From Supremes Lead Singer to Playwright, the Double Life of Scherrie Payne

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Scherrie Payne attends the 26th Annual Heroes and Legends Awards at Beverly Hills Hotel on Sept. 27, 2015 in Beverly Hills, Calif.  

Growing up in Detroit, Scherrie Payne loved music and writing, but she never imagined that she would one day be the lead singer of the most successful girl group in America. Or that she would have a second career as a working playwright.

Payne grew up in a musical family, with her older sister Freda. "My mother said I was singing before I was talking and Freda was the shy one," Payne tells Billboard. "Freda was so shy, she would make my mother leave the room or hide behind the drapes before she would sing. I was in the middle of the room singing and entertaining my mother's friends. And then for some reason, the roles switched around in junior high school. I became the introvert and Freda became the extrovert."

In 1969, both sisters were signed to Holland-Dozier-Holland's Invictus label. Freda had a No. 3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 with "Band of Gold," while Scherrie was the lead singer on the Glass House's "Crumbs Off the Table," which peaked at No. 59 on the Hot 100 and No. 7 on the R&B singles chart.

When Diana Ross left the Supremes in January 1970, Jean Terrell was recruited to be the trio's new lead singer. And when Terrell departed four years later, Lamont Dozier told Mary Wilson she should consider Scherrie to be the group's new frontperson.

"I flew to Los Angeles to meet with Mary," Payne recalls. "Cindy Birdsong picked me up at the airport and we bonded instantly. We went right to Mary's house and we started rehearsing on a Saturday. She said there was a gig the following Saturday at the New Mexico State Fair. I didn't know any of the songs or routines. I was terrified.

"The Supremes' manager at that time was Bill Loeb. He said, 'If you pull this off in New Mexico, you've got the job.'"

Payne sang lead vocals on the final three albums by the group: The Supremes, High Energy and Mary, Scherrie & Susaye. After the final break-up of the Supremes, she recorded the Partners album with Susaye Greene. In more recent years, Payne has performed with other past members of the trio as Former Ladies of the Supremes. But she also found a new calling, writing plays and screenplays.

"I was writing a lot of songs during the '70s. There is a song on the Partners album called 'Another Life From Now' that was the catalyst for writing my first play, Ten Good Years, about a singer in her forties who thinks she has 10 good years left in her career."

Asked if she remembers when she first had the thought to write prose, Payne recalls, "I was eight years old and my mother had a Royal Oak typewriter. It was just a regular old black typewriter and I was picking at the keys and I was consumed with writing. My mother said, 'Let me show you the proper way, the key position with your fingers and your hands to type.' And so she showed me how and I just started typing, typing, typing. I wrote a story titled 'Lorna Come Home.' I have no idea what it was about. But I had a love for writing even back then as a young girl."

Was Payne ever concerned that a career in playwriting would take away from her work as a singer? "No, I looked forward to my writing time. I would do it during a plane ride. Or when I would get in bed, the TV would be on at a low volume and I'd be writing. So music never got in the way. I knew I would always sing, whether on a stage or at home or in the car because I always loved to sing. A lot of the things that happened in my life, I use now as material for my writing."

Payne has written five stage plays to date, as well as 21 film scripts. Most recently, her play A Lady in Waiting was staged at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood, with Motown royalty like Eddie Holland, Betty Kelley of Martha & the Vandellas, songwriter/producer Mickey Stevenson ("Dancing in the Street," "It Takes Two") and sister Supreme Susaye Greene in attendance, as well as Scherrie's sister, Freda, and Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent, who were in Dawn with Tony Orlando.

Payne never considered acting in her own plays. "I'm not an actress," she tells Billboard. "I'll act out some of the parts in my car or in my bedroom. I like the idea of it and I like to emote. When A Lady In Waiting was first produced at the Missing Piece Theater, I was sitting in the front row and the five actors told me, 'We would come out on stage and see you sitting there mouthing some of the lines.' I had to be cognizant of that. I don't want to distract any of them."

A Lady in Waiting is about a woman on trial for murdering her husband. Payne explains that the characters are not based on anyone she knows. "I've never been in an abusive relationship like that. I just made it up as I went along. The son and the daughter and the judge, none of them are real. It's all total fiction." But that doesn't mean audience members don't recognize people they actually know. "At the Barnsdall production, there was a woman who walked out of the theater to go to the ladies room. One of my friend's daughters was in there and she said the lady was crying. She was trying to help her, and the woman said, 'I can't go back inside. It's too close to home.' Many other people came up to me and said, 'I went through that' or 'I had a friend who went through that. Thank you.' It's not talked about."

Payne says she writes every day. "I have my notebook right there at the bedside. Sometimes I sit out at the pool in the complex where I live or I go to the park and find a nice quiet little spot and sit there at a table by the lake and look out at the water and just let God talk to me. Last night I finished my newest stage play, Lies, Cornbread and Pie. It takes place in Charlotte, North Carolina."

Surprisingly, Payne does not write on her computer – at least, not at first. "I write in longhand and I'll write so many pages and then start typing. So every single screenplay or stage play has a notebook that goes with it where I put all my notes and ideas in it, writing everything out in full form."

If Payne had to choose between her music and play writing, what would she do? "I love doing both," she professes. "When I sing, it takes me to another realm. And when I write, I get in a quiet place and let God talk to me. I let my mind ruminate and write the thoughts down. I know the day will come when I'll no longer be able to sing but I'll always be able to be creative as a writer. Maybe I'll even go back to drawing and painting, something I did in my twenties. I still have those drawings tucked away in a closet. I have to be creative or else I get depressed. Creating is my outlet for expressing my feelings and it takes me to another place, another world."