You know Freda Payne's voice from the smash hit “Band of Gold,” which topped the pop charts here and in the U.K. in 1970. During her long career, she has also made appearances on TV and in film. And now, for the third time, she's portraying Ella Fitzgerald onstage in Ella: First Lady of Song at Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington.
Ms. Payne spoke with WRTI’s Maureen Malloy about taking the stage as the "First Lady of Song."
As a little kid you grew up listening to a lot of the ladies of jazz. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that one day you would actually be playing Ella Fitzgerald in a performance?
Well, I’ll put it this way – I can’t say “in my wildest dreams” because I really didn’t have any idea where my career was going as a young girl. And I didn’t really start singing, or considering it seriously until I was 13. In other words, I really didn’t know I had talent until I was 12. That’s an interesting question to ask me. But I’ll put it this way. It is somewhat of a revelation That I’ve come to this point in my life that I can portray, or do a show based on the life of a great, great jazz singer. One who, it’s almost impossible to really fill her shoes vocally. I do my best, and I think I come kind of close to it, but there’s still some way to go.
Well your voice must come pretty close if this is this isn’t the first time you’ve been asked to play Ella!
This is the third time around.
Were all three having to do with [director] Maurice Hines?
Uh-huh. He called me first. He said I was his first choice. Of course, I always accepted, and we always got good reviews. Matter of fact, the last time we did it was 2014, in Alexandria, Virginia at a theater called MetroStage, which is a regional theater, and I got a rave review in The Washington Post, so that ain’t bad!
That ain’t bad at all! How different is this performance from the original?
Well let me tell you, the first time I did it in 2004, that was in New Brunswick, NJ at Crossroads (another regional theater), I did young Ella as well.
Oh, you did both?
Yes. I did the part auditioning at the Apollo, the whole thing that Wynona Smith (in this version) does – that’s what I did. And when he did it 10 years later I guess he decided, “Well, you getting too old to play Young Ella.” [Laughter.] And that’s when I did it again.
To go back and answer your question, each time we did it the script was tweaked and changed around a little bit, but a lot of the similar dialogue was still there. This time, I think it was changed more than ever before. It’s a little fresher and newer, but there are some scenes that are very familiar.
So this is based on the life of Ella. Did you feel that you had to delve a little bit deeper this time around with a lot of the life experiences that she was going through?
I actually did the majority of my homework when I first did (the show) in 2004. I read two unauthorized biographies about Ella Fitzgerald, so I grabbed from that. And also, I talked to people who had known Ella, one of whom was the late Joe Williams. I told him I was getting ready to do a musical production playing Ella Fitzgerald. I said, “Can you give me a tip on her personality? What kind of person was she?” He said, “She was like a little girl in a woman’s body.”
Maurice Hines worked with her too, he and his brother, when they were young. Maurice told me close to the same thing. He said, “She was non-confrontational.” In other words, what he was saying was she wasn’t a bitch. When they opened for her at the Flamingo in Las Vegas back in the ‘60s, she never went out between shows. She kind of just stayed to herself. She wasn’t out trying to socialize much – she wasn’t that type of a person.
That’s interesting, especially at her level of fame. I guess the fame just isn’t for some people, and she just wanted to sing.
What you just said, “She just wanted to sing,” that’s the last line after her sister dies, and she goes back to LA to the funeral and she returns to the south of France the next day to have a concert with Duke Ellington. She says to Ray (Brown, played by Steve Palmore), “Ray, Ella just wants to sing.” That’s the last thing she says to him. She had gone through so much. She had bad marriages, including the one to him, so she just figured “Hey, that’s all I do anyway is sing. Norman Granz keeps me constantly on the road, so that’s what she did.”
You did so many things throughout your career – television programs, theater, backing different people up – do you feel at this point that theater is where you want to be, or is there another niche that is your favorite?
I find that it all interests me – but I love theater because you’re able to do everything. You’re able to be involved in one show for a longer period of time. And especially doing this show, I get more joy and more rewards because I’m portraying the key character, and it’s something that I love. I get so much joy doing this part, you don’t know. This is where I think my true abilities lie and my true purpose is.
Delaware Theatre Company presents Ella: First Lady of Song through May 13th. The show follows Ella from her childhood struggles of living with abuse and her time on the streets through her career as a jazz singer. The show is based on a book by Lee Summers, and is directed by Maurice Hines.