As iconic in 2014 for her timeless beauty and sex appeal as she is her artistic versatility as an all around entertainer, Ms. Freda Payne remains among music’s and show business’ brightest shining star survivors. When she is singing her heartbeat music – jazz – love, awe and yearning only grow stronger. Her latest album, Come Back To Me Love (her first for Mack Avenue Records) marks not only a return to the big band and strings-laden classics from her mid-`60s beginnings with Impulse!, but also marks a return to her hometown of Detroit. That makes this14-song album featuring Grammy® Award-winning arranger Bill Cunliffe’s musical arrangements – from the vibes-kissed Kenny Rankin waltz “Haven’t We Met” to the lonely evening fireplace musings of “Lately” – a beautiful homecoming.
“It’s a dream come true,” Payne enthuses with a smile, “just like in 1968 when I was living in New York seeking my fame and fortune, and ran into Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland. He told me they had just left Motown and started their own company, Invictus. I flew back to Detroit, signed with them and a year later had a Top 5 record, ‘Band of Gold.’ So signing to Mack Avenue with Gretchen Valade and Tom Robinson today is truly serendipitous – a flashback to something really good happening for me at home in Detroit, my good luck charm.”
Reflecting on how this opportunity arose, Payne continues, “(Bassist) Ralphe Armstrong and I were on a local big band gig together when he told me about an intimate jazz club in Grosse Point, MI, with great food, saying, ‘You should work there.’ I made the contact and that’s when I met Gretchen and Tom. Six months later I did a return engagement and they asked me to sing a song for a documentary on Gretchen – When I Have To Smile. Then they asked if I’d like to record an album for their label, Mack Avenue. That made me feel very special.”
That album became Come Back To Me Love featuring six selections penned by Gretchen and Tom (including the title track, “You Don’t Know” and “I Should Have Told Him”) paired with eight selections of golden favorites such as the torchy “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” and the blues boiler “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.” When asked who she would like to be her right hand she called upon a more recent associate of hers, Los Angeles-based Bill Cunliffe. She’d first hired him to accompany her in her acclaimed “Ella: The First Lady of Song” engagement at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood. “I told them Bill was at the top of my list,” Freda insists. “Bill is an excellent musician, easy to get along with and respects my ideas.”
Come Back To Me Love is split between powerful big band jazz and classy contemporary pop with strings. “Gretchen and Tom’s material was offered as part of the project,” Freda explains. “They sent me about 20 songs asking Bill and I to pick. I’d go to Bill’s – sit and listen to the CDs – and we got them down to the six best for us. It was the combination of the musicality and the lyrics that got me…all about love in all its dimensions…all reflecting what people go through in life, including me. Their songs are the most commercial of the album.”
For the remaining eight selections, Payne picked longtime favorites that she’d always wanted to do, but had never recorded or performed before. That exception was “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” which she had been using in live performances but had not yet recorded, done in a breathtaking piano and vocals-only pairing. “I remember ‘Midnight Sun’ from Lionel Hampton – I was once his band singer, I got to know him and his wife Gladys,” Freda adds. “And I remember ‘Save Your Love For Me’ from when I first went to New York City and heard Cannonball Adderley’s version with Nancy Wilson.”
Asked if much has changed since those first 1963 jazz recordings in her birthday week in September and she marvels, “In `63 I was nervous as hell – uptight and pushing too hard to be perfect. This time I felt like I was in Heaven. I was in Capitol Records Studio A (another company she recorded for in the mid-`70s) with 40 musicians, singing over impeccable arrangements. I was much more relaxed and secure within myself. One of my favorite vocal performances is ‘The Island’ (from the musical pens of Brazil’s Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins with English lyrics by husband and wife team Alan & Marilyn Bergman). The song is so intimate, sexual and spiritual all at the same time. The sound of Bill Cunliffe’s orchestration just enveloped and transfixed me… I was taken to another place and just went with it in my vocal.”
With her Mack Avenue Records debut, Come Back to Me Love –on which every instrumental solo sounds like it was played by someone who had a crush on her at one time or another – Ms. Freda Charcelia Payne won’t just be swinging on a star…she’ll be clutching that golden Victrola for this, her return to jazz and Detroit.
About Freda Payne:
Though best known for her 1970 R&B crossover smash hit “Band of Gold,” Freda Payne has always first and foremost been a jazz singer dating back to The Jimmy Wilkins Big Band at age 14. Her debut album After The Lights Go Down Low And More (Impulse! – 1963) was arranged by Manny Albam while a more pop-oriented follow-up entitled How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore (MGM – 1966) was helmed by saxophonist/arranger Benny Golson. Payne performed at the Apollo Theater up in Harlem alongside Billy Eckstine backed by Quincy Jones and His Orchestra, comedian Redd Foxx and the dance team Coles & Atkins. She also graced the stage with Duke Ellington for two nights in Pittsburgh, after which he composed “Blue Piano” just for her. Freda Payne’s training and experience render her a rare vocal artist that is stylistically beyond category.