Her hit songs like "Band of Gold" and "Bring the Boys Home" are well known (and embedded below), while Freda Payne continues to be a thoughtful, creative artist and a powerful performer.
I was introduced to Freda Payne by author and playwright, LaShonda Katrice Barnett.
LaShonda and I somehow connected because she spent so much time with Abbey Lincoln in her later years, and I worked closely with Ms. Lincoln's personal belongings when I managed the Women In Jazz archival project for The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University's Newark campus.
It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with Ms. Payne.
She is so cool.
Check out Freda Payne at: https://www.fredapayne.com/
on the phone: December 16, 2020
(transcribed by Diane Cluck)
Anders Griffen: I would like to go all the way back and get your perspective on your roots. Detroit is a different place today than it was when you were a child, but I wonder if you can tell me something of your impressions of Detroit when you were growing up and, in particular, if there were musicians in your neighborhood that were influential?
Freda Payne: Well, Detroit back then, as you said and is well-known, was a totally different city than it is today. Totally. Today, entire neighborhoods have disappeared, and that’s a result of, over the years, 1967, that horrific race riot that happened, that was the one that really tumbled it down. But mind you, there were race riots in Detroit back before that one. There was one back in 19… I think 43? because my grandfather used to tell me about it. Because he said, he said, yeah they were coming down West Grand Boulevard, and he had to come and rescue me out of my carriage, in case they came, you know, like, got in the house or something like that, or whatever, but that never happened. But he used to tell me that story. And then, of course, the really big one that happened in ’67. That’s the one that really changed a lot of things. But, I remember…the Detroit I remember was a cosmopolitan. To me it was a nice city. I t was civil. Civilized. Of course there were things about race that I was aware of but it wasn’t anything strong, it wasn’t anything overbearing. Like, when you go to the South, it was obvious, it was, like… in your face, you know? And, back then… I’m referring to the 40s and the 50s. I remember that… the world today is… I think it’s a crueler world. People have no patience. People are acting out more… whatever their mental dysfunctions might be. Detroit I just remember being a very likable city.
And of course there were people in my family circle. It wasn’t like everybody was perfect. I remember my grandmother, who - she passed away when I was ten., and that was in the 50s - and I remember she was my rock. She was like a queen to me. And then when my grandmother passed, then it was my mother that I relied upon; but my grandmother was the one who I loved so very much. My grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, who was really her second husband, so he was my step-grandfather. My maternal grandfather had passed away when my mother was… I think she was like six months old. She used to tell me that he passed away before she was born. But I think it was just a figure of speech. But the grandfather that I knew, his name was Clarence. Clarence (Brack? 6min). So my grandmother’s name was Aderlee Brack (spelling?) and Clarence was the only grandfather I ever knew or ever had. So he was referred to as grandaddy. And he was a good granddaddy. You know, he would always give us, if we heard the ice cream truck coming down the street and the bell was ringing we’d say, “Granddaddy, we want some ice cream.” He would go in his pockets and come out with some change and we could go and get some popsicle or creamsicle or whatever. And I remember going to Sunday School - it was mandatory to go to Sunday School - from Sunday School we’d automatically stay over for church. I think my mother or parents at first started taking us, and then there was a point where we moved to another area in Detroit and they had a church bus that would come at a certain time and they would bring us to church for Sunday School, and those were pretty good days! I’m talking about being a kid… from the time I was let’s say four or five until I was about eleven or twelve.
AG: Right. So, roughly the same ages as when you were taking your piano lessons…
AG: Was the church a musical influence along with your piano teacher? Were those the principal sources of music? I suppose there was also the radio and maybe records?
