The legendary St. Louis soul and R&B singer Fontella Bass, ¬†died on December 26th at the age of 72.
Fontella was the daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass (a member of the Clara Ward Singers) and sister of soul singer David Peaston who died earlier this year. She was best known for the 1965 worldwide R&B hit ‘Rescue Me’ which spent a month on the top of the R&B charts and made number 4 on the US pop charts, selling over a million copies.
At five years of age she provided piano accompaniment at funeral services and was singing in her church’s choir at the age of six. At the age of nine she began singing with her mother on US tours.
In her teens she began singing in local talent contests and fairs and she began her professional career at the Showboat Club in Missouri.
In 1961, she auditioned for a¬†carnival show and was hired to play piano and sing in the chorus for two weeks, making $175 per week for the two weeks it was in town.
She was heard singing by blues star Little Milton Campbell and bandleader and producer Oliver Sain.
Bass played eventually piano with Sain’s band and she was soon given her own vocal spot in the show. When Milton and Sain split Fontella joined Sain’s band along with soul singer Bobby McClure – billed as¬†¬†‘The Oliver Sain Soul Revue featuring Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure’.
She is reported to have recorded with Tina Turner as early as 1960. During the early 1960s Fontella cut a number of sides for Bobbin, Sonja and Prann Records (some with with Ike Turner) before joining Checker Records, (part of the Chess stable) waxing duets with McClure. In 1965, they hit with ‘Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing’ (credited to Oliver Sain) followed by ‘You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone)’ which made the R&B Top 30.
Returning to the studio, she cut her own composition ‘Rescue Me’ which hit the charts in late 1965 – eventually becoming a world wide R&B and pop hit. The song was issued on Chess in the UK.
She followed up with ‘Recovery’ which made number 13 (R&B) and number 37 (pop) in early 1966. The same year brought two more R&B hits, ‘I Can’t Rest b/w ‘I Surrender’ and ‘You’ll Never Know’.
Her album ¬†for Checker called¬†¬†‘The New Look’, sold ¬†well, but she became disillusioned with Chess left them in 1967 claiming that Len and Phil Chess had cheated her out of royalties for ‘Rescue Me’.
In 1969 she and husband, the jazz sax player Lester Bowie, moved to Paris in 1969, where she cut two albums and appeared on a number of her husbands records.
In 1971 she joined Paula Records and cut a fine album for them called ‘Free’ although it failed to chart. She cut a 45rpm for Epic in 1977.
‘Rescue Me’ continued to be a staple of oldie’s radio and was used on TV adverts. She sued American Express for its “unauthorised use”, eventually winning a $50,000 settlement.
She eventually retired from music, only occasionally returning as a background vocalist on several recordings.¬†During the 1990s she hosted a short-lived Chicago radio talk show, and returning to the church, she released several gospel records on indie labels.
She was inducted into the St. Louis Hall Of Fame in 2000.
A series of health problems started in 2005 ¬†and she suffered a heart attack earlier this month.