While it’s been 44 years since the release of Freda Payne’s classic soul track “Band of Gold,” the 71-year-old singer is still recording, still touring and still beautiful as the days when she was a regular guest on both Soul Train and The Tonight Show. The stunning songstress collaborated with Grammy-winning arranger Bill Cunlife on her recently released Come Back to Me Love (Payne’s return to jazz). Although best known for “Band of Gold”—as well as “Deeper and Deeper” and “Bring the Boys Home”—the Detroit native has been a jazz fan she was a little girl.
“My uncle Johnny, who died when I was 10, had an immense record collection back in the 1940s. I was about 4 or 5 years old, and I used to listen to Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ ‘Creole Love Call’ and ‘Take the A Train,’ which was really written by Billy Strayhorn. He also played Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, and I used to listen to all of it.”
Payne recorded her first jazz album, After the Lights Go Low and Much More!!!, in 1964 with the famed producer Bob Thiele, but the record flopped. However, after a chance encounter with her old friend Brian Holland—famed Motown songwriter/producer of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame, and the trio most responsible for the pop gems of the Supremes—she found herself back in Detroit.
Having walked out of Berry Gordy’s hothouse of musical creativity over money disagreements, HDH launched Invictus Records and signed Freda Payne to be their flagship artist. “They were suing Motown, and Motown had sued them back,” Payne says, “so, there was all that drama.”
Still, no matter what was going on in the background, HDH was still able to conjure studio magic for the new singing lady in their life. At the end of one session in particular, Payne left with the song that would become her signature. A few months later, “Band of Gold” was a pop hit, reaching number three on the Billboard pop chart.
But with her raging beauty, in 1970 Freda Payne became an in-demand cover subject for EBONY and JET magazines. From her barbershop-popular 1974 JET calendar to her numerous glossy covers, for men of a certain age, she was a sepia-toned fantasy woman whose combined classiness and sexiness was visually lethal.
Laughing at the memory of her cover-girl days, Payne recalls, “Can I tell you, I think there were some people who were a little jealous. They would say, ‘Who do you know?’ God bless those people at JET, they’re all gone now. Robert Johnson the editor, John Johnson who owned the magazines.
“When I was 16, I was on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and I came in second,” Payne remembers. “A couple of weeks later, they gave me a write-up in JET and I was shocked, because I wondered how they even knew about me. But there it was, the whole story. To them it was a big deal.
“God bless JET and EBONY, because they always wrote about what Black people were doing in the United States of America. If it wasn’t for them, a lot of us wouldn’t have gotten any exposure.”
Payne also tried her fine hand at acting. She made her debut in the numbers racket film Book of Numbers, produced and directed in ’73 by her co-star, Raymond St. Jacques. A non-Blaxploitation film released in the middle of that era, it was based on a Robert Deane Pharr novel; Payne played the love interest, Kelly Simms.
“Now, that was an experience,” Payne says. “Raymond called me personally and asked if I would star in the movie with Phillip Michael Thomas and D’Urville Martin. It was a fun movie. We shot on location in Texas, and it was hot. I remember having to wear a wool skirt and a cardigan sweater and it was really humid. But it was a project I really enjoyed.”
While Payne later appeared in Sprung and Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, her ’70s film career was short-lived because everyone wanted her to shed her clothes at the door. “I was tested to do a film at MGM, but they wanted me to do a nude scene,” she says. “They asked me if I had any problems with that, and I did. I had already gone through that on Book of Numbers. It was only partial nudity. They wound up not really showing anything, but I was in bed with Phillip Michael Thomas, which wasn’t so bad. He was a real cutie pie.
“Anyway, the MGM movie—I don’t remember the name, but Vonetta McGee wound up doing it. There was another movie that producer Dino De Laurentiis asked me the same thing, and I told him that I wouldn’t be comfortable. I think Paula Kelly wound up doing it. Had I continued in the movies, I think my career would’ve excelled a little more.”
Still, as Freda Payne prepares to take her latest tour on the road, the diva has no time for regrets. Right now, it’s all about the jazz.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.