FP: Well, the church had something to do with it. Not a whole lot. But it had something to do with it, because when you’re in church you hear a lot of… the choir sings a lot of different hymns, and spirituals, and certain ones I really liked a lot. I never sang in the choir. For some reason I never had a desire to be in the choir, for some reason. I did, however, sometimes do an occasional solo, and they would ask me to sing a solo now and then. But most of my memory started, let’s say when I was fourteen, and I auditioned for a radio show that was called Don Large’s Make Way for Youth. And it was a youth choir that was predominantly white. And I auditioned for it. I had to be a good sight-reader. And it just so happens that in school, you know back then they had music courses. I don’t know if public schools have those now, but back then you had music courses and, of course, you even had band. Of course I didn’t do the band thing because that’s like playing a violin or sax or trumpet or something like that. I registered to take the music course just to learn the elementary root of music, you know, of the notes and what they meant and how to sightread. Also, I remember one semester we worked on the entire opera of Porgy & Bess, because Porgy & Bess was an American opera. I thought that was so… to me when I look back on it, that was such an enjoyable time. And also we used to work on different requiems, classical choral pieces, the Hallelujah chorus and things of that sort. So, public school, really, other than the academics like English, mathematics, biology, social studies—other than that… I think I had an enjoyable time. I enjoyed being in school, and I’m very grateful for my musical education from that. And I wish I could have had more. Case in point—if I could go back I would’ve gone to a different high school. I would’ve gone to Cass Tech, which was rated as the top #1 high school in Detroit, and you had to maintain a certain average to even get in and also keep it and stay in that school. And they had the best music department. Had I known, I would’ve probably gone to Cass, but I think the reason was… I qualified, but the reason was I would’ve had to get up an hour earlier so I could catch the bus to go to Cass Tech, and that’s the only thing. I wish I could go back and do that again, but that’s okay because my life has already unfolded and I’ve had a lot of experiences and I’ve had a lot of wonderful things happen to me.
AG: That makes me think of several things. I was going to ask you about Don Large’s Make Way for Youth radio show. I know you did several talent shows and that sort of thing before that, and reading up about you, I got the impression that the Make Way for Youth radio show was sort of like your first regular job—is that fair to say?
FP: Well, no, because we weren’t paid. We weren’t on salary or anything. This was all… we call it, we were still apprentices in a sense. We weren’t getting paid.
AG: But you did it for some time? Like, a few years?
FP: Three years. I was with them for three years, WJR. NBC, it was nationally syndicated. Make Way for Youth.
AG: And you mentioned, let me see, I don’t have those names in front of me… but you mentioned it was a predominantly white organization…
FP: Oh, yeah
AG: And I know you had a couple of other girls… who am I thinking of… Ursula…
FP: Oh yeah, Ursula Walker, who was already sort of like a premier singer in Detroit because she had done a lot of television. I’d seen her quite a few times on TV. And then there was Carmen Mathis. And the three of us — Carmen was an alto singer, I was also an alto singer, an alto-mezzo, and Ursula was like about the same. We both had the same kind of range, and it was the three of us. And at one point Don Large put the three of us together and called us The Three Debs [? 13:40] and now and then he would feature us as (The Three Debs) on the radio show.
AG: Wonderful. Were there any times back then when you felt you were treated any differently or you know, being in a predominantly white organization… I don’t know, was that part of the climate in that organization?
FP: Well, you know what, we weren’t made to feel any different, and we… I didn’t feel any racial tension or anything back then, and Don Large…I guess he just recognized that we were talented, I guess, or else I don’t think he would have just singled us out just because we were… you know like back then they referred to as colored people, colored girls. And they were like… matter of fact, it was a very friendly atmosphere. I guess I never experienced, I would call, let’s say, jealousy or any adversity or any racial tension while I was on the show.
AG: Oh, great. It was a nice place to be?
FP: Yeah. Uh-huh. And if I had, I don’t know whether I would’ve stayed that long.
AG: Oh, yeah. True. Especially at that age, and you’re not getting paid.
FP: Yeah, uh-huh. Yeah, right. To me, it was me stepping up and me pursuing my life… my aspirations as a singer… and to me it was wholesome, and that was about it.
AG: Beautiful. Your aspirations as a singer were still pretty new as I understand it, because it was your piano teacher who discovered you had a voice, and so you’d only been singing a short while, is that right? And you liked it pretty quickly I guess?
FP: Yeah, well, before that I was a real shy girl. I wasn’t out pushing myself. I wasn’t, like, saying, “Oh, look at me, I can sing, do you want to hear me sing?” I wasn’t like that. If anything my sister was more like that than I was, much more, and I just kinda like shrunk in the background until my piano teacher at the age of twelve, she asked me to sing, almost like auditioning me for the next recital to see if I was good enough to sing in a group that she wanted to put together. And then when she heard my voice she said, “Oh Freda, you have a lovely voice! I want you to do a solo.” And that’s how it all started.
AG: And then it was the talent shows, and before you know it, you’re three years at the radio show.
FP: Yeah, Make Way for Youth. And then when I was sixteen, I auditioned for Ted Mack Amateur Hour and that was in New York. And of course they had come through Detroit, you know, auditioning, going through to different cities, holding auditions to find people to be on that show in New York. And at the time Ted Mack Amateur Hour was the equivalent to The Voice, American Idol… a national super super duper talent show.
AG: Right. Had you done any traveling of any significance before then? Was New York a really big trip anyway?
