When Freda Payne first read the lyrics for her huge hit "Band of Gold," she wasn't exactly thrilled. She wondered why she would sing a song about a wedding night that didn't work out.
"It didn't make any sense," Payne recalls. "Why would a woman on her wedding night stay in another room? I said maybe the lyric could be changed a bit. They said, 'No, that's the way it is. You don't have to like it, just sing it.' And I'm glad I did."
The song's composers, the legendary songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for many Motown hits, were right.
"Band of Gold," featuring music by the Motown house band the Funk Brothers and guitar by Ray Parker Jr. of "Ghostbusters" fame, would soar to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1970, earn her a gold record and eventually be included in Rolling Stone magazine's list of "500 Greatest Songs Of All Time."
"It's a great feeling when you know you're on a rising star and the planets are all in alignment," she continues. "You've got the right song and you're with the right people."
Decades later Payne dazzled millions, performing her classic hit in 2009 on "American Idol."
"With a voice that's still silky-smooth, Freda Payne might have seemed out of place on the youth-obsessed 'American Idol,' " noted an MTV review. "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."
"The energy and excitement in the studio and playing to 26 million, it was so thrilling," says Payne.
While she still covers her hits in concert, Payne excels as a jazz singer, a path she began exploring in her youth.
"It's mostly jazz," she says about her shows which include tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. "But I do some pop, and of course I do a couple of my hits, 'Band of Gold' and 'Bring the Boys Home.' Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne were the two ladies that inspired me the most from when I was very young."
"There are singers and then there are great singers, the best singers, like soul, R&B legend Freda Payne," praised a recent review. "Payne's a great pop vocalist, but it is in jazz and the unforgettable standards of the Great American Songbook where she truly excels."
In her teen years, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. tried to sign her to his label and legendary jazz bandleader Duke Ellington wanted her to join his group, but Payne's mother turned down both offers.
After moving from Detroit to New York City in 1963, Payne made guest appearances on various TV shows including "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, "The Merv Griffin Show" and "The Dick Cavett Show." And she worked with many different entertainers, including Quincy Jones, Pearl Bailey and Bill Cosby.
And then Payne became a major star with the success of her million-selling single "Band of Gold." Later hits included "Deeper and Deeper," "You Brought Me Joy" and the superb anti-war classic "Bring the Boys Home."
Taking aim at the Vietnam War, "Bring the Boys Home," released in 1971, wasn't well-received in the White House. Her record company was informed it would not be played on the U.S. armed forces radio.
"I can't hear Freda sing it without getting a lump in my throat," wrote one of the U.K. Guardian newspaper's editors in a recent tribute to the song. "The song packs its emotional punch by focusing on the simple human longing for loved ones far away and for those who will never come home. I maintain it's the greatest anti-war record ever made."
"President Nixon was in office at the time and they gave orders that it could not be played in South Vietnam," Payne recalls. "But I have heard from so many Vietnam vets who have come up and thanked me personally, that the song helped them get through it."
Last year Payne was among a number of classic soul singers such as Percy Sledge, Roberta Flack and members of The Temptations and The Stylistics, who collaborated with veteran British pop star Sir Cliff Richard on his album "Soulicious." She also toured the U.K. with him on a promotional tour.
And in 2010 Payne was among 80 artists invited to record a remake of "We Are The World" for Haitian relief. The choir included Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Snoop Dogg, Will.I.Am and Justin Bieber.
"It was so great to be in the studio with so many iconic stars of today and yesterday," she reports. "I was standing on a riser right next to Barbra Streisand and Will.I.Am was right in front of me. I was in good company."
* Freda Payne performs tonight at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater, as part of the 2012 Maui Invitational Music Festival's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Pre-show festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. in the McCoy Courtyard and feature a performance by blended gospel choirs. Vocalists Sheryl Renee and Clay Mortensen open the show, with Kathy Collins as emcee. Tickets are $30.
The Festival will also host Sheryl Renee and Friends with Brian Cuomo on piano performing jazz and pop standards in tribute to King on Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua's Anuenue Room.
One of the most popular New Age artists of our time, Snatam Kaur will make her Maui debut on Sunday evening at the Makawao Union Church. Blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful voice, she has drawn praise across the globe with the India Post affirming, "Her voice brings a sense of peace, tranquility and spirituality to listeners."
Snatam (pronounced Sana-tum) is an American Sikh, from the tradition of kundalini yoga teacher Yogi Bhajan. Singing in English and Gurumukhi, the sacred language of the Sikhs, her albums include "Prem," "Shanti," "Grace," "Liberation's Door" and "Celebrate Peace." She is currently visiting Maui for the first time, recording an album with Grammy-nominated pianist Peter Kater.
Q: How's the recording going?
A: It's going wonderfully. We have some really beautiful songs, so I'm excited. Some of the songs, he's written the music and the lyrics, and some I've written the music and lyrics. So far it's just piano and voice, but we will have other instruments."
Q: It's kind of amazing that you have chanted your whole life, having been raised in an ashram.
A: I realize what a huge blessing it is to have chant as part of your life growing up. I woke up every morning as a little girl and heard chanting, and it was integrated into every aspect of my life.
Q: I understand your dad was a manger of the Grateful Dead in the late '60s; was that how Bob Weir once came to your high school and helped with an Earth Day festival project?
A: In 1990 he got Bob Weir to get us into this program in front of 90,000 people. Me and 10 other teenagers sang a song I wrote about the earth.
Q: Knowing the depth, resonance and quality of your music, you must affect a lot of people.
A: A lot of people get the music and practice yoga along with it and have these amazingly powerful experiences. It comes from a greater source. I know it's not anything I'm doing, because there's an actual science with the meditation and yoga. Powerful transformations are happening through the work I do, and it's an honor.
Q: So how do you hope your music impacts people?
A: I hope people are impacted by the meaning of the words. I believe you can have real and profound transformations in your life through chanting. These words are essentially positive affirmations of the divine being within you, and they can break through blocks. So they have a real effect."
Q: On Sunday you will be accompanied by a guitarist, Todd Boston, who has been acclaimed as quite a talent.
A: We just recently started playing together and he has a really sweet, beautiful guitar style. We're also playing with Daniel Paul and he toured South America with us last year, and he's a beautiful tabla player.
* Snatam Kaur performs at 7 p.m. Sunday at Makawao Union Church with Todd Boston on guitar, renowned tabla player Daniel Paul and Sopurkh Singh on backing vocals. Tickets are $25 in advance, from Paia Yoga or online at www.spirityoga.com, and $30 cash at the door. Indian pupus, desserts and chai tea will be available prior to the concert.
Snatam will lead two kundalini yoga workshops at Paia Yoga. Registration is $40 in advance, $45 the day of the workshop. Space is limited to 35 attendees for each of the workshops.