By James DeFrancis
Bel Air, CA. Last Tuesday night Pat Senatore, artistic director of Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz etc…, sardonically told me, “Christmas week is a big time for malls, not jazz clubs.” But as the lights dimmed and I looked around the room it occurred to me that something was altogether different about this holiday night’s show. Why?
Enter Freda Payne. Payne is the warmly toned r&b vocalist often remembered for her 1970 Billboard chart-topping mega hit “Band of Gold.” Payne and her entourage drew capacity level crowds for both shows on this temperate evening in Bel Air. The well-attended shows even drew industry heavyweights such as Motown Records’ founder Berry Gordy Jr. and actor Billy Dee Williams.
Payne was a bold presence in her bright red gown and fantastically done golden brown hair. On this night she was backed by a trio led by veteran pianist Christian Jacob. She employed a diverse set list ranging from holiday tunes and jazz standards to rhythm and blues numbers from decades gone by. She opened the show with a punchy, forward moving version of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to.” Clearly inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, Payne went on to sing a heart-wrenching rendition of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.” Also on the agenda were jazz mainstays“Aurora Borealis” and “You Don’t Know Me.”
Later in the program she said “It’s almost Christmas and we should do something for the holidays,” thereby bringing her sister Scherrie Payne (of the Supremes) up to the stage to sing two holiday duets, including the tender, crowd pleasing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
In my opinion, the musical pinnacle of the evening took place when Payne pulled a song out of her repertoire that she had done some years ago for an actor’s benefit at the Pantages Theatre.
The song is called “Fifty Percent” (from the musical Ballroom). And it belongs to the longer category of tunes, very much a story-like soliloquy for the audience. Payne poured all of her vocal caresses into the number and it really showed. “She’s still got the pipes!” muttered a man standing next to me as he applauded.
As the evening began to draw to a close anxious fans were shouting “Band of Gold!” to which Payne fired back “You wanna hear Band of Gold, huh?” But she wasn’t quite ready. First she needed to address the crowd’s adoration by aiming a song directly at them, choosing “How Sweet It Is.” In the end she wrapped it with an extended version of “Band of Gold” stopping near the final phrases to thank everyone in the audience for coming out, before proceeding into a climactic chorus.
The roaring crowd couldn’t get enough. And, if Vibrato had a large enough seating capacity, I’m sure most patrons would have stuck around for both shows. And, really, what more can a performer ask of an audience? Freda Payne was a musical delight.