FP: It was a big deal! Oh yeah, they flew my mother and I first class, put us up in, like, a Sheraton Hotel. It was a big deal to me. It was like, oh wow, you know? And I won… I didn’t win first place, I won second place, because I was up against a guy who was an Italian tenor and he was up for his third win, and he had accumulated a whole lot of followers. And you know it’s all about people voting. And back then they voted by sending in postcards or calling. I think it was predominantly you mail in postcards. So it was something like that. And then two weeks later, I get a write-up in Jet Magazine, and that was like a really big deal because I said to myself, “How did they even know about me?” And that was kinda like what started the publicity machine.
And you know, back then, what it was… Jet Magazine, see, there weren’t that many black people on television, number one. So Jet would always, in the back of their magazine, the last page, they always listed all let’s say African-American people who were in, let’s say, a national TV show. T hey got that particular; they would promote you. I remember Quincy Jones telling me back then, he referred to Jet as “the Black dispatch”. That’s where you’d get all the news of what Black folks were doing.
AG: Right. So we’re talking like 1958?
AG: Okay. Alright. So you had some good music education in school, and then you had all this experience with the radio shows, the talent shows, going out and doing it. Were you learning standards at this time? Did you start taking that upon yourself? How did jazz come into play?
FP: Oh yeah. Yeah, I was learning standards. As a matter of fact, in Make Way for Youth, we had a vast repertoire; we covered all kinds of music. American Songbook music. We did other stuff, you know, maybe spiritual stuff as well. I remember once we did the Canadian National Anthem. And then we did a Hawaiian chant once. We did all kinds of music, all genres of music.
AG: Was there anybody that sort of, besides… or maybe at the show that influenced your love of jazz or pointed towards that kind of repertoire?
FP: You mean anybody where?
AG: At anytime. I’m thinking that you got all of this experience with music as a singer starting when you were about twelve…
FP: Oh, well, I can answer that now. I used to, at night, when I would go to bed, I remember having a radio, and the radio was right above like on the little shelf right above my head, and I would turn it down, turn it down low, and I would listen to a station that played primarily jazz. And I’ll tell you what, they played primarily, like, Chet Baker, Julie London, June Christie, Carmen McCray, some Ella, you know, artists like that, and that’s how my ear became tuned to that.
Also, I had an uncle, his name was Uncle Johnny, my mother’s brother, and much earlier than that, when I was four or five years old, he had a record collection—Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and he had a collection, he had a few classical records—Sergei Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Bach, and he would play that, and I remember I fell in love with Moonlight Sonata. I remember that. And I would put my ear up to the speaker and I would just listen to it and I think that had a great influence on me as well as the Duke Ellington, and all the other records. I would listen to that. Kids nowadays, what they listen to, is what they hear, let’s say on the internet or streaming or on the radio, whatever, and they’ll listen to rap all the time, or whatever the Top 40 is, and that does not compare to the type of music that was going on back when I came up.
FP: Let’s say if you’re used to having a certain diet, getting a certain kind of food, that’s all you know, you think that’s it. But then when somebody introduces you to something of quality, it’s like, oh my God, what have I been missing. Then again, some people never change. Some people will always want to be comfortable with what they’ve grown up with, rather than expanding their minds and their tastes and their knowledge to accept something different because they just get stuck in that one-way street. They get stuck in the one-way street.
AG: And they don’t think they need anything else.
FP: Well, for some reason they can’t perceive of anything else. Do you understand what I mean? They can’t accept anything else because it’s all they know.
AG: Well yeah, that’s what I think about the diet analogy. They might just not have the means to appreciate it. They don’t know it’s quality.
FP: Absolutely. And then a lot of this boils down to economics, you know? It’s what you can afford, because, let’s say, food that may not be that healthy for you is more readily available because it’s cheaper.
FP: And let’s say, food that’s really healthy and good for you, or like vitamins and supplements…it costs money! Let me tell you now, especially me as a senior citizen, it costs money to stay healthy in my world. If you want to get certain treatments or if you want to get massages, or if you want to eat a certain, let’s say, quality of food. You know? You want to eat organic, organic is more expensive than the regular! Now a lot of times I think, oh, I’ll just get the regular. But the health professionals, they always say eat organic if you can. Or like they’ll say, when I buy salmon, there’s that farmed salmon?
AG: Oh yeah.
FP: They say the best is to get that wild salmon that is not farmed because it doesn’t have as much contaminants in the meat itself.
AG: Of course.
