If you were listening to Top 40 radio in the summer of 1970, chances are you remember “Band of Gold,” the chart-topping tale of marital rejection that launched the career of a then 27-year-old newcomer named Freda Payne.
Payne, now 75, takes the stage of the Delaware Theatre Company tomorrow night, not to belt out Motown-style R&B, but to swing and scat as the legendary Ella Fitzgerald in the regional premiere of “Ella: First Lady of Song.”
“Most people think of me as being an R&B singer but they’re unaware of my history of being a jazz singer,” she said.
Although Payne will be forever linked with “Band of Gold,” Ella takes her back to her jazz roots. As a child growing up in Detroit during the ‘40s and ‘50s, Payne would listen to jazz vocalists like Carmen McRae and Betty Carter and dream of joining their ranks. But it was Fitzgerald who impressed her most.
“Just the purity of her voice and her articulation,” she said. “She could just sing a song, especially when she did something from the Great American Songbook, of course, but when she did her swing and bebop, she was one of the greatest scatters of all time.”
Payne was lucky enough to see Fitzgerald perform live on several occasions and even got to meet her in the late ‘60s.
“She was working at a club—the Riverboat—located in the basement of the Empire State Building and a dear friend of mine, Faye Treadwell, who was the manager of The Drifters, called me and told me she was going and would I like to join her,” she recalled. “We walked into her dressing room and I was just in awe. I just met Ella and sat down and felt chills going up and down my arms. It was almost like a spiritual thing. I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, my grandmother’s here and she’s so happy that I’m meeting Ella.’”
Payne also recalls the shock of learning that Fitzgerald had passed. The year was 1996 and Payne was doing a concert just outside Los Angeles. She was meeting a friend for breakfast at her hotel when she noticed the obituary on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.
“My heart just dropped,” she said. “I knew she had been ailing because she had diabetes and at that point I think both of her legs had been amputated. I got this feeling that I wanted to carry on her legacy. I wanted to play Ella on stage not just sing songs in a tribute.”
And that’s exactly what happened, thanks to Maurice Hines. Payne had worked with Hines in the national tour of Jelly’s Last Jam a year earlier. Hines conceived the project as a result of the time he spent with Fitzgerald backstage in Las Vegas listening to her recount stories of her life. Hines had taken notice of how much Payne sounded like Fitzgerald so when the production was first staged in 2004 at the Crossroads in New Brunswick, N.J., she was his first choice to play Fitzgerald.
“I had it in me and Maurice was the one,” said Payne. “He said he loved my voice and that I really captured Ella vocally. We have the same torch for Ella.”
Payne prepared for the role by reading two biographies about Fitzgerald: “First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record” by Geoffrey M. Fidelman and “Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz” by Stuart Nicholson, both of which yielded some surprising facts.
“She had been molested by her step-father and had run away and at one point was living on the street,” Payne said. “She was even committed to a juvenile facility for girls. She really had it rough.”
Payne also discovered that she and Fitzgerald had much in common: they both started out wanting to be dancers but turned to singing, winning a series of talent contests on their way to stardom. Payne won a series of local contests in Detroit before performing nationally on “Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour” at age 16. (She would come in second to an Italian tenor.)
“When I discovered singing was my strong suit and that I didn’t have to wear myself out as a dancer, I started to push myself in that direction,” said Payne.
The DTC’s production marks the first time the show has been staged since 2014 when it enjoyed a run at the MetroStage in Alexandria, Va. It’s essentially the same show with a few nips and tucks.
“They’ve tweaked some of the dialogue, but basically we’re doing all the same songs we did in 2014,” said Payne. “And just as in 2014 Wynonna Smith will be playing ‘Young Ella.’ She does that so well.”
Payne laments what she feels is a lack of singers who are carrying on Fitzgerald’s legacy and blames the dearth of small cabaret-style clubs as well as the current crop of talent competitions.
“The clubs are where you got to show your style,” she said. “The only other way is to get on one of these contests on TV and to me these are contests on steroids. They criticize so much that a lot of these singers get cut down before they get a chance to prove themselves and be appreciated.”
And for those who may be wondering, “Band of Gold” still has a place in Payne’s concert performances, even her cabaret tribute to Fitzgerald. “That gets people to come; it draws them in,” she said. “’Band of Gold’ has not been so bad to me.”
“Ella: First Lady of Song” is being performed at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington from April 18 through May 13. Opening night is April 21. You can find more information and purchase tickets at www.delawaretheatre.org or call 302-594-1100.