A We Were Funky Exclusive Interview by Rahmana Finney
WWF got to talk with the legendary and enchanting Freda Payne, renowned for her 1970 hit Band of Gold, which was written by the iconic song-writing trio Holland, Dozier and Holland. In addition to topping the music charts with dance tunes like Love Magnet and classics like Deeper and Deeper that has that Funk Brothers Motown sound, Payne has lived an extraordinary life having found success in music, theater, film, and television. She starred in the hit Broadway musical Hallelujah Baby, understudying for the great Leslie Uggams and was able to go on a whopping 5 times. She has appeared in multiple films including Private Obsession (1995), Ragdoll (1999), and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). She even hosted her own talk show, Today’s Black Woman, in 1981. Despite her incredible diversity as a triple threat (dancer/singer/actress), Payne’s true love as she tells it, is jazz. She has been rubbing elbows with the likes of Duke Ellington, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, and Sarah Vaughn since she was 14 years old. Ms. Payne is truly a living legend, and has lived to carry the torch for our great musical past, many of whose hero’s and heroines hail from her hometown, the great city of Detroit—the Motor City! And let me tell you, she has done it with tremendous style, panache, and talent. Please enjoy the inspiring words and stories from the fabulous Freda Payne.
WWF: I have to tell you that I was talking with a friend of mine who is a DJ, and when I told him we were interviewing Freda Payne he almost lost it! He was like “Oh my God! She is a legend! I still have some of her 45’s! That was one of the first 45’s I ever bought.”
FP: It just knocks me out when I hear people say they have the first 45 of mine they ever bought! I mean, I can’t believe it. It really tickles me. I mean wow, it’s really something.
WWF: You’ve really had an impact. When we went in and really looked at your musical career, we were blown away. I was like wow, I am talking to a legend here. We checked out some of your interviews and you talked about how you got started at 14 and how much you love jazz, but watching you perform, you’re such a natural, you’re so comfortable, the first thing we would like to know is how were you groomed before you were 14? Before you really started professionally had you had any formal training?
FP: Oh yes. So it started with my mother taking me to have piano lessons when I was about 6 or 7. And I didn’t request that, she just took me. She took me to the Detroit Conservatory of Musical Arts. I had piano lessons there for almost a year, I participated in one recital. After that she continued my lessons with privates from a lady named Mrs. Ruth-Ann Johnson who came to our house once a week, and she gave piano lessons to me and my younger sister. That went on for about 7 years, and then I stopped at 12 because I kinda lost interest, and that’s when I started to get into singing. I really didn’t realize that I had an exceptional gift for singing until I was 12, and it was the piano teacher who brought it out, who discovered it. She asked me to sing at the next recital, to see if my voice was good enough to participate in an ensemble doing a song called June Is Bursting Out All Over. After hearing me sing, she said “Freda, your voice is really good, I didn’t know you could sing like that!” —cause my sister was the one that was always singing and I was real shy.
After that, I started entering talent contests, in and around Detroit, and then I actually entered one that was on television. It was a show called McKenzies Dance Hour, and it was very similar to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. It came on channel 4 every Saturday, and they had a portion of the show where they had a talent contest, only 4 acts, about 15 to 20 minutes of the show. The rest of the show would be kids and couples dancing, and also they would have a guest star who was head-lining at one of Detroits’ leading night clubs. People like Sammy Davis Jr., Della Reese, you know, so anyway the first time I went on, I won first place!
About 6 months later, they called me back to do it again, and I won the 2nd time! By this time I was 13 — the first time I won Sammy Davis was the guest and I took a picture with him; I still have that picture. And when I was 14, I auditioned for a radio show that was called Don Large’s Make Way For Youth; it came on every Saturday at 2 pm on NBC all over the country. You had to audition for it and you had to be a good site-reader because we only had 2 rehearsals during the week—Tues and Wed night, and we sang all kinds of music. Now this was a predominantly white organization, it was a choral group and most were white except for me, a girl named Ursula Walker, and another girl named Carmen Mathis. Ursula was already known around Detroit as a singer. She was about 1 or 2 years older than me, I would call her a prodigy.
