ASR Music ~~ ‘70s Pop Icon Freda Payne Honors Ella Fitzgerald at Marin Showcase Theatre

By Barry Willis

One-time events can be difficult for reviewers because repeat performances may or may not come again. That’s the case with 1970s pop star Freda Payne and her February 16 A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Marin Showcase Theatre.

Famed primarily for her hit song “Band of Gold,” one that seemed to be in continuous play throughout the years leading up to the disco era, Payne is still youthful and beautiful, with a shimmering alto voice and confident stage presence. Her approximately two-hour performance in the nearly-sold-out Showcase was delightful.

Freda Payne. Photos supplied by Jon Finck

Backed by a superb three-piece band (Larry Dunlap, piano; Leon Joyce, Jr., drums; and Gary Brown, bass), Payne recited Fitzgerald’s history as between-songs patter while plowing through her many iconic recordings, such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” “How High the Moon,” and the crowd-pleasing “Mack the Knife.” The American Songbook figured prominently during the evening, with compositions by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, and many others.

Fitzgerald’s oeuvre included jazz standards covered by many other artists, not merely during her decades as a musical force, but right up to the present day. Payne’s showbiz history includes working with such legends as Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones, Omar Sharif, Liza Minelli, Pearl Bailey, Johnny Mathis, Leslie Uggams, the Four Tops, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Della Reese, and actor/pianist Jeff Goldblum.

… Payne is still youthful and beautiful, with a shimmering alto voice and confident stage presence …

While Payne’s timbre doesn’t match Fitzgerald’s seductive contralto, she gets the phrasing and tempo just right, especially while riffing a la Ella. During the first set she shared the stage with New Orleans native and Oakland-based jazz singer Kenny Washington, called by the SF Chronicle “the superman of the Bay Area jazz scene.”

Kenny Washington. Photos supplied by Jon Finck.

Washington is a tremendous performer with gifts for both music and comedic self-deprecation. He appears nationally and internationally with The Joe Locke Group, while pursuing a busy solo schedule. Pairing him with Payne was a special treat for the very enthusiastic audience, who enjoyed a post-show meet-and-greet with the headliner and an opportunity to get signed copies of Payne’s autobiography.

With decades of Broadway performances, TV shows, and a collection of 21 albums to her credit, Payne portrayed Ella Fitzgerald in Ella: The First Lady of Song, written by Lee Summers and conceived/directed by Maurice Hines, Jr. in acclaimed performances nationwide. She will reprise that role this summer at Michigan’s Meadow Brook Theatre. Payne’s new single, “Just to Be with You” is scheduled for release this year.


Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: