Fontella Bass will always be remembered as the powerhouse interpreter of the irresistible million-seller "Rescue Me", one of the major records in the Sixties soul canon, and one of the few not to have originated from the Atlantic, Motown or Stax stables. It was issued on Checker, a subsidiary of the Chicago rhythm and blues label Chess, in 1965. Yet, despite her signature song's status as a radio recurrent and its constant usage on TV and films like Sister Act, for many years she derived little income from it.
Carl William Smith and Raynard Miner, the Chess staff writers credited with the track, and their co-producer and her then manager Billy Davis, repeatedly assured her the contribution she made to its lyrics would be acknowledged, but neither the labels on the 45s nor the subsequent paperwork ever did. "I had the first million seller for Chess since Chuck Berry about 10 years before," she told the author David Nathan. "Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my first royalty cheque, I looked at it, saw how little it was, tore it up and threw it back across the desk."
The stand Bass took won her a release from her Chess contract but hindered her career as other labels believed she was difficult. By 1990 she was back in her native St Louis without a car or phone, and was down to her last $10 when a tree fell on her house. After hearing an American Express commercial using "Rescue Me", she experienced something of an epiphany. She hired a lawyer, contacted MCA Records, which had acquired the rights to the Chess catalogue, and sued American Express and its advertising agency on the basis that she had not given her consent for her voice to be used. The matter was eventually settled with a $50,000 payment.
Having regained her confidence, Bass recorded the gospel album Promises: A Family Portrait Of Faith with her mother Martha and her baby brother David Peaston, and went on to issue her own No Ways Tired album on the Nonesuch label in 1995. She received excellent reviews for her appearance at WOMAD in 2001 and also contributed her distinctive vocals to two albums by The Cinematic Orchestra, the British jazz and electronic outfit signed to the independent label Ninja Tune.
Born in 1940, Bass came from a musical family. A precocious talent, she first gained attention as a pianist accompanying her grandmother, Nevada Carter, who raised her while her mother toured with the Ward Singers. "I was playing all the mortuaries, funeral homes. And if I was good, I got paid $10. In 1945-46, $10 was a lot of money for a five-year-old," she recalled. Within a few years, the three generations were touring together through Georgia, Texas and the Southern states.
Her grandmother wouldn't let her listen to rhythm and blues but male relatives were more tolerant and helped her sneak into gigs, though she got into trouble when her picture appeared in the local newspaper after she won a talent show at a Ray Charles concert. In 1961 she joined the Leon Claxton carnival show for a fortnight in St Louis but her mother put paid to any thoughts of making this permanent. However, Bass had been noticed by Little Milton and his bandleader Oliver Sain, who had launched Bobbin Records and hired her as a pianist. One night, Milton was late and Sain enjoined her to lead the band. "I've been singing ever since," she said.
Bass not only backed Milton but also cut four sides for Bobbin. In 1963 she recorded with Ike Turner and the Ikettes and became a vocalist with The Oliver Sain Soul Revue alongside another new recruit, Bobby McClure. Chess distributed Bobbin and took over Milton's contract, and signed Bass and McClure. In January 1965, Checker issued the infectious Sain-penned "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" by Bass and McClure, which crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts, though their follow-up, "You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone)", didn't fare as well and the partners embarked on separate careers. Checker now planned to release another Sain composition, "The Soul Of A Man", recorded solo by Bass, and needed a B-side.
Over an August 1965 weekend, Bass joined Smith, Miner, Davis and his arranger Phil Wright in a Chicago studio to record "Rescue Me" The rhythm section of drummer Maurice White, yet to launch Earth Wind & Fire, and bassist Louis Satterfield, drove the track, while her powerful lead was answered by Gene Barge's horn section and backing vocalists including Minnie Riperton. The take chosen was far from perfect but captured a wonderful performance, even if the lyric sheet fell off the music stand, which accounts for Bass humming her way into the fade-out, while Davis simply went round the studio and tapped each musician on the shoulder to make them stop, leaving Satterfield and White to end the track. "We did another couple of takes, but that was it," remarked Davis.
"Rescue Me" easily overshadowed the prospective A-side. The single spent four weeks at the top of the R&B charts and made the Top 5 in the US, while in the UK it reached No 11 and gave the Pye label its first major hit as Chess licensee. In 1966 Bass also charted on both sides of the Atlantic with the ebullient "Recovery", while "I Surrender" and "Safe And Sound" reached the lower rungs of the US R&B and pop listings. However, her only Checker album, The New Look, was a rushed affair, and didn't do justice to her versatility. "I was at the height of my career, yet I had no say over what I was supposed to do," she said.
Given the way Chess treated Bass, her decision to move to France with her husband, the trumpeter Lester Bowie, a mainstay of the avant-garde jazz ensemble Art Ensemble Of Chicago, made sense. The couple had two children, and had two more while living in Paris between 1968 and 1972. She took a back seat to Bowie's career, though she guested on several Art Ensemble albums, particularly the soundtrack for Les Stances A Sophie, the 1970 film by the Isreali director Moshé Mizrahi which was revived by the acid jazz scene of the late 1980s.
By then, she had returned to her gospel roots: "It's the music I'm most relaxed with. I can just sit down at the piano and really be creative." Bass was often compared to Aretha Franklin, the ultimate gospel-turned-secular vocalist, who riffed "Deliver Me" to the tune of "Rescue Me" for a Pizza Hut commercial in the early 1990s but never got close to the original.
Fontella Bass, singer: born St. Louis, Missouri 3 July 1940; married Lester Bowie (marriage dissolved; two daughters, two sons); died St Louis 26 December 2012.