I used to always say I wish I could sing as good as Ursula. Then Don large would pick us out to do solos; so I was on that radio show for 3 years. They eventually hired me to do some commercials when I was 16. That’s when I joined AFTRA, and then I started working with a guy named Max Ferguson who was a mentor, and he really encouraged me to learn more standards, and you know stuff from the American Songbook. So that’s my background!
WWF: So did your mom ever tell you that she felt like she saw something in you or do you think she was just trying to keep you busy? Did she have a love for music? What was her motivation?
FP: Her motivation was, I guess, to bring me out, to make me successful. She kinda had to pull it out of me. I guess I didn’t have enough faith in myself, but she saw something in me—and then my Grandmother, she passed away when I was 10, she never got to see me on stage, but she had the foresight, let’s say a prophetic vision of what I could be, cause my mother told me later that my grandmother had said “Don’t worry about Freda, she’s gonna fool everybody.” So she really saw something in me. And my mother started to pull it out; she put me and my sister into ballet classes, when I was 12, for two years, then in high school I took modern dance—
I had Russian Ballet, Modern Dance — of course I didn’t have a Ballet Body, you know, most ballet dancers have wide feet, and aren’t busty. I was busty at the age of 12, fully developed, and ah, they just don’t have big hips!
So anyway, I actually wanted to be a professional dancer.
WWF: I knew it! We could really see how much you really enjoyed dancing.
FP: Yeah, but it wasn’t meant to be because my singing took over.
WWF: Ok, so we see that your mom turned down 2 giants, and I would love to hear why. First she turned down Berry Gordy, and then we see that Duke Ellington wanted you to tour with his band and she said no. Why did she say no to those offers?
FP: Ok, well first of all, when Berry wanted me I was 14. Berry wrote 4 songs for me and we recorded, now this was pre-Motown, before Mary Wells or Marv Johnson or any of those people, so basically he was very interested in me, and he wanted to manage me, but he and my mother just couldn’t see eye to eye cause his demands were excessive and my mother, being a very smart woman, just wasn’t having it. And he wouldn’t negotiate. He would say “Oh I want a 25% management fee” and she would say no that’s a little too much, what about 15?
WWF: Oh she was so smart—my goodness.
FP: And he would not budge! You know, so that was the reason, the only reason.
WWF: Ok, and what about Ellington?
FP: And then Ellington, I auditioned for him, and I got to sing with his band, and then he mailed a contract, and he wanted to sign me up for 10 years. I was 17 at the time, and my mother said well Mr. Ellington what if in 3 or 4 years you’ve made my daughter a star, and she can command an audience of 1000’s rather than 100’s? Would you be willing to re-adjust her fee for singing with you? And he said no, so it was stuff like that.
WWF: Wow. I’m sure somewhere down the line you realized how lucky you were to have a mom like that; she really looked out for you. That is amazing. Duke Ellington was just one of the most prolific composers ever, up there with how we consider Bach and Beethoven.
FP: Oh yeah, and then again don’t forget Billy Strayhorn. He did a lot of work with Duke Ellington, you know he was the sole composer of A Train, and Lush Life, and a few other songs.
WWF: Absolutely - so true. I want to ask, what do you think it is about Detroit? Can you give us your thoughts on that? This is a place that seemed to have created and nurtured some of the most amazing talent—is there any explanation that you have for what it is about Detroit that produced such phenomenal talent?
FP: Well I think Detroit, first of all, let’s say, the parents of the talent, their parents migrated from the south, my mother was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and my grandmother brought my mother at the age of 3 to Detroit. The Gordy family, they came from Georgia, and then you know Mary Wilson was born in Mississippi, so you know you had people coming from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, you know from the South. And I don’t know if you realize it, but back then in the 40’s and 50’s, you had General Motors, and it was booming, so that’s why they called it the Motor City. These people had jobs. my father worked at Ford, my grandfather, even all my uncles, they all worked at the car factory, and so Detroit was booming then. When GM went under, that’s when Detroit started to go under.
