Motown star Freda Payne speaks about her memoir, new album and upcoming Seattle show
Freda Payne's 1970 Motown hit "Band of Gold" came after she'd already appeared on Broadway and had a successful run as a jazz performer. Robin Lloyd talked with Payne about her exceptional career.
Robin Lloyd: I'm about two-thirds of the way through your book, “Band of Gold, A Memoir.” It's really fascinating. There are many people who just don't know your history, and the fact that you had this whole other jazz and Broadway career before your 1970 Motown hit, “Band of Gold.”
Freda Payne: A little over an hour ago, I got a call from a friend of mine. We've known each other for many years and we've admired each other's work, and I adore her so much, Grammy winner Thelma Houston. I think she's the only female who was signed to Motown who ever got a Grammy for Best Female Vocalist. She called me to say, “Freda, I just finished your book. Girl, I didn't know you had did so much! Like, how did you remember all that stuff?” And I said, “Thelma? That's just the half of it! There’s stuff I left out!” Those were major things that I remember. There are a lot of things that I have probably forgotten. I didn't write about everything. I just wrote about the most outstanding events in my life, that's all.
RL: Well, I'm impressed with what you what you could remember, and I recall you saying that you never kept a diary.
FP: No, never kept a diary. Never kept a journal. I just wasn't into that. Now I wish I had, because I could really be in a good position to come back with a second memoir. You know? What I left out, or what I wanted to expound upon.
RL: Your co-writer, Mark Bego, has some pretty good credentials. [Mark Bego has written 67 books about rock & roll, show business, and even a cookbook: Eat Like a Rock Star.]
FP: Oh, Mark is great. Mark is very experienced and a dream to work with because he's always up and he's always ready. And let me tell you, this guy is always on time. He won't stand you up. He’s always right on time.
RL: That’s good. You need somebody like that.
FP: Yeah, somebody to kick me in the ass!
RL: We were thrilled to get your CD “Let There Be Love” at the radio station. We are playing your duet with Dee Dee Bridgewater.
FP: Oh, I love Dee Dee! We're doing “Moaning and Doodling.”
RL: Great combination and a great arrangement as well. You've been kind of lucky with that in your career: You've had wonderful arrangers and the right people around you, focused on getting you just the right things.
FP: Well, I'm blessed. I say I am a very blessed person. Luck has a lot to do with it, but the guy who really brought it together, who brought the whole concept of doing this album, was my producer. His name is Rodrigo Rios. He's a drummer and he's from Brazil.
Rodrigo would come to see my shows, and I'd be doing my tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. At first, he said, “Freda, I want to record an album on you doing the Ella songs, because you haven't done that yet.” I have portrayed Ella theatrically on the legitimate stage, and I have done solo performances where I go to clubs and performing arts centers and I do a tribute to Ella, but I haven't done an album.
And then we kind of kind of blew past that idea. Then he said, “I want you to do duets, and I want it to be with big band and strings." I said, “OK, now who do you have in mind?” He said, “Johnny Mathis. And I'm contacting Dee Dee Bridgewater. I want Kurt Elling.” And then I came up with the idea of Kenny Lattimore. We got all those people to say yes, and we had a designated date — all this was actually recorded in the year of 2019 — but then the pandemic came along, and you know the rest.
Also, most important, you can come up with some fantastic ideas and you can get a great cast, but, honey, if you don't have the right backing, it’s not going to fly. So we got James Michael Goetz, who was actually my significant other at the time. We had a great relationship, and he said, “Freda, you've got to do this, I'm going to cover this. I'm going to pay for it.” So he became the executive producer. He also had a lot to do with the creative part as well, like what songs I was going to sing.
Rodrigo had a connection with Gordon Goodwin, the arranger, who was superb. That's how it all came together.
RL: Just like everything else about your career, things seem to just fall together for you.
