She recorded radio hits in the 1970s from “Band of Gold” to “Bring the Boys Home.”
“Their reputation precedes itself,” Payne told WTOP. “It’s been there for many years in the D.C. area. … It’s one of the good clubs to play, so this will be my very first time playing Blues Alley ever. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve even visited the club. … This will be nice because this is my thing: cabaret, jazz clubs, performing arts centers, this is what I do.”
Which songs can we expect to hear on the set list?
“I do the American songbook, the standards, ‘The Best is Yet to Come,’ ‘Make Me Rainbows,’ I do the Alan & Marilyn Bergman songs, I even do some Broadway stuff, I do ‘Fifty Percent’ from ‘Ballroom,’ which is a very dramatic ballad, I do an Alberta Hunter song called ‘Rough and Ready Man.’ … I also have been doing a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald for 20 years.”
Born in Detroit in 1942, she grew up listening to Fitzgerald and all the greats.
“I got into music because of my Uncle Johnny,” Payne said. “He had a record player [and] I would get right up to the speaker and listen to Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Rachmaninoff … Bach, Beethoven … When I got to be 11 or 12, I started listening to the radio. I’d hear Ella and I’d say, ‘What a beautiful, piercing voice,’ then Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Eydie Gorme.”
After attending the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts, Payne moved to New York City to pursue a music career in 1963, working with legends from Quincy Jones to Pearl Bailey.
“I had been approached by Berry Gordy Jr. when I was 14, he had heard about me, I had become a child prodigy around Detroit, winning contests on TV … this was pre-Motown,” Payne said. “He sought me out, wrote songs for me and wanted to manage me, but he and my mother couldn’t see eye to eye. … By the time I turned 18, I decided I’m going to go to New York.”
In 1964, she recorded her debut album, “After the Lights Go Down Low and Much More!!!”
“I landed my deal at ABC-Paramount when I was still 19, either that or going on 20, that was in 1963 and then my first recorded jazz album came out in 1964, but my first single was called ‘Slightly Out of Tune,’ which was the lyric put to the hit jazz song ‘Desafinado’ by Stan Getz. … That became a very popular tune, it’s still very recognizable today.”
She left the New York City label Impulse! to return home to Detroit and sign with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus Records in 1969. There, she recorded the 1970 hit single “Band of Gold,” which instantly created conversation about the song’s controversial bedroom tale.
“When I first heard the song … I said, ‘Well, let me see the lyrics,'” Payne said. “When I got to the line, ‘But that night on our honeymoon we stayed in separate rooms,’ I said, ‘Hmm, I don’t know about this song, these lyrics. Why would a young girl get married then have her husband leave on their honeymoon night? What’s up with that? Somebody messed up!'”
She followed up with the Vietnam War protest song “Bring the Boys Home” in 1971.
“‘Bring the Boys Home’ became my second gold record, so you can’t say I’m a one-hit wonder; I’m a two-hit wonder!” Payne said. “It spoke to the hearts of families, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and kids of guys who were over there. … I’ve been greeted my many Vietnam vets saying, ‘Thank you for recording that song … because it gave us so much hope and comfort.”
Even so, the song stirred up controversy from more hawkish politicians at home.
“They banned it from being played in South Vietnam,” Payne said. “It was banned by the Republican Party. Richard Nixon was in office. … They sent a telegram to Invictus Records two weeks after it was released: ‘This song cannot be played in South Vietnam due to the fact that is giving aide and comfort to the enemy. They were trying to say I’m Tokyo Rose!”
Meantime, her younger sister, Scherrie Payne, joined The Supremes from 1973 to 1977.
“Sherrie replaced Jean Terrell, who replaced Diana Ross,” Payne said.
As for Freda, she joined Capitol Records for three disco albums “Stares And Whispers” (1977), “Supernatural High” (1978) and “Hot” (1979). On television, she hosted the talk show “Today’s Black Women” (1981) and on the silver screen, she starred in “The Nutty Professor II” (2000).
For all this, she was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.
“I wrote a book, my memoir called ‘Band of Gold: A Memoir’ By Freda Payne and Mark Bego, who co-wrote the book with me,” Payne said. “You can get it on Amazon Prime. … Or, I will be bringing some books for sale at Blues Alley. After the show, I will be there to autograph books. If someone wants to buy a book, I will graciously autograph it.”