FP: Right. But at the same time, it costs like maybe double and sometimes almost triple more than the regular farmed salmon. So a lot of this comes down to economics. You know, like, what can you afford? I mean, that’s the cruel truth.
AG: Interesting. I’m thinking about all the experience you had in all this relatively short period of time from when you started singing and started doing things. There’s a couple thoughts I have. One thing that always comes up is the word “talent”, which is, I guess, what really helps you to have success to get started, but that’s something you really have to develop, right? I feel like after a certain point, the talent that you were originally were anointed with is something you develop, and so the term talent, in my mind, it has more to do with your beginnings. Does that make sense to you? Do you agree with that?
FP: Well, yeah, in a way. Like what kind of training did you have coming up?
AG: Well, yeah, I mean, you have a gift in the beginning, that’s the talent, but for someone to call you talented when you’ve been a professional for twenty, thirty years already, well, it’s like, you’ve had all this experience now it’s not just talent anymore.
FP: Oh yeah, I see what you mean. Yeah, it’s like you know certain things, you know how to get up on a stage, perform, you know how to emote, how to please and audience and all that stuff. So, you know, it’s not so much the talent, it’s the image, it’s the image or brand.
AG: Okay, now you’re really talking advanced experience but yeah, that’s on the same trajectory, because I’m thinking that by the time you were of age to go out on your own, you had such a foundation that you were ready to be professional. You had to learn the things you just spoke about, but you already had the skills, maybe you were more ready than you even thought you were. You moved to New York right after Detroit?
FP: Yep, I moved to New York when I was eighteen.
AG: Eighteen. Yeah. And you were able to work. You were able to move to New York and be a singer, correct?
FP: Correct. I did, and I got my first record deal I think when I was still nineteen, I believe. Nineteen or twenty.
AG: Is that the one that led to the Impulse record?
FP: Yeah. The Impulse record that I recorded in 1963.
AG: Now I just think that record is so fascinating for a number of reasons. For one thing, there were only a few vocalists on the label at that point. And then you also debuted a Duke Ellington composition, “Blue Piano”, on there, and then the fact that you did a rendition of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, which I guess Chris Connor had recorded a version of that, but Ornette’s still a controversial figure at this time, and then you’ve got this incredible ensemble with the great Hank Jones and it just… a remarkable way to come out with your first record.
FP: Right. Right, our first album.
AG: I mean, that’s a lot. And I guess you’d already worked with Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey before that?
FP: Yeah. Well, actually, I’d only sang with Duke a couple of times as a guest artist. I never really got paid with him. But he wanted to sign me to a ten-year contract. He wanted me to be his band singer, with a ten-year contract committed to him and that just didn’t work out.
AG: Well, I read that your mom asked some shrewd questions, like, would you have the opportunity to renegotiate based on your success and so forth, is that right?
FP: Right, right.
AG: So he wasn’t really open to that. So that’s a big ten years when you’re getting started.
FP: And plus I was seventeen.
FP: And that would’ve taken me across my twenty-first birthday, and that was one of the contentions of negotiations, and you know, they kinda like changed the contract about a little bit. What’s the point of having a contract if you can’t negotiate?
AG: Right. So you would have really been locked down in that.
FP: He wound up signing a male artist by the name of Milt Grayson.
AG: Oh yeah.
FP: Milt stayed with him quite a few years.
FP: I don’t know if Milt stayed ten years. Maybe he did—maybe he signed the ten-year contract!
AG: He may have! His name comes up an awful lot at that time.
FP: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
AG: How did that come up in the first place that the opportunity even came along, I mean, Duke Ellington. We’re talking about being ready to be a professional…
FP: How did it come up for me?
FP: Oh okay, I’ll tell you. Of course I was at home in Detroit, and we had a dear friend whose name was Alan/Allen (sp?) Early Jr., he was an attorney and he lived just down the street. H e was a neighbor, and very good friends with my parents, and he was at a cocktail party. He met Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, and he started telling Mercer about me, and he talked Mercer into coming to my mother’s house to hear me sing. And so Mercer came to the house, and I sang, you know, some songs for him and he said, “Oh wow, you really have a good voice. I want my Dad to hear you.” And so, he arranged for me to come to the hotel. Duke was staying at the Gotham Hotel in Detroit, and my mother took me down there and I sang for Duke, and he played for me. He had a piano in his suite, and he played, and I sang, and then he said, “I like your voice. You remind me of Lena Horne.” Which wasn’t quite a compliment to me because, you know, Lena wasn’t known for being a great singer, she was known for being a beautiful woman back then. She became, to me, better as she aged, by the way. But he said, “the only problem is I want to hear you sing with the band and we’re leaving in the morning and we’re going to Pittsburgh. We have an engagement at a hotel called The Holiday House in Pittsburgh. And he said, but if someone, your mother, can drive you to Pittsburgh, I’d be more than happy to bring you up so you can sing with the band. And that’s what happened. That’s how that happened.
