Freda Payne is starring in the MetroStage production of Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song. Over the course of the last four decades, Payne has toured the world in concerts, theater performances and one-woman shows. We had the chance to talk with her as Ella was getting ready to open.
As a child growing up in Detroit during the ’40s and ’50s, Freda Payne would listen to jazz records and dream about becoming a star. She won local talent contests, wowed them at the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts and scored a No. 1 hit in 1970 with the pop anthem, “Band of Gold.”
“I was about 12 when I became aware of Ella, and that’s when I became a fan,” Payne says. “I was immediately attracted to her vocal ability; her sound and voice was just spot-on. When I started hearing recordings of her scatting, I knew this was one lady who was out of this world. Her musicality was off the charts.”
Payne was lucky enough to see Fitzgerald perform live on several occasions. The first as a young 20-something at the Riverboat, a club located in the basement of the Empire State Building.
“I was invited by my friend Faye Treadwell, who was the manager of the Drifters. Faye knew her and after the show we went back to her dressing room and when I met her, I was just in awe,” Payne says. “They started talking and Ella sat in front of her dressing room table and I looked at my arm and the hair was standing up.”
The next time the two crossed paths was at a political concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and Payne saw her perform one other time at a club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“I remember back in 1996 when Ella passed away. I was doing a concert right outside of L.A., and a friend of mine was meeting me for breakfast at the hotel. I saw the front page of the L.A. Times with her picture and I became very sad,” Payne says. “I knew she was sick for a long time and was suffering from severe diabetes. I knew just from sources she was really ill, but it still was a shock. I decided right there that I wanted to do a theatrical tribute to her.”
That same thought crossed the mind of Maurice Hines, who Payne had worked with in the national tour of Jelly’s Last Jam, and he called his friend to see if she would be interested. Hines conceived the project as a result of the time he spent with Ella backstage in Las Vegas, hearing her tell stories of her life.
“It was 2004 when Maurice called me and he told me that Crossroads in New Brunswick, N.J., were interested and he wanted me for the part,” Payne says. “Coincidentally, three days later, another gentleman called me to do a similar project, but they weren’t ready to go yet. I did the Crossroads gig and after that, I continued to do an Ella tribute in my nightclub act and concerts for the next 8 to 9 years.”
Last year, MetroStage’s producing artistic director Carolyn Griffin asked Hines if he would bring his Ella show to Virginia and he was excited to get the project back on stage. He brought back Payne, revised the script a bit and added some more actors and in August, MetroStage presented a staged reading of the play at the Kennedy Center.
“I was so excited when Maurice called me and told me that this was coming together. The production is much better than what was done at Crossroads as this company and representation of Ella Fitzgerald is stepped up a couple of notches,” Payne says. “I am still playing Ella, but the difference is last time I played her starting as a young teenager, auditioning at the Apollo and did her whole life. This time, the wonderful Wynonna Smith is portraying a young Ella, and I am playing my regular role as Ella.”
Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song
Closes March 16, 2014
1201 North Royal Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $60
Thursdays thru Sundays
“She represents how it was done and how it should be done,” Payne says. “Just as I would tell a dancer to study ballet first, then modern jazz, then hip-hop. You have to be equipped all around and Ella represents what a really good singer should be.”
A friend of Payne’s once told her, “Drink hearty, but stay at your party,” meaning do what you do well and do it because you are the best at it.
“That’s what I try to do in my portrayal of being Ella—to do her justice and keep the legacy alive and the true artistry of her vocal ability,” she says. “I’ve heard other singers do Ella in tribute and they do a great job, but my thing is if I see someone portraying a great artist or singer, I want to see somebody that is going to be like the person and embody or channel that spirit. I feel as if I bring her back alive.”