(Photo credit:Courtesy of Freda Payne) Freda Payne is spellbinding as Ella
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I had the pleasure of interviewing Freda Payne this week in anticipation of her coming to the Bay Area for this show, A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.   I can’t remember the last time I used the adjective “glamorous “ in a review.  It is reserved for a person who is beautiful inside and out, with class and charisma. Freda Payne is glamorous. She is as genuine as her music.

 She talked about events in her life that led to her success and the hard work she put in to get to where she is today. When asked if she thought about retiring soon, she said she is doing what she loves, so it doesn’t seem like work. That sounds like a formula for happiness. She makes it seem easy to continue to please audiences with her wide range of vocal skills. I asked her if audiences today were different than those in the 70’s and 80’s. It was good to hear that she doesn’t think audiences are different.  Performers have to connect with their audiences to be successful, and that’s what she tries to do.

Freda Payne with vintage microphone. Photo by Anissa Sutton

The obvious question I asked was “Why Ella Fitzgerald?”  With Payne’s voice she could sing just about any style of music, and it would sound great. Her answer made it clear why she is paying tribute to the late, great Ella Fitzgerald.  Payne’s affection for the artistry of Ella Fitzgerald has been a constant throughout her life since first hearing Ella on the radio at age 11. “I was so attracted to the purity of Ella’s singing, her articulation, her phrasing and her choice of singing the standards.” Payne (age 20) recalls meeting Ella Fitzgerald backstage in the star’s dressing room after a performance at a New York City club in the Empire State Building: “I was in total awe of being in her presence – almost frozen.”

Over the past 20 years, Payne has portrayed Ella Fitzgerald in Ella: The First Lady of Song, written by Lee Summers and conceived/directed by Maurice Hines, Jr. in critically acclaimed performances nationwide, a role she will reprise later this summer at Michigan’s Meadow Brook Theatre.

Freda Payne photo by Alan Mercer

Though internationally renowned for her chart-topping 1970 Soul-Pop classic, “Band of Gold,” and subsequent hits “Deeper and Deeper” and the anti-war “Bring the Boys Home,” Payne began her career in Detroit singing jazz. According to her, talent contests played a big role in launching her career. At the age of 13 she won a talent contest in Detroit. Originally entering the contest as a dancer, she decided at the last minute to compete instead by singing. Needless to say, she won, and doors started opening for her. While still in her teens, she took second place on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, a show based in New York.  That show was an American staple, the precursor to shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. More talent contests were won; music industry icons began to request that she sign contracts with them, and talk show hosts wanted her on their shows.  As a minor, she couldn’t accept the terms of the contracts offered by some of the biggest producers in music history, including Berry Gordy and Duke Ellington.  Her mother refused to sign as well, and Payne credits her mother with knowing what was best.  She didn’t burn any bridges, so went on to perform with the greatest musicians of her time.

I asked Ms. Payne why she moved from Detroit to New York at the age of 18.  Not surprisingly, she thought that was where she could make it big.  While many artists seem to make that move unsuccessfully, for her, it was life changing, and her career took off. Along her meteoric singing career, Payne has worked with a “who’s who” of show business giants including Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones, Omar Sharif, Liza Minelli, Pearl Bailey, Johnny Mathis, Leslie Uggams, the Four Tops, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Della Reese, and actor/pianist Jeff Goldblum.

Freda Payne photo by Alan Mercer

She has lent her voice to everything from the standards, R&B and Quiet Storm to Disco, Pop and always back to Jazz. The artist’s illustrious career counts 21 albums with a new single, “Just to Be With You,” scheduled for release in 2024; multiple appearances on the front cover of Jet and Ebony magazines, among many other publications; guest appearances on all of the national TV talk shows including with hosts Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Arthur Godfrey, and Dick Cavett; serving as the host of her own TV talk show, “Today’s Black Woman;” cameo roles in several films and made-for-television movies; a guest appearance on “American Idol;” and the author of the 2021 publication Band of Gold – A Memoir, with an introduction by Mary Wilson of The Supremes. When asked about her book, she said it is full of events that made her who she is today. But, she says, there could always be a sequel because she didn’t tell all.  It’s an inspirational story of success.

Fittingly, the interview ended with Payne introducing her dog, at my request. Warm and genuine as an entertainer, she has those qualities that make you want to be in her audience if you can’t be her friend.  Her dog is one very loved pet.

Freda Payne Photo by Alan Mercer

We didn’t discuss the upcoming show at the Marin Center because it speaks for itself.  The smooth jazz of Ella Fitzgerald is unparalleled. Payne’s vocals hit the mark perfectly. She is billed as the Iconic “Band of Gold” singer, Motown, Broadway, concert and multi-Grammy-nominated recording star. Her show, A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, is nationally acclaimed. Her performance will masterfully recreate the spirit of legendary jazz singer Ella with renditions of timeless classics such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “It Don’t Mean A  Thing,” “How High the Moon,” and the iconic “Mack the Knife,” among many musical chestnuts.

Jazz singer Kenny Washington Photo by Jim Dennis

Appearing on stage with Payne will be special guest and prominent Oakland jazz singer Kenny Washington, along with a trio of A-list musicians featuring Grammy-winning Tammy Hall, piano; Leon Joyce, Jr., drums; and Gary Brown, bass.

Kenny Washington has thrilled audiences across the globe with his soulful interpretations, seemingly limitless range, and inventive scatting. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington appeared in 2013 with Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to perform Blood On The Fields, alongside vocalists Gregory Porter and Paula West. His talent makes him the perfect special guest in this tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

The perfect Valentine’s Day gift, tickets are now on sale and priced at $60 for VIP seating in the first three rows, including a champagne toast and post-performance “Meet and Greet with Freda Payne and Kenny Washington;” and $40 for General Seating with a no-host bar in the intimate Showcase Theatre, 20 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. Order online .

Watch the interview below (or on YouTube) to learn more about Freda Payne!


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