AG: And then you got the contract offer.
AG: Amazing. So was it around this same time that you did not sign that contract that you ended up working with Pearl Bailey?
FP: It was right after that expired. I’m trying to think… which happened first? I think Pearl’s thing happened first. And I had just turned seventeen, and it was the same thing... Alan Early, Jr. was at another cocktail party and he met a gentleman by the name of Bob Bailey — no relation to Pearl, by the way, just the same last name — and he started telling Bob about me and how good I was. So, Bob Bailey said, “Well you know what? One of our background singers just got fired,” or something like that. I forget, they either got fired or they just left or quit or whatever. Anyway, and he said, maybe she could audition, and see if she’s good enough. So I went to the audition at a theater, and there were several other people there auditioning, and they were all professional people. And so I auditioned — it was a double audition; they were holding an audition not just for a background for Pearl’s tour… review, it was her review… they were holding an audition to be in a chorus line for the Moulin Rouge in Vegas. It was a show they were going to put together that hadn’t been put together yet. I did both auditions and I got hired for both, but the Pearl Bailey review thing was imminent, that was happening right away. The Moulin Rouge was down the road. So, I was on the bus two days later. I was on the bus! They hired me. Now, the Moulin Rouge situation never materialized, but I won an audition to be in the chorus line of the Moulin Rouge.
Recorded September 17-19, 1963, NYC.
Freda Payne with
Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Art Davis,
AG: That was kind of your other great love, wasn’t it? Dancing?
FP: Oh yeah! I wanted to be a dancer. I’d had a couple of years of ballet, a couple of years of modern dancing and all that, yeah.
AG: You liked that a lot more than the piano? (Laughs)
FP: I did, I did. To me piano was part of my education.
AG: Did you tour abroad with Pearl Bailey, or just in the States?
FP: No, just in the States. And it was short because we did Cincinnati, and then we went to New York and did the Apollo, and then from there we went to D.C. at the Howard, and that’s when she got sick, and so they had to shut the show down and you know, that was it.
AG: You had a longer engagement with Quincy Jones, isn’t that right?
FP: Yeah, I worked with his big band. He hired me to sing with his big band at the Apollo and it was headlined Billy Eckstein with the Quincy Jones Orchestra, and then it was like…Red Foxx was the comedian, and Honey Coles and Charlie Atkins were a tap dance duo…and me! I was the band singer. I was the girl singer, the girl band singer. And that happened twice. We did it one year, and then a year later he brought me back to do it again. And we did the Apollo, and then we went to Chicago to do the…what was the name of that theater…the Regal Theater in Chicago.
AG: Mmhmm. So that was later after Duke and Pearl…you’re already living in New York at that time.
FP: Oh that was about a couple of years later, yes. Two or three years later.
AG: Circling back to the record for a moment, because I just find it a fascinating and unbelievable debut. What did that feel like for you? Was it great excitement? Did you feel poised and ready to do, or what was that like?
FP: Which situation are you referring to?
AG: To making your record on Impulse, because…
FP: Oh wow, when I think back to it I was probably really nervous and I was probably really uptight. I was still, you know, growing into myself as an artist.
AG: Just looking at that incredible group, the musicians, and the material it seems like a lot of record, so I would think it would be... I would expect you might have some nerves around that.
FP: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
AG: I guess you were working with Manny Albam. Did the musicians make you comfortable, or were they just there for their studio date?
FP: Well to tell you the truth, they were probably just their for the studio date, but they were name musicians. I mean some of the guys in the band were like Count Basie musicians.
AG: Yeah, nothing but great players.
FP: That’s the way it is. They get booked for a gig, and they get paid, and they get their union fees and that’s what that’s all about.
AG: Not like anybody’s holding your hand.
FP: Well, I guess they figured if I was there, if the company had that kind of confidence in spending money on me in recording me, I guess they thought I was capable and that I deserved to be there.
AG: Yeah, right. Thank you. So then it was maybe a couple of years after that that you made your first travels abroad? Europe in 1965 maybe?
FP: Yep, 1965 I went to Europe for the first time.
AG: And what did you learn from those travels? And what did traveling abroad do, if anything, to your perspective on the States?
