Freda Payne speaks with John Abbey about her early years in Detroit, her association with school-mate Brian Holland which led to her Invictus recordings.
WITHOUT A DOUBT, the most exciting and worthwhile 'new' discovery of 1970 was Freda Payne. Exciting because she is just that; worthwhile because she will be at the top for quite a while to come. Freda has been in Eruope for a couple of weeks touring with comedian Jerry Lewis and it was in Paris, where she was appearing at the famed Olympia theatre, that we tracked her down. It then occurred to me that at no time since she found her success with Invictus had I actually read a factual life story of Miss Payne and so I figured that now was the time.
Dressed in beautiful and colourful robes, Miss Payne lounged gracefully on a divan and started the story: "I was born in Detroit, in a small hospital called Parkside on the east side of Detroit. The hospital has since been torn down and is a parking lot or something now! I lived my first eighteen years in Detroit and when I reached that golden age, of course, I became very rebellious — which, of course, is normal and I wanted to get away from what I had been doing and try something more exciting. I wanted to get away from the rule of my mother, which was right of her, I know, but I disagreed then.
"I always had and still have a free spirit and I had to break away from being controlled although I know she was doing her best for me. And I think that my free spirit is one of the reasons why I'm still not married today! Actually, though, I'm a very gentle and quiet person. Most of my friends think of me as just a quiet, aloof and unconcerned sort of person but the ones who really know me know that I think a lot and very deeply. My mind is like a lot of wheels constantly going round and nuts and bolts working everywhere. And I know exactly what I'm doing all the time and both of my feet are on the ground. But most people think I'm shy and easy going and it's like the old saying goes, most people can mistake kindness for weakness. If I ever get misunderstood by people, I always feel very offended because I feel that they have the wrong motive or wrong ideal about me.
"I'm very non-aggressive; I'm not a taker. I don't believe in having to take things by force; I believe that if I were to force somebody to give me something then they don't really want to give it to me. And I want people to like or love me for what I am and what I do and no other reason; if not, then they don't need say they like me. This is an example, hypothetically speaking — if somebody owns a dress shop and by giving me some dresses I can advertise the shop, then that's O.K. But I don't want to ask and won't do the asking.
"When I was younger, I was never able to sing in front of anybody and I was not able to express my personality. As a child, I was so shy and insecure — well, let me put it frankly to you. I thought of myself as being an ugly child. I really didn't think I was a pretty child; as a child I had sandy, fuzzy hair, kind of golden; and I had dark brown beady eyes; and I had light eyebrows and eyelashes. And kids are funny — if they see another kid and he or she's not cute, they don't like them right away. So, I think I had problems but they are problems which I have come out of now!
"As a child, though, I always had food and a backyard to play in. We lived in a poor neighbour hood, though, but when I say poor I'm not talking about going without food or clothes. My sister and I always had whatever my mother and father could afford. We never went to bed hungry but we were poor. And, more important, we had the chance to enjoy life. And I had a wonderful grandmother; she's been dead now for about 15 years. And I think so very much of my mother. When I got out into the world, I realised, that not everyone has a good mother and I began to fully appreciate everything my mother had done for me. I'm proud that I was born into good stock like my mother; I believe that people are born with character rather than develop it."
Freda was actually christened Freda Charcilia Payne. The unusual middle given name comes from an extension of her mother's name, Charcle. And in America, Freda is something of an unusual name although in Europe it is far more common. Freda's father worked at Ford's in Detroit although her mother and father were divorced when she was about two. Her mother remarried again and is now Mrs Farley although Freda and her sister Sherrie — who is lead singer with the Glass House — retained the name Payne. Their stepfather was a policeman prior to his purchase of a tavern in Detroit, which he now happily operates with some degree of success.
The musical background of Freda Payne is a little complex and quite unusual in that she graduated from being a jazz singer into a pop singer and usually it's the other way around. At the age of five, Freda was taking piano lessons in classical music — "not from choice; while all the other kids were outside playing, I was inside practicing!" — and, when she reached her early teens she became very interested in jazz. This was at a time when jazz was gradually fading from the pop music scene and being replaced by R&B, at a time when Jackie Wilson and Elvis Presley were top dogs. "I started listening to pop and jazz when I was about 11 really," Freda explained. "But, at that time, the quality of pop music wasn't that great. You know, I had to listen to the radio for about an hour before I heard a song I liked! So I turned to jazz.
"At the time, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were very popular and I did appreciate them for their talent. And the kids were worshipping Elvis and Jackie; but I've never been a worshipper. I'm too much of a realist; maybe that's because I'm a Virgo. But I've never been able to worship any human being. I can respect somebody for the talent he may have but I can only worship God. So, I turned to jazz for my musical appreciation when I was about twelve.
"And it wasn't until I was about nineteen or twenty before I started to appreciate Rock & Roll music. I think that the standard of pop music improved so much over those few years that I found I could appreciate the artistic quality of it. And I think Motown was the major change in Pop music and R&B music; I think they must take the credit for the tremendous steps taken by R&B music in those years. They improved the orchestrations and the recording facilities; and they started using the best arrangers and the best musicians. And in the five or six years that I have really shown an interest in popular music, the standard of pop music has increased even more."
