Remembering one of the great voices of the ’60s: Fontella Bass passed away this day in 2012. Bass is largely considered a “one hit wonder” for her great 1965 hit “Rescue Me”, but there’s more to her story than just one song.
Bass was born in 1940 St. Louis. She was something of a child prodigy on piano and was playing that and singing in church by six or seven. By nine she was singing professionally with her mother and grandmother, both of whom were gospel singers of some renown in the Midwest. By the early-’50s, she was making $10 a day singing (largely at funerals!), which wasn’t bad for the day. “I was sort of like, an income person in the home,” she said years later.
After signing to Ike Turner’s record label briefly in the latter part of the ’50s, to little notice, she was signed by the famous Chess label, at one time the home of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. At first she was just an in-house session player and backup singer but by 1964, she had the chance to record on her own (with among others drummer Maurice White – soon to found Earth, Wind & Fire – and backing vocalist Minnie Ripperton in the studio with her.)
After minor success on the R&B charts with one of the singles (“You’ll Miss Me”) scratching its way onto the mainstream charts, her career took flight with the song she was synonymous with. “Rescue Me” topped the R&B charts for weeks and made #4 on the singles chart. It was a hit in the UK and Canada as well. Journalist Dave Marsh calls it the “best non-Aretha, Aretha song ever.” And it came a year before Aretha began to be known and garner “Respect.”
Bass says it came about when entering the studio she heard blind pianist Ray Miner playing the basic melody and she came up with the lyrics together with him – and God. “He (God) is the only person I can give thanks to,” she’d say.
The single went gold in the U.S. and was the first massive hit for Chess Records in a decade. However, people looking at the 7” single saw the writing credits going to Miner and Carl Smith, who’d also co-written “You’re Love Keeps Taking Me Higher”. Due to that and an iffy contract with Chess, Bass got very little money. “Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my royalty cheque, I looked at it, saw how little it was for and tore it up and threw it back across the table.”
She fought for what she figured was her due (and eventually would reach a settlement with them decades later) but that “side-stepped” her out of the business because she gained a “reputation of being a trouble maker.” That cloud probably never stopped hanging over her as in 1990 she famously – and successfully – sued American Express who’d been using her recording of “Rescue Me” in commercials without permission.
By the decade’s end, she’d moved to Paris, met a trumpeter she’d marry (Lester Bowie, no relation to David) and put out one unsuccessful album there before essentially retiring to become a homemaker and mother. She did a little movie soundtrack work in Europe briefly and had a short return to Gospel music in the ’90s before being sidtetracked again by poor health.
She fought cancer and a stroke in the 2000s but succumbed to a heart attack at age 72. St. Louis honored her with a star on their Walk of Fame. A great one hit wonder, but one wonders if she wouldn’t have been a great deal more if fates had aligned better for her with Chess Records.