FP: Well I learned a lot, it was an education. It was something that was kind of eye-opening because it kind of opened my experience and my mind to different cultures, different monetary systems, different diet in terms of cuisine. Europe was quite something for me. Europe was an education, and I’ll always remember and talk about that. I learned a lot, because over in Europe that’s what you read when you have world history. When you go to France, when you go to Germany you think about World War II, and you think about all the other stuff and you start visiting monuments and you see things that you learned about in world history in school. You go to England and it’s a whole other game. You go to the countryside, drive through the countryside and how beautiful it is. And for some reason I keep going back to cuisine, food was a lot different. Back then, I’m talking about back then, the food was a little different but it was good and it was more natural. We were into more processed-type food and we still are. But over there it was history unfolding before my eyes. And also, there was no racial tension over there that I experienced.
AG: Did it really feel like the first time… I mean, you’d talk about Detroit was a nice place to be growing up, otherwise, was it the first time you felt like you were away from that kind of racial tension?
FP: Well I was glad that I wasn’t raised in the South, and I was raised in Detroit. I just felt more free. I felt more free there.
AG: Were you the headliner yeah? Or were you with somebody…
FP: Yeah. Well a promoter had brought me over there, by the name of Jeffrey Patterson, and he had booked me in the officer’s club. So I was actually working for Americans, or entertaining American officers and stuff like that, and so I was…that made it more comfortable. Other than the fact that when I worked in Germany, I did various work with a lot of German musicians as well.
AG: Mmhmm. So this is the period of time, when you went over there this is not long before the Civil Rights movement is growing, and you talk about what happened to Detroit and the fires in 1967, right? So, that’s part of my curiosity about the perspective from over there, because at this point I’m not born yet so part of my interest is speaking with musicians that remember the 60s and 70s and just that climate. So yeah, if you go to Europe and then look at the United States… I don’t know if there was anything in the news or if you talked to people over there that would have had any influence on how you saw this country from afar?
FP: Well I’ll tell you what, and it’s funny you’re bringing that up. Now I remember an incident when I was working in Oslo, Norway in ’65. It was a theater in Oslo called Le Chat Noir, meaning The Black Cat, and it was a variety show where they had a comedian who was from France, he was French, they had a like a juggling act, they had a dance duo, they had other acts. It was like a variety-type show, and I was the singer on the bill. And I was the only American in the whole show. So after the show was over we all used to go to a restaurant to eat, to have, you know, a late supper. And so the different people, they would be conversing in Italian and French and a little bit of German, and every now and then they’d say, “Oh, we’re so sorry, we didn’t mean to exclude you, Freda.” And then they’d speak with me and they’d converse with me for a few minutes and then go back to speaking in their own language. But I remember once they said to me, and I’ll never forget it, “You know, you’re awfully nice to be an American.” And that stuck with me and I said, “Damn…”. And another thing that stuck with me, I said, over here, in Europe, you’re not looked upon for your race. You’re looked upon for your character and how you conduct yourself. Back then, that’s how it was. So that’s what they were saying to me. Have you ever heard the term “The Ugly American”?
AG: No, I’m not sure I have.
FP: Well, I have. And, especially in France, a lot of French people didn’t like Americans, and I don’t know why because it was America that helped rescue Paris from the Germans in World War II. And I don’t know, for some reason in France, they have a thing about Americans because Americans come over there and - this is like going back to the 60s by the way, 60s and the 70s - Americans come over there and act like they’re all that, you know, like they’re so superior, and Europeans resent it. But that’s just something that, you know, is well known, and I don’t know if it’s like that… Now, oh God, Trump just really blew that out the water because he exemplifies The Ugly American.
AG: Right. Yeah, I think it’s lasted since that time. I was touring abroad quite a bit in the early 2000s, and throughout Europe I felt like there was sort of the studying eye, looking to see what your behavior was gonna be like, because they’re ready to see The Ugly American. One phrase I remember from a younger fellow in Germany - even though it wasn’t a statement with a specific meaning, I felt like I felt it - he said, “America is really hard to believe.” It almost sounds like an incomplete thought, but I found that striking.
FP: What did he mean that America is hard to believe?
AG: Hard to believe. I took it like, um - and this is after 911 and the actions that we’re taking abroad at that time - I think it was the character of the country, and I think he was expecting to see The Ugly American. I didn’t act that way, but it was like this confusion of ‘why is this nation behaving this way?’ I can’t say for sure…
FP: Oh… I get it, yeah. I see.
AG: Yeah, somewhere in there.
