Even at the beginning of a career that would give way to 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 May 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.
Freda became established as a jazz singer in the mid-60's, touring with the Quincy Jones and Bob Crosby bands and cutting an album for Impulse!, producer Bob Thiele's celebrated jazz label. Although she did not have a selling hit just yet, it did not stop her from quickly gaining popularity while receiving media exposure through appearances on television programs hosted by Johnny Carson, David Frost, and Merv Griffin. Freda soon focused on R&B by working with childhood songwriter-producers Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier who started their company after creating a string of hits 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.
Although she began studying classical piano at the age of 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."
At the age of 12, Freda came out of her shell, with influence from her piano teacher, Ruth Johnson. "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.'"
Not only did Freda sing as part of the ensemble she also soloed on a number titled "Stars Are the Windows of Heaven." Soon she was 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 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 and interest Roulette Records in releasing Freda's sides. But he'd neglected to sign a normal contract, and negotiations between Gordy and Freda's mother broke down back in Detroit.
Payne finally found success 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 Invicuts 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" Payne says. Whether singing pop, jazz, or R&B, there are few singers finer that Freda Payne.