Freda Payne returns to her roots on new album and at jazz fest
When it comes to jazz, Freda Payne isn’t just another R&B singer looking for a more mature art form and a chance to wear classier gowns.
Payne’s new album, “Come Back to Me Love,” and her appearance Saturday at the Detroit Jazz Festival mark a return to her original musical love. The singer, now 71, is best known for her R&B career, including the Holland-Dozier-Holland smash “Band of Gold” from 1970.
But when she was 14, the native Detroiter won a singing contest on the “Ed McKenzie Show,” and she wasn’t singing R&B. “The first time I sang ‘Too Young to Go Steady’ by Nat King Cole, and the second time I sang ‘That Old Black Magic,’ ” Payne says. She’s talking by phone, from Los Angeles.
It was Payne’s uncle, Johnny Hickman, who worked at Ford and was an amateur tap dancer, who inadvertently encouraged her love for music. “He had Rachmaninoff, but also Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ Count Basie, Lionel Hampton. I was captivated, listening to ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and ‘Prelude in C.’ ”
Payne sang jazz when she appeared on the national program “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” in 1958, when she was 16. She signed with ABC Paramount’s jazz imprint, Impulse, and recorded the albums “After the Lights Go Down” and “Much More.” She switched to pop/R&B “because I wanted to get ahead,” she says.
Fast forward to 2011 — Payne was touring with an Ella Fitzgerald tribute, and the bassist on the gig, Ralphe Armstrong, told her she should contact the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pointe Woods for a booking.
At her first Dirty Dog date, she impressed owner Gretchen Valade. Payne was booked for another four-night stint and soon after was asked if she would record an album for Valade’s label, Mack Avenue Records.
One of Mack Avenue’s requests was that Payne record some of Valade’s songs. Payne chose six, all with lyrics by Tom Robinson of Mack Avenue Records. She filled the album out with eight songs by other writers — standards that she had never done before.
“She’s quite a writer,” Payne says of Valade. “The critics have been saying those tunes are comparable to well-written American songbook-type songs. In my opinion, two or three of them are the most commercial songs on the album, especially ‘I Just Have to Know.’
“Who gets a record deal nowadays, unless you’re 15 or something?” Payne adds. “I feel blessed that she believed in me and saw something in me that needed to be exposed.”
Freda Payne with the USAF Airmen of Note Big Band
7:45 p.m.- 9 p.m. Saturday, Carhartt Amphitheater Stage (Also appearing: Emma Aboukasm, 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival Youth Vocalist winner)