WWF: Right. So what we witnessed essentially, is that when you freed the descendants of these people that were enslaved and they had the opportunity to have some security and take care of their families, that talent and all that creativity was just unleashed. Nothing to hold it back.
FP: Yeah, and then again I would also say that, within the Black Race, we are innately talented.
FP: We have so much talent and abilities, we have a lot going for us, I mean of course you have your doctors, and your CEO’s of business companies, but the people in the black race are blessed with a lot of artistic abilities.
WWF: A word that I like to use is ‘annointed’
FP: That’s it too. Annointed.
WWF: So, we also saw that when you moved to NY, you made this interesting statement, you said it was like ‘Baptism by fire’ — can you tell us, what was the fire?
FP: So you know, at the age of 18, and you’re in NY, and initially you have no chaperones, you are exposed to a lot of the elements of different nefarious people who are let’s say, not that kosher, people who are under-handed, not exactly on the up and up, I’ll put it that way, so that’s what I meant by ‘being in the fire’.
WWF: So you had to quickly learn how to handle people with low ethics and morals who maybe wanted to use you?
FP: Yeah, right you just run into that and I guess that’s part of growing up, and getting out on your own, and becoming an independent person, you learn by doing and experiencing so that it really makes you a more full knowledgeable human being, I mean I never went to a college or university; my knowledge has basically come from traveling. Getting out of Detroit, going to Europe, going to Japan, you know you learn a lot by traveling.
WWF: Yes, traveling is one of the best classrooms in the world. I want to ask you about Bring The Boys Home. We watched and heard you sing it, oh it was so touching, I just felt it in my heart. How did you get that song?
FP: Well, the record company, Invictus Records, they were looking to get another hit for me after Band of Gold, and they came up with this song, and they played it for me, and when I heard it, it brought tears to my eyes. They said we want you to record this and I said I would love to record it. I said this song is really good, so it just so happens it was right on time because it became a hit even faster than Band of Gold.
WWF: It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful. And what you’re saying, you can feel it. The fact that you were deeply touched is quite obvious. Just the way you sing it is so heart-felt. And it’s not even really political, it’s just so personal, the way you deliver it, you bring it down to a human level that’s just so awesome.
FP: It’s an impassioning kind of lyric, cause it’s talking about not only the physical bodies, but the spiritual bodies of soldiers who have died, just the spirit you know? That’s why when you find news where they have found the bones of soldiers that were killed in action, like the soldiers killed in the Korean War, World War II, it’s not just a bunch of bones, but the idea of bringing, you know the DNA is still in there,
WWF: Yes and you are talking about people who willingly and consciously sacrificed themselves.
FP: And they deserved to be mourned over.
WWF: Yes, absolutely. Ok so you had this successful career in music going and then you decided to try your hand at acting and you did great at that too! Did you have any formal acting training? How did you get into acting?
FP: Well I kinda had a little bit in my teens back in Detroit. I was in an acting company called The Waythorn Workshop Theater, and I wasn’t in it long, but we did a musical called Finneans Rainbow. My sister was in it as well. After that I had a little bit of experience, I mean I didn’t go to acting classes a lot, I was in and out.
And then in 1967 I was the understudy for Leslie Uggams in Hallejujah Baby, which was a hit on Broadway, and it gave Leslie her first Tony Award. That show got several Tony Awards, and I was the only understudy to ever go on—I went on 5 times.
WWF: Wow! That is so awesome, and so unusual for an understudy. Is there anything else in life that makes you as happy as music?
FP: Well, I like doing Yoga, I like going to the gym. But my music is the ultimate though, and I like being with my family as well.
WWF: So you beat me to it—I was totally going to ask you about Yoga when I saw the picture of you doing it on your website. How long have you been practicing Yoga?
FP: Over 40 years.
WWF: You’ve been able to navigate this journey with such elegance and grace. Would you attribute any of that to Yoga?
FP: I would say Yoga has helped a lot, cause, first of all, it keeps your body and mind in tip top condition. It keeps you limber, it helps you with your spine. You know you see older people with that kind of hunchback spine, and doing Yoga prevents that. Also, it lowers your blood pressure, and it keeps you stronger, I mean you still need to do some weights, and a little bit of aerobics, but for years, all I did was Yoga, like 2 or 3 times a week. There were times when I was delinquent, you know I wasn’t doing it as much, but, how do you feel about it? What do you think?
