Fontella Bass, singer of ‘Rescue Me,’ dies
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org December 27, 2012 1:19PM
FILE: Soul Singer Fontella Bass Dies At 72
Updated: January 29, 2013 6:28AM
Fontella Bass returned the luster to Chess Records.
She co-wrote the 1965 hit “Rescue Me,” which became the first million-selling record for Chess since Chuck Berry a decade earlier. Mrs. Bass died Wednesday night at a St. Louis hospital of complications from a heart attack she suffered three weeks ago. A St. Louis native, Mrs. Bass was 72.
Her musical roots ran as deep as the Missouri Valley.
Her mother was gospel singer Martha Bass, one of the legendary Clara Ward Singers. Mrs. Bass’ grandmother was gospel singer Nevada Carter, and as a 5-year-old Mrs. Bass began playing piano when her grandmother sang at St. Louis area funerals. In 1965, Mrs. Bass was married to avant-garde trumpet player Lester Bowie, who became a founding member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). (They divorced in 1978; he died in 1999.)
Former Chess singer Mitty Collier was part of the stable of mid-1960s female Chess singers that included Mrs. Bass, Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto.
“Out of all of us, Fontella could play piano,” Collier said. “She had played piano at her dad’s church. Each one of us had a church background from Etta on down, but Fontella and Dionne Warwick playing the piano during that period made them stand out. It was like a sisterhood with me and her. Sugar Pie was closer to Etta because they both came from California.”
The “Rescue Me” studio band included drummer Maurice White and bassist Louis Satterfield, who went on to form Earth, Wind and Fire. Gerald Sims played tasty electric guitar. The late Minnie Riperton sang backing vocals on the song co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith. Mrs. Bass’ feisty and mighty gospel-tinged vocals often had “Rescue Me” confused with Aretha Franklin.
Chicago’s Gene Barge was the arranger and session player at Chess during the mid-1960s.
“My first assignment at Chess was with (soul singer) Oliver Sain in 1964,” Barge said on Thursday. “He had brought his band in from St. Louis. Fontella was his piano player. I played on her first session at Chess when she sang ‘Soul of a Man.’ I produced a Chess album for her mother. Fontella was raised with a gospel idiom and the jazz flairs from St. Louis, Miles Davis, all those people. She always leaned towards jazz, though I thought of her more than a soul singer.”
Mrs. Bass fought for her royalty rights for “Rescue Me.”
Her hit subsequently was covered by Cher and Linda Ronstadt, and even Aretha Franklin took a stab at it in a 1991 “Deliver Me” Pizza Hut television commercial. “She was militant and disappointed about her rights,” Barge said. “She thought Chess could have done better by her, but she had the song in a long-running [American Express] commercial that kept her going for a good while.”
When John Lennon took a jukebox of 40 singles on tour with the Beatles in 1965, “Rescue Me” was the only female hit on the playlist. The jukebox was sold for $4,907 in a 1989 auction of Beatles memorabilia.
One of Mrs. Bass’ final recordings was the Grammy-nominated 1995 gospel release “No Ways Tired” (Nonesuch-Atlantic), which included a couple of Thomas A. Dorsey hymns, the Dionne Warwick hit “What the World Needs Now” (with Lester Bowie on trumpet), and a tender version of Shirley Caesar’s “You Don’t Know What the Lord Told Me.” Caesar is one of the last surviving members of Chicago’s legendary Caravans, and she is scheduled to attend the Dec. 28 funeral of her Caravan singing sister Inez Andrews on the South Side of Chicago.
The heavens are forming a choir.
Funeral arrangements for Mrs. Bass are pending.