With a name like an ’80s professional wrestler’s and a voice that’s still silky-smooth, 66-year-old Freda Payne might have seemed out of place on the youth-obsessed “American Idol” on Wednesday night . But the diva — whose 1970 hit “Band of Gold” actually predated the outbreak of boogie fever by several years — dropped in on the show as part of a disco medley that also included KC of KC and the Sunshine Band and Thelma Houston to show the kids how disco should be done.
Payne, who has appeared in musicals and movies over her 40-plus years in the business, got her break singing radio-commercial jingles before launching a successful career as a jazz vocalist. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. tried to sign the then-teenager to his label at the same time that famed jazz bandleader Duke Ellington wanted her to join his group, but Payne’s mother turned both men down.
Instead, Detroit native Payne focused on establishing herself as a jazz singer, working with everyone from Quincy Jones to Bill Cosby and hitting her stride in 1970 when the famed Motown songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr. gave her the song that would make her a worldwide sensation.
“Band of Gold,” written by the men under the pseudonym Edith Wayne and Ron Dunbar because of an ongoing lawsuit against Motown, was originally rejected by Payne, who thought the subject matter was inappropriate for a singer in her early 20s. The song’s lyrics describe a recently married woman whose husband is having trouble settling into married life, causing them to sleep in separate rooms on their honeymoon. “I wait in the darkness of my lonely room,” Payne sings, “filled with sadness/ Filled with gloom/ Hoping soon you’ll walk back through that door/ And love me like you tried before.”
The tune — which features music from Motown house band the Funk Brothers and guitar by Ray Parker Jr. of “Ghostbusters” fame — became a huge success upon its release, hitting #3 in the U.S. and #1 in England, landing Payne her first gold record. She went on to have smaller hits with tunes including “Deeper and Deeper,” “Cherish What’s Dear to You” and “You Brought the Joy,” but she is forever remembered for “Gold.”
In addition to covers by Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and former Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle, “Gold” has been covered by disco star Sylvester and, in 2007, former “Idol” finalist Kimberley Locke, who released it as the second single from her Based on a True Story album.
Payne had a short-lived TV talk show in 1981, “Today’s Black Woman,” and has appeared in small roles in the movies “Sprung” and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.”