FP: And you know what, when they keep saying, especially Trump when he always, the last four years, this is before the pandemic, this is the wealthiest country in the world, we’re the best and the wealthiest, and I think to myself… You know, I’ve been traveling, I’ve been to Europe over the last few years I go, I go to the UK, I went to Australia, Melbourne a couple of years ago, and as far as I’m concerned, other countries seem to have a better image than us. I mean, it’s like, you see how the homeless here - especially now, even more so now it’s doubled, and almost tripled here in LA - but you don’t see that, hardly, in these other countries.
FP: And also, that to me is we’re getting to be a laughing stock. I do not believe we’re the wealthiest country in the world. I do not believe it. I think we’re strong, I think we’re wealthy, but I don’t think we are the wealthiest. I don’t think we’re the greatest country. We’re a great country, but not the greatest. There are other countries that are great as well. That’s all I’m saying.
AG: Yeah. Well it’s a matter of where that wealth goes, too. We’re a strong country; a lot of the wealth goes into the military and a small population, so it’s a different use of power.
As I said, I’ve been talking to musicians especially who remember the 60s and 70s and talking about the Civil Rights movement and what effect it may have had on your work, or how the arts can respond to the moment and either heal us or bring us forward. It leads to a number of questions I want to ask you because I think of your jazz roots and I see your return to jazz so I wonder if you always sort of gravitated towards your best opportunity? I mean, how do you balance the passion in your art with making a living? It’s something that I assume you balanced all the time because of the changes throughout your career. But am I misreading that? I’m not sure.
FP: No, you’re not, you’re reading it correctly. Yeah, I equate that into the scenario of you’ve gotta have more than, like a mouse, you’ve got to have more than one hole to run into. You just can’t have one thing, I believe. Now some people have one thing, that’s all they can do is this one thing. But you gotta be versatile. Like, okay, I started out in jazz but then when I got my hit records like with “Band of Gold” and “Bring the Boys Home,” that really is what gave me national recognition. And international recognition, for that matter.
"Band Of Gold" / Freda Payne (Invictus, 1970)
FP: And it changed, it opened up my career doors and opportunities vastly, which I don’t regret, but at the same time, people thought of me as being a soul R&B singer and I’m not really that. I’m a jazz singer who became and R&B singer; I can do it all. And that’s about how I answer that question.
AG: “Bring the Boys Home” was perhaps the most apparent protest song, so to speak. Was that part of the interest in the song, and are there other ways that the characteristic spirit of the era comes out in your work?
FP: Well, it was a song that was brought to me because Invictus Records was looking to get me another hit. They said, this looks like a strong song for you to do right now - because America was still at war with Vietnam at the time and, of course, I loved the song when I heard it. We went and recorded it, and it caught on right away. It became my second gold record. And it did cause a little bit of friction because the Republican Party was in office at the time, and they sent a telegram to Invictus Records saying that “Bring the Boys Home” could not or will not be played in South Vietnam, due to the fact that it was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. So they saw it as an anti/protest song. Whereas, several Vietnam vets, years later would come up to me and thank me for doing it. They said you know what, that song helped me get through. It gave me comfort. It did the opposite of what they were saying, you know, that’s why these politicians, sometimes they just get uptight about any little thing… that does not necessarily ring true.
"Bring the Boys Home" / Freda Payne (Invictus, 1971)
AG: You mentioned people saying how that really helped them through and that reminds me of the concept, which I believe I’ve heard you mention in other interviews, of music as a healing force. And that’s not just a mystical thing, that’s real.
FP: Yes, it is real! Music is healing for me.
AG: Do you know how that works?
FP: No. Ah, God, I wish I could break that down chemically or on a spiritual level, but there’s certain music, when I hear it, it just goes all through my body. It’s your brain, and it just thrills you, or just relaxes you, whichever you want to claim. And also, uptempo music, like certain dance music, when I hear it, certain music will just make me want to starting moving and jumping around and get up on my seat and dancing, and other songs I hear with the same tempo… they do nothing. You know, certain songs, like, when you hear it is just becomes a part of your body, it’s like it just speaks to you. And other songs don’t. Other kinds of music don’t. So I’ll just say it like that.
AG: Hey, that’s pretty good. It seems like a magical concept and yet it’s undeniable because, like you said, you feel it in your body. It is magical, but it’s also very real.