WWF: Oh my gosh, to be honest with you, I had a very difficult childhood and I’ve had a lot of illness and health issues over the years and I mean I’ve tried everything from surgery to hands-on prayer, and I can honestly tell you that Yoga and meditation is the first thing in my life that has provided me some relief. I feel myself getting stronger and stronger, emotionally, mentally, and physically. I swear by it. I try to recommend it as much as possible to people I know because it’s an amazing practice. It’s so funny, you know before I saw the picture of you doing some Yoga, I was just marveling over your spirit, your energy, and then when I saw that I was like yep! Ok! That would be why.
FP: Yep. It also helps you with your balance, cause you have to have good balance, but I have to tell you this, as you age, your balance becomes more challenged, so I don’t have the balance I had back say 10 years ago, my balance isn’t as good as I once had, but you know you just have to keep doing it, you can’t give up.
WWF: So like, walking down those stage stairs in heels not quite as easy now as it used to be?
FP: Well I tell you, I have developed arthritis in my knees, and walking down the stairs period is a real challenge! It is. Yoga or no yoga. I would say even having done Yoga for many years, it doesn’t prevent you from getting arthritis. You know I started noticing that my knees were getting stiffer. Certain postures have just become more difficult, you know I was accustomed to being able to do it to perfection, now it’s a struggle to do it.
WWF: I understand. You know Ms. Payne, you have had such a charmed life, you have been able to do so many wonderful and amazing things, is there anything you want to do that you haven’t done?
FP: Ah, there are some countries that I’d like to visit that I’ve never visited. I’ve never been to South America or Brazil, I’ve never been to Russia. There are some places I’d like to return to, like I love Japan, and there is this Island that I’ve been to once, like on a celebrity junket, and that was Bali. Very close to Australia.
WWF: Alright, now when you speak of your love for musicians, are there any musicians that you see out there right now that you think are keeping the music alive?
FP: You know it’s so funny, I guess maybe I’m a little jaded, but from where I’ve come, I grew up admiring and being educated by some of the great iconic music legends like ones you mentioned, also Horace Silver, Thelonius Monk, Gillespie, you know I could go on and on, so, the young ones, they’re good, and they are carrying on the legacy of jazz which is great, but uh, all I can say is that I just hope that they continue to do that and create their own stuff as well. But you know you mentioned Ella, I’ve been doing tributes to Ella since 1999 and I’ve also played Ella theatrically on stage in a play called Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady Of Song.
WWF: She’s perfect. She’s just perfect. She doesn’t sing a bad note. She’s so amazing. Although I will say that my personal favorite growing up was always Sarah Vaughn.
FP: I knew her! Yep. I got to meet Ella, but I never really got to hang out with her and spend time, but I was around her and we hung out in the same circles.
WWF: Ms. Payne, I mean you’re a living legend, you have known some of the greatest musicians that have ever lived. You must think about that sometimes and just be over-whelmed.
FP: Yeah well, you know just the fact that I lived it, I did it, and I’m still here, I survived, like Gloria Gaynor says, but you know she’s talking about a man, but I survived life. I’m a survivor of life.
WWF: Ok so final question, from someone so strong and so powerful, not only have you survived, but you have thrived, and you have set such an amazing example, do you have any advice for aspiring singers today?
FP: Ok, I would say first of all, don’t give up, no matter what anyone says, also, continue to study, learn your craft, learn the American songbooks, and also, if you’re a writer, you know, do your own thing, and get up on some of the newer songs that have become very big hits. Oh and try to get as much exposure as you can, you’ve got YouTube, you can put a video on YouTube, you can get into talent contests, you’ve got American Idol and The Voice, you know, get exposure.
WWF: Thank you so much for talking to me! You have no idea how much this has meant to me. I appreciate you, thank you so much!
FP: You are welcome!
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Freda Payne - Band Of Gold
Freda Payne - Bring The Boys Home