Singer Freda Payne stars in “Ella, First Lady of Song”...

Singer Freda Payne stars in “Ella, First Lady of Song” at Madison Theatre in Rockville Centre. Credit: Alan Mercer

Pop music fans who only know singer Freda Payne from her 1970 smash record "Band of Gold" — about a wedding night gone bad — might not realize she has a jazzy side as well.

When Payne was performing with Maurice Hines in a tour of "Jelly's Last Jam" in 1995, he remarked that she sounded like the legendary Ella Fitzgerald when Payne sang jazz. So nine years later, when Hines created the biographic musical "Ella, First Lady of Song," he immediately contacted Payne to play the title role. Quicker than you can say "a-tisket, a tasket," she accepted.

Now, Payne, 79, stars in a new production of "Ella," which comes to the Madison Theatre at Molloy College in Rockville Centre from Aug. 18 to Sept. 11. In the show, Fitzgerald's life is an open book. For that matter, so is Payne's: Her aptly titled memoir titled, "Band of Gold," which she wrote with Mark Bego, came out last year.

Payne recently chatted by phone during a rehearsal break with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo about her admiration for Fitzgerald and why Payne didn't think she should sing "Band of Gold."

WHAT "Ella, First Lady of Song"

WHEN | WHERE Aug. 18-Sept. 11, Madison Theatre at Molloy College, 1000 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre

INFO $40-$65; 516-323-4444, madisontheatreny.org

What was the biggest challenge for you in trying to embody Ella Fitzgerald?

When I was first approached to do the role of Ella, I started thinking about who she was and what was her personality like. In listening to her talk in interviews, she had a quiet demeanor. I only met her one time but I never got to have a conversation with her. I knew Joe Williams, who was a singer with Count Basie's band, and he and Ella did a whole album together. I said "Joe, I’m doing this role in a musical. You knew Ella. What was her main personality like?" And he said, she was like a little girl in a woman’s body. And this is what I took from that. She was easy to get along with. She wasn’t a diva at all.

What else did you find out about her?

I asked another friend of mine, [songwriter] Artie Butler, to tell me something about Ella. He said he was standing backstage and she had gone on to perform and he was listening. And when she came offstage, she said “Do you think I did OK? Do you think they liked me?” And the audience was just applauding, and he said "What do you think, listen?” He said he was shocked by her humility. So I try to bring that into the role.

Obviously, I have to ask about "Band of Gold." Is it true you originally didn’t want to record that song?

It’s not that I didn’t want to record it, but I felt it was a song meant for a younger person, like a teenager. Hearing the lyrics, “That night on our honeymoon, we stayed in separate rooms,” I thought a grown woman wouldn’t be like that. That’s more like some kid who was 16 or 17 years old.

I was 11 the summer that song came out and it got played all the time at camp. We kids loved it, although I don't think any of us knew what the song was really about. Was it considered controversial back then?

Yes, it was controversial. People were saying “Oh, was the guy gay because he wasn’t up to having sex with her?” But you could read it both ways, that she was frigid and that turned him off and he left. So, you could put in on the guy or put it on the girl.

You were very good friends with another famous singer, Eartha Kitt. What was special about that relationship?

When I first met Eartha, I was kind of scared because I heard she was this feisty woman. I thought she’s not going to like me because I’m young and cute, but she liked me. We became very good friends. When she was on Broadway [in 1978] doing “Timbuktu,” she was contemplating taking a week off. She approached me and said "Freda, I want you to do my role when I’m gone.” I still have my script. Then something happened — I think the show closed sooner than expected— so it never came to be. But that’s how friendly we were that she had that much faith in me.

Mary Wilson of The Supremes wrote the foreword to your book. You were approached to sign with Motown, but you didn’t. Why not?

You’ll read about it in the book.

If people read your book, what might be a nice surprise they might find out about you?

I talk about my romantic episodes, my romantic involvements, affairs, and I name names.

Could you name one name, or is that something else I'll have to read in the book?

I did have an affair with a United States Senator who was best friends with Teddy Kennedy. And yes, you can read about it in the book, too. [Laughs.]

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