Freda. 

“It became Etta's signature song.  Warren was actually born in 1893, so he was no spring chicken.  He came up through the Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers era and wrote old songs like “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” and “Jeepers Keepers.”

A lot of talent has come out of Detroit, entertainers like Freda and her sister Scherrie Payne, Smokey Robinson, Tom Selleck, Diana Ross, Sugar Ray Robinson, Robert Wagner, Aretha Franklin, Della Reese, Barry Gordy, and Gladys Knight.  “Don't forget about Madonna and The Four Tops,” added Freda. “I think black folks from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas migrated to Detroit back in the 1940s.  My grandmother was born in Birmingham, Ala., and my father Fred Payne, was born in Asheville, North Carolina and migrated to Detroit in his early 20s,” said Payne, who was introduced to music as a toddler by her uncle who played classical and jazz music recordings.

“I studied piano at 5 years old wherein I was exposed to Bach, Duke  Ellington, Count Basie, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Sarah Vaughn and Della Reese.  I started playing songbooks and teaching myself standards.  That is how my musical training evolved. 

“Before there was a Motown label, Berry Gordy came into my life at age 14,” continued Payne whose sister Scherrie Payne, at one time, sang with the Supremes.  “I had been in a talent contest called Ed McKenzie's Dance Hour that was on NBC, so I had a little fame.  Gordy learned of me and wrote some songs for me at United Sounds.  We recorded 3 songs but we couldn't come to agreement over contract terms so my parents decided not to sign,” explained the talented artist who was Berry's very first female protegee.

Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier wrote “Band of Gold” for Freda which won her a gold record. “I signed with HDH in 1968 and recorded my first R&B single in 1969. “Band of Gold” came out in early 1970,” remarked the entertainer whose shows have garnered rave reviews.

“My tribute show to Ella Fitzgerald, is me, Freda, making a tribute to Ella by talking about her life and singing her songs while keeping the content as close to Ella as possible.  Fitzgerald recorded and co-wrote “A Tisket, A-Tasket” with Van Alexander.  It was her first hit record and stayed on the charts for 16 weeks.  Ella was one of the greatest female scatters in the world bar none.  I listened to Ella sing “How High the Moon” and was amazed  by her uncanny scatting ability.  I scat in my show in tribute to her” said Freda who once sang with the Duke Ellington orchestra.

“Duke wanted me to sing with his band.  He sent me a 10 year contract.  I was 17 then, but again, we couldn't come to contract terms, so I never did become his band singer” said Freda who ended up touring with Pearl Bailey.  “Pearl, who was at her zenith at the time, was looking for a background singer.  I got hired.  Pearl had gone as far as one could as a black woman during that time.  She was a movie star and singer.  However, if you worked for Ms. Bailey, you abided by her rules.  She insisted all the singers wear the same perfume as she, as well as wear the same shade of makeup as Pearl.  It was too dark for me.  Pearl also made a white girl in the band wear Pearl's shade.  Clearly, Pearl's shade did not match this white singer's complexion or mine.  As impossible as it was, Pearl's intent was to have all the singers match in complexion,” chuckled Freda.  “Pearl was a superstar back then which was no small feat, so everyone went along with her quirks.  There were no Denzel Washingtons' or Will Smiths then.  It just didn't happen!” noted Freda who has appeared in award winning musicals like Jelly's Last Jam, Ain't Misbehavin', Blues in the Night and Sophisticated Ladies.

In 1971, as part of the Viet Nam protests to bring the boys home, Payne recorded 'Bring the Boys Home,' an appropriate song to bring back, as President Obama attempts to bring the boys home from Iraq and Afghanistan per his campaign promise.  Freda teamed up with Darlene Love, appearing at Feinstein's at the Regency Hotel in New York, and the Cinegrill in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in LA, via their show “Love & Payne.”

Most recently, she appeared on American Idol as part of their Diva Disco Era.  Internationally, she performed at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland for its 75th Anniversary Celebration honoring Quincy Jones.  A DVD of that festival will be released this year.

Ms. Payne will be appearing at the RRAZZ ROOM in San Francisco's Hotel Nikko on November 17th
and at the Sierra Ballroom at the Sun City, in Palm Desert, CA., February 2010.

Interested parties can visit Payne's website at, and/or hear her radio interview with me on my show “Topically Yours,” on the BlakeRadio Network, Rainbow Soul, via http://

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