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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Freda Payne
interview by Jonathan Widran

Freda PayneWhile 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
jazz album?”

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.

 


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