FP: I say it's if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. You know that saying in the Bible, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” There are a lot of talented people out there, just as talented as me and some way more talented. And sometimes they just don't make it. They're not in the right place at the right time. They just don't get the breaks or whatever, you know, not everybody's not anointed, I'll put it that way. There are artists who are just so good that they do eventually get discovered and somebody gets behind them.
The name of the game, when people ask me, “What advice would you give performers who are starting out?” Never give up. Keep pushing. Keep studying your craft. Keep trying to get better and better.
Now the whole business, the whole industry has changed from how it was back when I was coming up. Nowadays it's all about social media, and that's the way it is.
RL: You get new tools to work with. So what is next for you?
FP: Well, I'm going to be doing my Ella Fitzgerald show again. That's going to be in August and September of this year. It's going to be the play that I've done three times already, “Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song,” and I portray Ella along with other actors. It will be in the state of New York outside of Manhattan, at the Madison Theater at Malloy College.
But you know, I'm still recovering from my shoulder surgery. I had a total shoulder replacement of my right shoulder, due to arthritis. In 2020, I had my left knee replaced. Now, for women of my age group [Payne is 79] and even younger, it's kind of common to have a hip replacement, or a knee replacement, but not so common with the shoulder. But so far, I don't need a hip replacement!
Other than that, my health is very good. I started doing hatha yoga back in the 1970s, and I continued this practice up until I had to stop two years ago; because of the pandemic, the gym shut down, the yoga place shut down.
Now I'm gradually coming back. I work out with a trainer. It's harder now because the body has gotten stiffer and, you know, I’m not as agile and flexible as I used to be, but I'm still way more flexible than the average person.
You just want to get back to being normal and, you know, and go places. I still go out. I have some friends that'll call me and say, "We'll pick you up and we'll take you out, and we'll go to the movies." The night before last we went out and saw Gloria Gaynor’s show, to support her and have a pleasant, entertaining evening.
RL: Career-wise, is there something that you haven't done yet that you'd love to do?
FP: I haven't starred on Broadway. I have performed on Broadway as an understudy. When I was understudying Leslie Uggams in 1967, I was able to go on for her five times, and that was an accomplishment because the previous understudies never got to go on. I was the only one, and I enjoyed it. It's great.
That’s one thing about Broadway: They don't play. If you can't cut it, there's somebody waiting in the wings, just waiting to step in.
RL: You look fabulous; you obviously take good care of yourself. What do you do to protect your voice?
FP: I try not to catch a cold, or COVID! And I vocalize. My niece, my sister's daughter, Shoshana Payne Phillips, is a vocal coach. She has a studio in Studio City. It's called La Voix Vocal Studio, and she coaches people and a lot of young singers who are trying to get into the industry. And believe it or not, Thelma Houston has had a few classes with her!
You know, I call it “boning up"; like if you're an athlete or a dancer, you’ve got to go get in that gym and work out. So she does the vocal classes, and I do that too. I do that to warm up.
RL: It’s clear from your book that you’ve led an amazing life.
FP: Well, you can say I never let grass grow under my feet, for sure. Like that Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” I have my fun!
RL: We’re so happy that you’re coming to Seattle on February 5th.
FP: I'm really looking forward to playing the Triple Door. I see where Kurt Elling is playing there. I understand he's probably going to pack the place!
I went to see him in L.A. at a club called the Catalina Jazz Bar and Grill. That's a club that I work, too. I wanted to catch his show because we did our duet, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” on my album. I love our duet, especially the scat portion. I'm literally in love with his voice. He was doing a lot of material from his album “SuperBlue.”
We exchanged albums. He gave me his CD, I gave him mine. Of course, he's nominated for a Grammy, Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Oh, I forgot to mention, I've been nominated for an NAACP image award for Outstanding Vocal Jazz Album!
RL: I know, congratulations! You’re an inspiration!
Freda Payne appears at The Triple Door in Seattle on Saturday, Feb. 5.
Listen for Freda Payne’s duet with Dee Dee Bridgewater on KNKX Midday and Evening Jazz.