Otherwise… Okay, I guess this is what I want to ask. Again, since I’m not old enough to remember the 60s and 70s, my impression is that at that time in the height of the Civil Rights movement there was a window of opportunity for change that seemed to be closed for most of my lifetime, and today we’re given some hope that maybe it could be opening again. Because everybody has a cellphone with a video camera, there’s been a lot more of society exposed to the truth of murdering of people of color that’s been happening for hundreds of years. If people didn’t know about it before, they know about it now.
FP: I think you got it exactly right. Nowadays everybody’s got an iPhone, a whatever phone, got a camera, a video. You see stuff in real time now, whereas this stuff has been going on all along. As a matter of fact, it was worse years ago when people actually got what they call out-and-out lynched. If you know anything about American history you know about that. But now, that’s why they’re talking about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police and all that kind of stuff, and I understand that. I understand it. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think that it’s coming out of the hurt and the fact that people have probably lost a loved one or a dear friend and having seen this happen. They’re more outraged now because they figure this shouldn’t be happening anymore, and it still is happening. But now, it’s being exposed in real time on video, you know?
I think what’s gotta happen is that, the police force, they have to be retrained, and they have to be scrutinized, even more so. Certain men can’t handle being a policeman because have a tendency to feel like they are like a god, or like they have it in their power to kill somebody if they feel like it. You know, if that person steps out of line a little bit, so they think, whereas they didn’t have to. And that’s where I’m coming from because, honey, if you have a problem, if a woman’s husband is beating her up or if somebody’s breaking into your house or if something is happening where you need help and you don’t have any ways or means of doing anything about it, you’re gonna wanna call the police. They’re there to help you; they’re supposed to protect and serve you, not harass or kill you. So I think there’s gotta be tighter restrictions on how you train policemen to even get the job to be policemen. That’s what I have to say.
But I see a lot has changed. A lot has changed for the better, but at the same time there is still some opposition, there is still…I’m talking about people who are racist and white supremacist and all like that…they’re still there. And some of them, they’ll just never change. They know that they’re wrong. Their attitude is that they have the right to do what they do, they have a right because they’re white. They think they’re right because they’re white. And that does not make it right. Period. That does not make it right. And that’s what the fight is all about. Now, I see more whites being neutral, you know, a lot more, because guess what? What do you see when you see these protesters and marchers? You see a whole bunch of white people in there, too. So you’ve gotta have, in order to change things, we’ve gotta have them on our side. They have to sympathize and know that we are the ones that are at risk; we are the ones that are being persecuted. We are, let’s say, the last to be hired and the first to be fired, as they say. But things are changing. Now I see more black people on TV—newscasters, people hosting their own shows, commercials. I see more black people in commercials; I also see interracial couples in commercials. You never saw that 25, 35, 50 years ago. When Oprah came along, that was a revelation. That was a revelation! I never thought you’d see a woman like her, of color, hosting her own network TV show and becoming the most popular one of all, and on top of that one of the richest ones. But we’re still paying the price, and still in the trenches, so… there’s always gonna be some racism somewhere.
AG: I guess my final thought… If there’s something that you might say to a young person who isn’t sure what they want to do. Is there anything that you could say? What do you say to a young person who’s not sure what they want to do?
FP: Hmm. I would say, just keep on. Try and just find what makes you happy, you know? Do what makes you happy, but at the same time do something where you know you’re going to be able to make a living doing it. Follow your heart. That’s about it.
FP: By the way, how old are you?
AG: Oh, I’m 47 now. So I’m not a kid, but I don’t remember the 70s too much.
FP: Oh, yeah right you were a baby then. You were a kid, yeah. Okay, well, you have a great day, and where are you located?
AG: I’m from Brooklyn but I’m actually in Western Massachusetts at the moment. I’m a native New Yorker.
FP: Oh, yeah. (Sings) “I’m a native New Yorker…” remember that?
AG: Oh, yeah! Odyssey. I love that. I’m pretty sure my dad plays French horn on that record.
FP: Get outta here! Wow!
Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention to you - I don’t know if you know or not, but this was last year, it was in July of last year - I went in the studio here at Capitol Records Studio A, and I recorded a big band. Five songs, with eighteen pieces, and strings - the strings were done in Budapest, but it was eighteen pieces at Capitol - and I’ve got a single out now. It’s a duet I did with Johnny Mathis.
AG: Oh yeah, I know, it’s amazing! The recording and the performing is so great. I love that you were even able to get together with an ensemble like that and just do it like that.
FP: Yeah! And also I’ve got another song out now. It’s called “He Gained the World But Lost His Soul”. Go on YouTube. It’s like a Tina Turner thing, more rock. Check it out.
AG: Thank you so much.
FP: Alrighty. Bye-bye.