A Detroit native, Freda Payne was closely-tied to and influenced by the founders of the Motown sound, including Berry Gordy Jr., Lamont Dozier, and Brian and Eddie Holland. As a result, she was one of the first artists to sign with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus label and, along with the Chairmen of the Board, she was one of the label’s biggest stars, with hits on the Billboard pop charts such as “Bring the Boys Home” (#12), “Deeper and Deeper” (#22), and, of course, “Band of Gold”(#3).
Since then, she’s had a long career in television, movies, and theater, and she’s still performing today. In July she released her new album Come Back to Me Love, and performed at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York City on last month. She said it was exciting “to be performing at B.B. King’s. It pays homage to an incredibly talented music icon who is also still performing. I am honored to be performing in his house.”
Her album features everything from big band classics to newly-penned contemporary selections, and also marks her return to Detroit. “It is like a flashback to something really good happening for me at home in Detroit, my good luck charm. It’s the springboard where I can replenish like a phoenix rising.”
Our interview with Ms. Payne is presented here to coincide with Sally O’Rourke’s seven-part series on the post-Motown career of Holland-Dozier-Holland.
REBEAT: I’ve read in multiple places that when you started out as a child, you were in high demand and several different people, including Berry Gordy Jr., tried to sign you. But because you were underage, your parents were reluctant to let you sign a contract until you were about 17 years old. Is that about right?
That’s right. I first met Berry Gordy when I was about 14. By the way, you have to understand that when you mention the name Berry Gordy, today you think of a rich music mogul, a pioneer, a well-known and prosperous man, but back then, that wasn’t the case. Back then, Berry was a young man, and he’d written one or two of Jackie Wilson’s hits, but he didn’t have deep pockets or substantial funding. He’d previously been working at the Ford Motor Company, because Detroit back then was a thriving motor city where most males worked at the car factories, including my own family — my grandfather, my father, my uncle, they all worked for General Motors.
Berry’s ambition was to be successful in the music business — he didn’t have a record company when we first met, but he had the ambition to manage artists and get his own record label. Very shortly after that, he wrote some songs for me, and we took three of them to a studio, United Sound. It was located on the same boulevard where he eventually purchased the first home that became Hitsville on West Grand Boulevard. That was his first real recording studio, which really was a house! United Sound was this place where everybody would go if they wanted to do some recording or anything like that. People went there to do commercials and other things.
He recorded me and then he, my mother, and I drove from Detroit to New York, and he tried to get me some kind of record deal on Roulette Records. That was run by Morris Levy at the time. He got a positive response, because when we got back to Detroit, he really tried hard to get my mother to sign me to a managerial contract. My mother was not receptive because they couldn’t agree on terms — it’s as simple as that. My mother was not a pushover. I think that had he been more modest in his demands, she would have said okay. But she wasn’t, so from that point on, that was a period that just passed me by. I went on, graduated from high school, and then at the age of 18, my parents allowed me to go to New York, to literally move to New York on my own. And that’s where I landed my first record deal with ABC Paramount.
How did Gordy and others know about you since you were so young and hadn’t yet recorded anything?
I think something that drew his attention to me was that I had been on television, singing in talent contests. I’d been on television on Ed Mckenzie’s Dance Hour, Detroit’s equivalent of American Bandstand. The show had teenagers dancing to top ten pop records, and he also had whatever musical celebrity was appearing in a nightclub venue in the Detroit area. He’d have them come and perform a couple of songs. Sammy Davis Jr., Della Reese, the Four Freshman, people like that, people who were at the forefront at the time.
He heard about me because I’d also been singing with a big band group that was Detroit’s version of Count Basie — they were called the Jimmy Wilkins Orchestra. They’d play at top venues around Detroit, like the Latin Quarter, and occasionally Jimmy Wilkins would hire me as his band singer. I was about 14 or 15 years old. Also, I sang on the radio on Don Large’s Make Way for Youth show. It was a youth chorus, and, occasionally, Don Large would give me a solo to sing that gave me additional exposure. So [Berry] heard about me, and I think that’s what drew his attention to me.
