Even at the beginning of a career that would yield such classic hits as "Band of Gold," "Deeper and Deeper," and "Bring the Boys Home," Freda Payne was finding herself torn between the jazz and R&B worlds. The Detroit-born singer was barely in her teens when Berry Gordy, Jr. attempted to recruit her for his emerging Motown operation-before Mary Wells and Diana Ross had even entered the picture. Duke Ellington later featured the teenage vocalist with his famous orchestra for two nights in Pittsburgh and offered her a ten-year contract. But, as she had with Gordy, Freda’s mother declined Ellington’s offer.
Payne became established as a jazz singer in the mid-Sixties, touring with the Quincy Jones and Bob Crosby bands and cutting an album for Impulse!, producer Bob Thiele’s celebrated jazz label. Major media exposure came through appearances on television programs hosted by Johnny Carson, David Frost, and Merv Griffin, but Payne had no hits until she turned to R&B by hooking up with childhood friends Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, songwriter-producers who had just launched their own company after creating a string of smashes for Motown. "Band of Gold" soon followed, placing at No. 3 on Billboard’s pop chart in the U.S. and at No. 1 in the U.K.
Come See About Me, Payne’s first new recording for a nationally distributed label in nearly two decades, allows the versatile stylist to showcase the full scope of her vocal artistry for the very first time on one disc. "I’m doing pop, jazz, and R&B," she explains. "This album encompasses all three of those spectrums."
Payne’s first new recording for a nationally distributed label in nearly two decades, allows the versatile stylist to showcase the full scope of her vocal artistry for the very first time on one disc. "I’m doing pop, jazz, and R&B," she explains. "This album encompasses all three of those spectrums."
Produced by F.L. Pittman and Preston Glass, whose other work for the recently reactivated Volt label includes critically acclaimed albums by the Dells, the Dramatics, Brenda Holloway, and Lenny Williams, Come See About Me finds Payne applying her sumptuously rounded alto tones and a touch of scat to the old standard "You Turned the Tables on Me." "Let’s Make Beautiful Music Together," written by Glass and Mia Garitano-Rivera, also has a pronounced jazz flavor.
Payne’s brilliant reinterpretations of three oldies-Petula Clark’s "I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love," Tom Jones’s "I’ll Never Fall in Love Again," and Billy Vera’s "At This Moment"-are more in a pop vein. Glass and Rick Appling’s "You Complete Me" and Jim Gold’s "Nice to Be with You" serve as strong showcases for Payne’s ballad artistry. "First Impression" (written by Steve Fontano, who also engineered the album), "I Live for New York City" (by Pittman), and the title track feature the singer digging into dance grooves with consummate authority. They mark something of a return to the Detroit-style R&B with which Payne is most commonly associated. "Come See About Me," of course, was written for the Supremes by Holland, Dozier, and Holland but is given an entirely fresh treatment by Payne and arranger Glass.
Although she began studying classical piano at age 5, Freda Payne seldom sang as a child. Her younger sister Scherrie (later a member of the Supremes) was the singer in the family. "Scherrie was the one who used to get up and sing in front of people," Payne recalls. "She was the more gregarious one. I was painfully shy. I wouldn’t sing for anybody. I didn’t want people looking at me because I was so shy."
When she was 12, Freda came out of her shell, at the urging of Ruth Johnson, her piano teacher. "I didn’t know I had any ability to sing, but she needed to get together a little ensemble to sing a couple of numbers at the next piano recital," Payne recalls. "She auditioned me because she wanted to see if I sounded good enough to be in the ensemble. The song was ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.’ I started singing and she stopped and said, ‘Freda, you have a lovely voice.’"
She not only sang as part of the ensemble but also soloed on a number titled "Stars Are the Windows of Heaven." She was soon entering local talent contests and winning-as a singer and as a dancer. At 17, she auditioned for Pearl Bailey as a dancer but was hired instead as a background singer.
Payne’s first recording experience came when she was 13. Berry Gordy, Jr. wrote three songs for her-the titles of which, she vividly recalls, were "Father Dear," "The Moon Rock," and "Applications for Love"-and took her into United Sound Studios in Detroit to cut them. Not yet having established his own label, Gordy drove Freda, Scherrie, and their mother to New York City to try to interest Roulette Records in releasing Freda’s sides. But he’d neglected to sign her to a contract, and negotiations between Gordy and Freda’s mother broke down back in Detroit.
"It’s funny how life is," the singer reflects. "Sometimes you think you’re doing the right thing, and then you still gotta walk through the fire, you still gotta walk over those coals. I walked over the coals. Even though I didn’t go with Berry and Motown at the time, I went to New York later on and I still went through the fire. But you know what it was? It was God’s will. It was not meant to be that way for some reason. That’s why Diana Ross came along. Perhaps if I’d been there, there wouldn’t have been a Diana Ross. God has his way, even if we don’t understand it, of directing us and pushing us to do things. Either way I would have turned, I would have made it."
Payne finally made it in a big way after signing with Holland, Dozier, and Holland’s Invictus label in 1969-"Band of Gold," a catchy though curious tale of a honeymoon in which the marriage is never consummated, transformed the glamorous vocalist into a major international attraction. She scored six more hits for Invictus through 1973, followed by others for ABC, Capitol, and Sutra through 1982. During the past two decades, however, Payne increasingly has turned her talents to acting and has appeared on stages around the United States in such theatrical productions as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sophisticated Ladies, Blues in the Night, Jelly’s Last Jam,and, most recently, A Change Is Gonna Come,a play by Donald Welch about a black family’s adjustment to an interracial marriage.
"I’m an actress, yes, but people know me as a singer, so you need to have something current, something to talk about," Payne says. Come See About Me, her Volt Records debut and first new recording in five years, will indeed give people something to talk about, for whether singing pop, jazz, or R&B, there are few singers finer than Freda Payne.