She cried out to be rescued and now she's saved. Phil Johnson met Fontella Bass
`Rescue Me' by Fontella Bass - who makes a rare British appearance in a gospel concert at the Barbican tomorrow - is one of the greatest soul records ever made. It also features a bass guitar riff of such awesome weight that the sound still has the power to repeat in your ears for hours after the track has finished playing.

Released as a single in 1965 on Checker Records, a subsidiary of the legendary Chess label of Chicago, `Rescue Me' stayed in the US charts for nearly a year and a half and made the top 10 in Britain. Later, it was covered by Aretha Franklin for an American Pizza Hut commercial, used in an American Express campaign and appeared in the films Sister Act II and Mo Better Blues.

But Fontella Bass, who co-wrote the song as well as singing it, received no royalties until seven years ago, when she won a legal action against MCA, who had inherited the rights. And still she only receives royalties as the performer, and not co-composer.

It's more than enough to make anyone turn to religion, so when Ms Bass tells you how she's forsaken secular soul for God, you're quite ready to sympathise. "I began by singing in church and I decided to give my 1ife up to the Lord in 1990, but you know, I was always with him, if not fully. I still do secular music, but my choice now is gospel," she says.

But isn't she worried that her old hits - which she still performs - will be seen in the gospel fraternity as the devil's music? "No, no, no!", she says. "Anything in my past is still truly about love, and about warning the people, like in `Don't You Mess Up a Good Thing' [another of her Sixties Checker hits]. You know, like about keeping marriages together and don't be jumping out of the skillet.

"I don't think that I led the people astray and I'm not telling people to stop drinking what they're drinking, or smoking what they're smoking. I'm only asking them to take a minute to listen to what I have to say, 'cause in the end you're the one who has to be the judge."

The setbacks she has suffered would be sufficient to make most singers pack it all in as a bad job, but Bass's career, in which she followed her R&B hits with forays into avant-garde jazz and then gospel, is just about unique within American music.

Both her grandmother and her mother were gospel singers (the latter with the Clara Ward singers) and Fontella began her career by playing the piano as a child in the funeral homes of St Louis, her home town.

At the age of 19 she jumped ship - much to her mother's chagrin - to go out on tour as the pianist with blues singer Little Milton, and when she settled in Chicago shortly afterwards she did recordings for Chess accompanying the great bluesmen Muddy Waters and Albert King.

Then, three years after `Rescue Me' had become a hit, she severed her relations with the label and moved to Paris with her husband of the time, jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, where she appeared with his group, the uncompromisingly avant-garde Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Though she is no longer married to Bowie, she remains on good terms - "We do still have four wonderful children who keep us intact all the time," she says - and he plays on her come-back album No Ways Tired of 1995, made for Nonesuch Records but never properly released over here.

Bass also sings on Bowie's wonderful The Great Pretender album for ECM in 1981, and she has since recorded with the World Saxophone Quartet, whose Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett play on No Ways Tired, along with the star saxophonist David Sanborn.

The story of `Rescue Me' remains a good one, however, and Ms Bass is more than ready to tell it like it is.

"It's just one thing that has happened to many, many artists in this industry", she says. "But this just happened to be a big song, a million seller, and a song that has been played continuously for 30 years."

So who wrote it? "Well", she pauses diplomatically. "I have to say myself, Raynard Minor, Carl Smith and Billy Davis, but I really have to credit Raynard and myself because Carl wasn't around at the time, but they were a team, you know? In those days it was. like `You gonna give this song my name,' and Billy sort of controlled the group and he was my manager too at the time, so he got his credit.

"The bass-line was from Louis Satterfield, who later was in Earth, Wind and Fire, and Maurice White, also from Earth, Wind and Fire, was on drums. The late Minnie Riperton was on backing vocals, so we had some great musicians."

For her date at the Barbican, Fontella Bass will be joined by her gospel- singing brother David Peaston and the 50-strong voices of the London-based Church of God In Christ Choir. She is certain to perform `Rescue Me' - after all, who could pass up such a good thing, especially when there's been such pain associated with it? But the song's dedicatee might now be seen as the Lord, rather than a lover.

"I've been called a troublemaker for trying to seek and get what is rightfully mine", Bass says. "But now I'm ready to let bygones be bygones. I'm just thankful that the Lord blessed me with so many talents!"

Fontella Bass with David Peaston and the Church of God in Christ Choir play the Barbican tomorrow night (Saturday). Booking on 0171 638 8891.

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