I think, between the ages of 14 and 18, you did more than most people do their whole lives!
I’ll put it this way — I was pretty active.
If you had a contract with ABC, what led to your signing with Invictus?
Well, I was living in New York in Manhattan — this was 1968 — and I got a call from a lady named Tameka Jones, and she said “an old friend of yours is sitting with me. He’s visiting from Detroit.” I said, “Who is that?” She said, “Brian Holland.” I said, “Oh, I went to school with Brian.” We’d had a class in high school together. Well, at that time they were Holland-Dozier-Holland, and they’d become famous. She said, “He wants to see you — can you come by?”
I said sure, and went by the apartment, and we reconnected and exchanged pleasantries. Then, he asked me what I was doing and if I was tied up with any contracts. As it happened, my contract was just up with ABC, and so was my management contract of five years with Joe Scandore, who also managed Don Rickles. I was literally free of any contractual obligations. So Brian said, “Would you like to come with us? We just left Motown and formed our own label called Invictus.” I flew to Detroit and that was it.
So you recorded and released your first single, but it didn’t make the pop charts (though it — “The Unhooked Generation” — did hit #43 on the R&B charts). Your next release was “Band of Gold,” which was of course a monster hit. But I read somewhere that when you were first offered “Band of Gold,” you didn’t want to do it because you thought it wasn’t appropriate for you. Is there any truth to that?
Well, it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to do it, I was going to do it whether I liked it or not. I just thought the lyrics were a little strange (laughs). I mean, why would a young girl on her wedding night want to stay in another room? The lyrics say “that night on our honeymoon / we stayed in separate rooms.” What’s up with that? I said to them, “This is for a 15-year-old girl or something — it’s so immature (laughs). But you know, I think those lyrics actually drew more interest to the song.
Obviously, the song was a big hit. How did the success of the song impact things for you personally?
My career took off. I started getting requests for interviews, booked on TV shows, my salary went up, and everything, in turn, went up. Once you get a hit like that and become a star, all of a sudden you have more expenses. Everything’s relative. Everything starts going up — your way of living — and you are spending more money for things.
I also read that on the song, Motown’s famous Funk Brothers did the backup instrumentation: Ray Parker Jr. was on lead guitar, Joyce Wilson and Telma Hopkins, who were later with Dawn, sang backup. Is that true?
That’s all true. Not only that, but also my sister Scherrie Payne, and some members of the Originals – Walter Gaines and Freddie Gorman – they were all there, eight or nine or 10 background singers. I wasn’t there when they did the background, but I know they were all involved.
What a lineup! Over the next couple of years a number of your records charted, and “Bring the Boys Home,” which went to #12 in 1971 was another big one. But beyond pop and R&B music, you’ve done a lot of different things like television and movies. It looks like your career developed in so many ways, and you’re still going strong. Would you say that “Band of Gold” and your chart success was a major factor in how things have turned out?
Yes, because regardless of what else I’ve done, that style of singing is more like the pop, R&B — the crux of my talent. How I was educated on a musical basis was more by singing standards and jazz and show tunes, so what sustained me after the hit records faded out was the fact that I could still work and do other things like Broadway and theater. I could work in night clubs. I still work in those venues. I’ve been doing a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald the last six years. It’s been very lucrative for me, and I’ve done several hit Broadway shows. In 1981 and 1982 I was doing my own talk show, Today’s Black Woman.
I have this whole list long of things you’ve done, which is really different from a lot of people I talk to. Many had that period where they had a few hits, and since then, they haven’t had the success that you’ve had. It’s really incredible, looking at this list of what you’ve done during your career. It’s so varied and there is so much. I’m sure you feel good about that — I know I would.
Thank you for the compliment. It’s still a struggle. I still have to worry about what’s my next gig, what’s my next show, what am I going to do, you know what I mean. It’s still a struggle, now and then.