Freda Payne remembers the first time she met Ella Fitzgerald. “It was the late 60s in New York,” she says. “Ella was appearing in a club called the Riverboat that was in the basement level of the Empire State Building.” Faye Treadwell, who managed The Drifters and had booked Freda on numerous occasions, invited her to the show. “Afterwards we went backstage because Faye and Ella were friends. I was totally in awe. I sat quietly in a chair in the dressing room while they talked. I looked down and the hair on my arm was standing up.”
Shortly after that meeting, Freda saw Ella perform at Basin Street East, “a posh night spot” on East 48th Street. “Then I saw her again in L.A., probably in the early 80s. We were at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, both attending a big event. They were giving out awards and I turned around and she was sitting in the row behind me. And that was it. That was the last time I saw her.”
In 1995, Freda was appearing in Jelly’s Last Jam with Maurice Hines and their dressing rooms were next to each other. “I would vocalize and warm up my voice during the half hour period before the show,” she says. “One day I was singing `Body and Soul’ and when I came up in the hallway, Maurice came out and said, `Freda, you sound just like Ella.’ And I said, `well I wasn’t trying to sound like her. I was just singing in the dressing room, warming up.’ He said, `I worked with her and you sound a lot like her.’”
In 2004, Hines called Freda with the news that Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, wanted to produce his show, Ella: First Lady of Song. He told Freda that she was his first choice to play Ella. Rehearsals began in November of that year and the show ran for several weekends.
Hines, who recently wowed D.C. audiences with his show at Arena Stage, Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Through Life, has brought Ella: First Lady of Song to MetroStage in Alexandria with Freda once again starring as Ella. The show, which will run through March 16, follows Ella’s life on and off the stage, “from her beginnings as a homeless street dancer to winning amateur night at the Apollo Theatre at the age of 15, from headlining with Chick Webb and his Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom to performing Live at the Cote D’Azur, from discovering she could `scat’ to mastering a new art form called `bebop,’” described in MetroStage’s press release.
Taking on the role of Ella, Freda did her homework, reading two biographies about the singer, First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record by Geoferey M. Fidelman, and Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography Of The First Lady Of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson. She discovered that they had a lot in common.”Ella wanted to be a dancer in her early teens and that’s how she came to audition for the Apollo,” she said. “There was a TV show in Detroit called The Ed McKenzie Dance Hour that was similar to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. I went to audition for it when I was 13, but I auditioned as a dancer.”
Even though Freda’s audition as a dancer went well and she was invited to be on the show, she decided she would have a better chance to compete as a singer. She returned, auditioned as a singer and ended up winning the competition. Six months later, she was invited back on the show and once again won.
A year or two later, Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour, a precursor to today’s American Idol and The Voice, held auditions in Detroit. Freda was chosen and she and her mother were flown to New York for the competition. “Well, I didn’t win first place; I won second.” She laughs. “I was up against a three time winner, an Italian tenor!” She got a three-page write up in Jet magazine. “And that’s how things started for me. I wanted to be a dancer and then singing just took over.”
Freda would sing with the Jimmy Wilkins Band. “They were like Detroit’s version of Count Basie.,” she explains. “They would play for different dances, big black affairs and probably some white affairs as well. Jimmy Wilkins would hire me to be the band singer, to come and do a couple of songs with them. I think he paid me like $45. But that was a big deal for me back then.”
Freda first met Maurice Hines in the 1960s when they were both working in Las Vegas. Maurice, his brother, Gregory, and their father, Maurice, were actually opening for Ella; Freda was appearing at the Thunderbird Hotel with the Larry Steele Revue. Three years after the 2004 production of Ella: First Lady of Song, Freda and Maurice did a two-month run in San Francisco in the musical revue, Blues in the Night. “It’s always wonderful to work with Maurice because I have the utmost respect for him as a performer,” Freda says. “We come from the same kind of background.” That respect, it seems, is mutual. When Freda was appearing with Maurice in Jelly’s Last Jam, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Freda Payne has one scene and stops the show.”
Besides, Maurice, Freda praises the Ella cast. Roz White, who most recently appeared in MetroStage’s Gee’s Bend, plays Georgianna, Ella’s cousin. Wynonna Smith, who has performed in Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway with Gregory Hines, in Los Angeles with Freda, and at Arena Stage with Maurice, plays young Ella and Frances, Ella’s half sister. Tom Wiggin, who plays Ella’s manager and jazz impresario, Norman Granz, has had a career on TV, in film, and on stage. Lee Summers wrote the book and for William Knowles is the musical director.
To talk with Freda about her amazing career is to long for a time when there were many venues in New York and other cities where vocalists could perform. “It’s hurtful because it gives you less places to work,” she says, commenting on the recent demise of places like the Oak Room at the Algonquin, Rainbow and Stars, and Feinstein’s at the Regency, where Freda performed Love and Payne with Darlene Love.
She admires young singers like Jennifer Hudson, Adele, and Christina Aguilera. She adds: “I started out in talent contests, that’s where I drew the attention of the so-called talent scouts. It seems to be like that today. The only difference is that these talent shows, American Idol, The X-Factor, The Voice, are more like talent shows on steroids.” She laughs. “But it seems to work.”