It can’t have been easy to be a female soul or R&B singer in the ’60s. You were automatically compared to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Talk about throwing shade! That’s a challenge that was almost impossible to rise to in those days. Hell, it’s still impossible today.
So what if you were a woman trying to make a career in those days, and your one hit record became known as the greatest Aretha Franklin record that Aretha never made. On the one hand, you could take it as a compliment. On the other, if you were seeking to establish your own identity as a performer, it had to be frustrating. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Fontella Bass.
Bass was born in St. Louis. Her grandmother and mother were both professional gospel singers, her mother as a member of the legendary Clara Ward Singers. So there was already a lot of live up to. Bass started her career singing gospel too, as was expected of her, but by the mid-’50s she was in full rebellion, sneaking out of the house at night to sing secular music in the local clubs. She was only 16 when she became the house pianist at the Showbar in St. Louis.
By 1961, Bass was playing with St. Louis blues iconic Little Milton Campbell. Another member of that band was future jazz giant Lester Bowie. Bass and Bowie later married. People first noticed Bass for her vocal performance on Campbell’s 1962 record “So Mean to Me,” and she soon had her own deal with Bobbin Records. Her first single for the label was “I Don’t Hurt Anymore.”
When pianist Oliver Sain left Campbell’s group, Bass followed, becoming part of the Oliver Sain Soul Revue. She also continued her solo career, releasing “I Love the Man” in 1963. The single was produced by Ike Turner, and appeared on his Prann Records label. Next up was a duet with Tina Turner called “Poor Little Fool.” All the while, Bass continued to perform with Sain, and tour on her own, under the alias ‘Sabrina.’
In 1964, Sain took Bass to Chicago, where he produced a duet with Bass and singer Bobby McClure called “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing.” The single appeared on Checker, a subsidiary of Chess Records, and hit the Top Ten. Bass departed Sain for a solo career at that point, although they remained close. She moved to Chicago permanently in 1965, signed with Chess, and released her first solo recording for the label.
According to the record label, and BMI, “Rescue Me” was written by Raynard Miner and Carl William Smith, but many people think that Bass herself had a hand in the songwriting. Legend has it that Bass, Miner, and Smith were sitting around the Chess studio one day, swapping song ideas. An arranger by the name of Phil Wright showed up, and the four musicians began to jam. “Rescue Me” was the result. Bass always said she was told by the others that she would receive songwriting credit, but she never did. In fact, her insistence on getting the credit and financial renumeration she deserved resulted in her being labeled a problem by Chess Records.
Billy Davis produced “Rescue Me” in the Chess studio. Minnie Riperton sang backing vocals, and future Earth, Wind & Fire members Maurice White (drums), and Louis Satterfield (bass) were among the studio musicians for the recording. The recording also featured guitarists Pete Cosey and Gerald Sims, pianist Leonard Caston, Sonny Thompson on organ, and Charles Stepney on vibes. The call-and-response vocals heard on the record were no accident.
“When we were recording that, I forgot some of the words … back then, you didn’t stop while the tape was running, and I remembered from the church what to do if you forget the words. I sang, ‘ummm, ummm, ummm,’ and it worked out just fine,” Bass told the New York Times in 1989.
“Rescue Me” was easily the biggest hit of Bass’ career, topping the R&B chart for four weeks, and reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up single was the similar sounding “Recovery,” and while it made the R&B Top 20, it was not nearly as big a hit as “Rescue Me.” Bass’ next single “Sweet Lovin’ Daddy” was an even smaller hit, and after that, Bass never had another chart record.
Bass finally left Chess in 1969, and moved with her husband Bowie, to Paris. By that time, Bowie was already a renowned jazz musician with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Bass collaborated with that group on an album called The Art Ensemble of Chicago featuring Fontella Bass. Other than that, Bass spent her time raising her family, and eventually moved back to St. Louis in 1971.
Bass renewed her collaboration with Sain, signing with the Louisiana-based Paula Records. Her first single for the label “Who You Gonna Blame” was included on the Sain-produced album Free in 1972. The single and the album are considered to be some of the best work of Bass’ career. Unfortunately sales didn’t match the quality of the work, and after two subsequent singles, “Now That I’ve Found a Good Thing,” and “It’s Hard to Get Back In,” failed to gain any traction, Bass left Paula in 1974.
She appeared occasional with the Art Ensemble, and sang gospel in her church, but for the most part Bass spent the remainder of the ’70s and ’80s at home, taking care of her family. In 1990 she collaborated with her mother and brother on a gospel album, Promises: A Family Portrait of Faith, and record her own spiritual album, No Ways Tired, in 1995. She continued to tour in Europe, and in 2001 released Travellin’, on which she collaborated with the Voices of St. Louis gospel choir.
After suffering a series of strokes, Fontella Bass died in St. Louis of a heart attack in 2012. She was 72 years-old. We can only pray that she didn’t die full of regret over the credit, and money, that were stolen from her simply because she was a woman.