Freda Payne Does Ella Fitzgerald and Makes it Work

The great Freda Payne doing her thing at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, CA./Malcolm Ali/Fina Images

By Dennis J. Freeman

Hollywood, CA-No one does Ella Fitzgerald quite like Freda Payne. Payne, the illustrious sultry soul singer with the big band voice, is the closest thing that you’re going to get outside of ever seeing the late, great jazz singer herself.  If you haven’t seen Payne perform live doing her best impression of Fitzgerald, you’re missing a treat.

Payne makes it easy on the eyes as well as the ears as she struts, doo-wop and croons herself across the stage with the ease of a swan swimming beautifully across a welcome bed of water.

Recently performing at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood before a lot of entertainment industry insiders and friends, Payne not only worked the stage performing a number of Fitzgerald’s greatest tunes, she made sure she didn’t leave out a moving tribute to the great Lena Horne, who passed away earlier this year.

Known for pop hits, “Band of Gold,” and “Bring the Boys Home,” Payne, a longtime theatrical and music star, has transformed herself into perhaps the premier jazz singer of this era.

Payne’s love for Fitzgerald started early as she became endowed into the jazz world with the likes of Duke Ellington hounding her to work with him and gracing the stage with stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Eckstine. It was another jazz great-Pearl Bailey-who got the ever-beautiful Payne her job in show business. She hasn’t looked back since. Though she gives a stunning impression of Fitzgerald, there is still no mistake about the possessor of the rich-laden voice that is belting out the songs now.

Payne serves her homage to both Fitzgerald and Horne as a tribute to the women who helped influenced her singing career. Her fascination over Horne came about when her grandfather told her that Horne was the most famous black female star in the world. Payne finally got to meet one the women she revered at a meeting set up by a friend in 1964. Meeting Horne is a memory Payne cherishes.  

“Lena was someone I admired,” Payne said in a sit-down interview after performing her 90-minute show at the Catalina Bar & Grill. “She was a role model. She was a role model to me. I became aware of her when I was five years old. He (grandfather) started telling me how pretty she was and how beautiful she was. I didn’t get to me her until 1964-here in Los Angeles…I got to meet Lena. It felt surreal.”

A reflective Freda Payne talks about her idols, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald./Fina Images for Ali

It was almost just as surreal to hear Payne sing “Stormy Weather,” a staple among music fans and the biggest hit of Horne’s career. As much admiration Payne has for Horne, she feels an even deeper connection to Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was perhaps the last of the great jazz scat singers. More importantly, Fitzgerald developed worldwide recognition as the best there ever was.

Coming face-to-face with Fitzgerald at a club in New York in 1969, Payne was awe-struck upon meeting her idol. That fondness has never left Payne.    

I felt a more spiritual connection when I met Ella Fitzgerald,” Payne said. “I felt like, ’Oh, my, God! I’m in the same room with Ella Fitzgerald. And I looked at my arms, and the hair on my arms was standing up. I felt my grandmother’s spirit was in there. I felt a connection with her. I really did. Ella had a child-like personality.’”

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