But Freda has never lost her love and appreciation for her first musical love, jazz. She still listens to it for leisure and there is a strong possibility that she will be cutting a jazz-oriented album for Invictus in the near future. Although, in all fairness, it won't be a straight jazz album but with hints of the sort of thing that Isaac Hayes has been doing on record. In short, a happy compromise between Jazz, Blues & Soul.
If Freda had not become a singer, she considers it possible that she would have become a dancer and, indeed, it is her second nature to get up and dance. During her teens, she developed her natural talent for dancing and became something of an expert, specialising in modern jazz although taking in ballet and discotheque dancing. In fact, it was the tremendous improvement to the music that she would discotheque dance to that stirred her interest in popular music. She began to take note of the lyrics and tunes as they advanced.
The first step in that direction was when she recorded an album with MGM — it has just been released via MGM in this country in their '99' series — when she recorded such items as "Let It Be Me", "Yesterday" and "You've Lost That Loving Feelin' " and this was her first introduction to pop music as an artist. Prior to that, the name Freda Payne had been associated with straight jazz via an album on Impulse and singles on both Impulse and ABC: "I was happy with the MGM album as a starter. The arrangements were good and the quality was there. I'm certainly not ashamed of it now. I was also happy with my voice, which to me was important at the time."
But the big move for Freda was signing with Holland-Dozier-Holland at Invictus. Freda's association with the dynamic trio began when she was at school. She first met Eddie Holland when she was thirteen years old and Eddie was seventeen. He was just beginning with Berry Gordy Jr. at the time and Motown was in its infancy. At that time, Freda actually started working with Berry Gordy as his protege and he started coaching her both as a singer and dancer. But Freda's mother and father were against it and convinced her that she should finish school first. And that was that.
A couple of years later, Freda was at school with Brian Holland who is two years younger than Eddie. And, earlier in her childhood, she had been to school with Lamont Dozier. But, it wasn't until two years ago that they got together professionally. By accident, Freda and Brian Holland were at the same party in Detroit and he enquired as to what she was doing now. On learning that she was not tied into a management or recording contract, Brian informed her of the plans of the trio to form their own recording complex and that the finalities were almost complete to start work.
At the time, she was appearing in "Hallelujah, Baby" on New York's famed Broadway. It was this chance meeting that led Freda Payne into the Pop and Soul world. Quite rightly, she realised that if she was ever going to make a success of herself as a pop singer, she stood a far better chance with Holland-Dozier-Holland. The actual formalities took close on a year but it was worth it.
Although the first release, "The Unhooked Generation", was not a great success, its successor became one of the biggest selling records of 1970. "Band Of Gold" introduced Freda Payne to the world and it hit the top chart spot in several countries around the world. But the transition from jazz to Pop was difficult: "I had to completely forget everything I had been doing for years and learn everything anew. Eddie Holland was very patient with me and I just did exactly what he told me to do. In truth, though, it wasn't too difficult because I am naturally a Soul singer — I can sing with soul but I had taught myself to sing another way. And, of course, a lot of Soul artists graduate from gospel music which they learn when they are very young. I was never into that either.
"I just erased from my mind all the voice lessons I had taken and replaced it be letting it all come out the way it would naturally do. But now my voice lessons have helped me because I am able to add little things here and there that I believe help."
"Band Of Gold", though, took Freda by surprise. She truly didn't expect it to be a hit. The controversial lyric certainly had something to do with its success but the most positive factor behind the success of the record was the perfect way that Freda handled the difficult song. With the added help of the now-famous Invictus sound, it really was an obvious hit. At the time of its British release, we spoke to Freda on the telephone about the lyric and she explained that there had been two explanations offered as to what the writer actually meant — either the girl was frigid and the man was disappointed and up and went; or that the man was frigid and that the woman did the walking out. But Freda now confirms that the writer, Ronald Dunbar, intended the meaning to be the former.
Freda followed "Band Of Gold" with "Deeper and Deeper" and "Cherish What Is Dear To You", both of which were successful although not as much so as "Band Of Gold", which has now surpassed 5 million sales worldwide.
What does the future hold? Within a week or so, there will be a new single both in the States and U.K., "Bring The Boys Home". There is every chance that Freda will appear on "Top Of The Pops" on May 6 or 13 singing this number. And there is the imminent release in the States of her new album, "Contact", an album that is tastefully packaged and infinitely better recorded than the "Band Of Gold" album. In Freda's opinion it beats her first Invictus album in every respect. The whole album includes original compositions and some of the recordings will exceed the standard three minute duration.
And there is a chance that during the first couple of weeks of May, Freda will be appearing in Birmingham at the Batley Variety club. If so, do yourself a favour and get along to see you. Both your eyes and ears will be pleasantly satiated.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.