Imagine being asked, “Did anybody ever tell you that you sound like Ella Fitzgerald when you sing?”
Freda Payne started hearing that when she was 17. Yes, we’re talking the same Freda Payne who belted out the indelible 1970 pop hit “Band of Gold” with such wholehearted soul. Payne, who has been singing jazz, pop, show tunes, and much more for more than five decades, has gotten the Ella question a lot.
Payne, now 75, is coming to the Delaware Theatre Company in Ella: First Lady of Song (April 18-May 13). She talked to us about the show, its namesake, and how Payne stays in shape to sing one of the greatest playlists in American pop history.
Where and how did Ella first come into your life? You grew up in the Detroit of the 1940s and 1950s. How did she figure in the music you heard when you were coming up?
I didn’t really become aware of Ella until the time I was about 12, because by that time I was first becoming aware I could sing. I first recall hearing Ella on the radio, and it immediately got my attention. It was the purity of her voice that got me, her articulation – and then, when I heard her scat, I said, ‘Oh, wow, that is cool.’ And I said to myself, ‘One day, I want to sing like Ella.’
That’s the thing: her attention to clarity and precision, on top of that amazing improvisational flair. Doing that for two hours every night must be demanding, both artistically and physically. How do you stay in good enough shape to handle it?
It is demanding! I have to keep saying to myself: ‘Don’t relate so much to being 75. Relate to being 50.’ Because when I was 50, at least I didn’t have any aches and pains. I basically just try to keep up with exercising and eating right and going to yoga classes, which I’ve been doing since 1973. Being the age I am, you have to pay much closer attention to your health, taking supplements, keeping your body refreshed and renewed, holding back the aging process.
Ella: First Lady of Song is not a tribute show but a full-blown bio-musical. How did the show come about?
It’s a lot of acting, and a lot of singing. Lee Summers wrote the book for it. But the show itself is Maurice Hines’ concept. [He also directs the present show.] He actually knew Ella. He and his brother Gregory, and their dad, as the act Hines, Hines & Dad, were the opening act for her around 1970 at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. And Maurice and I were both in the national tour of Jelly’s Last Jam in 1995. For that show, I used to warm up in my dressing room while doing my makeup, and I was singing some song or other, and Maurice says, ‘Freda, anybody ever tell you that you sound like Ella when you sing?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been hearing that since I was 17.’ Well, as fate would have it, Maurice created the show, and in the summer of 2004, he called me up and said, ‘Freda, would you like to play Ella Fitzgerald?’ The show started out at the Crossroads Theatre [in New Brunswick, N.J.].
But since then it has gone through some tweaks.
Oh, yes. Maurice called me again in 2014 and said the MetroStage in Alexandria, Va., was producing a new version, ‘And you’re my first call.’ In the first version, I played Ella from 15 right up to 1960-something. In the present show, Wynonna Smith plays the young Ella and her half-sister, Frances. Harriet Foy plays Ella’s cousin Georgiana, who traveled with her everywhere and took care of her. And members of the band also act. [Drummer Kenneth Crutchfield plays drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, and bassist Steven Palmore plays bassist and Ella’s husband, Ray Brown.]
People don’t realize your decades of experience singing jazz and cabaret, or singing with big bands, all before you had your big hit with “Band of Gold.”
That’s where I got to know the music intimately. Ella pretty much defined the American songbook. She covered volumes of the greatest songs of all these great composers: George and Ira Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen … you can’t do much better than that. I am blessed to be able to sing that music.
I’ve been hearing “Band of Gold” my whole life, and I always wondered exactly what happened in the story. “That night, on our honeymoon,” why did you two sleep “in separate rooms”? That question is probably why the tune has stayed popular for almost 50 years.
There are two ways of looking at it that you can choose from. One is that the girl was frigid. Or the guy could not perform, got embarrassed – and left! It’s a great song, and when I hear it, I go back to the days when it first got to be a hit, and I was doing all these autograph signings in record stores and department stores. But then I went out to the United Kingdom, and it was an even bigger hit there. It was number one for six weeks straight.
Any chance you’d sing “Band of Gold” as an encore … to an Ella Fitzgerald show?
I don’t think so. We don’t go up to the 1970s.
Ella: First Lady of Song
- April 18-May 13 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. Tickets: $25-$65. Information: 302-594-1100, delawaretheatre.org.