Classics: Fontella Bass – Rescue Me (Checker Records)
I guess one can say the 1965 released ‘Rescue Me’ ironically sums up the life of Missouri-born singer Fontella Bass. Most likely her signature song. And, in the meantime, one of the biggest selling records for Chess Records… She sadly never got the credit as one of its co-writers.
An undeniable talent both as a singer and a musician, she most likely neither met the recognition she truly deserved. And this, despite further collabs with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. And, more recently The Cinematic Orchestra with whom she recorded the magnetic ‘All That You Give’ among others.
Back to ‘Rescue Me’, a quick listen to it suffices to realize how this lady had the ingredients to compete with luminaries such as Aretha Franklin or Lynn Collins. She recorded it in three takes along with a then 17 years old Minnie Riperton among the backing singers. But also Maurice White on drums and Charles Stepney on vibes.
Further to the success of this jam, Bass said: “Things were riding high for Chess Records. But when it came time to collect my first royalty check, I looked at it, saw how little it was, tore it up and threw it back across the desk…”
A St Louis, M0 native, Fontella Bass was the older sister of R&B singer David Peaston. She eventually showed great talent for music at the age of 5. Eventually accompanying her grandma singin’ at funeral services on piano. And soon after singing in her church choirs before accompanying her mom on tours until the age of 16.
Moving to Chicago, IL after various collabs with local bands, she auditioned for Chess Records, who immediately signed her as a recording artist. From then she started recording duets with Bobby McClure. Including the memorable ‘Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing’ which Ry Cooder and Chaka Khan covered back in 1979. After a brief tour, Fontella returned to the studios. Eventually recording ‘Rescue Me’ along with luminaries such as Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) and Charles Stepney. Not to mention a then young Minnie Riperton among the backing vocalists.
‘Rescue Me’ gave Chess its first million-selling single since Chuck Berry a decade earlier. She then followed with 3 extra singles and an album – ‘The New Look’ – which sold reasonably well. But disillusioned with Chess who didn’t care about crediting her as the co-writer of ‘Rescue Me’, she left the label in 1967.
She and husband, Lester Bowie, moved to Paris 2 years later. There, she recorded 2 albums with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago by the likes of ‘Art Ensemble Of Chicago with Fontella Bass’ and ‘Les Stances a Sophie’ both in 1970. The latter serving as the soundtrack from the French movie of the same title directed by Moshé Mizrahi. It features the insanely pulsating ‘Theme De Yoyo’ which stands as an underground cult classic ever since.
Alas, an despite her obvious talent, she would get into like a long dry period from then. Beginning with the flop of her second album, ‘Free’ back in 1972. She would nevertheless experience a regain of interest in the early 2000’s. Teaming up with The Cinematic Orchestra. A British Nu-Jazz band with whom she recorded ‘All That You Give’ and ‘Evolution’ in 2002. Then ‘Familiar Ground’ and ‘Breathe’ which saw the light 5 years after as a part of their ‘Ma Fleur’ album.
Bass extensively toured with her brother – the late R&B singer David Peaston – in the 2000’s until she felt ill. She survived a breast cancer and a couple of strokes in 2005, prior having a leg amputated.
She sadly died, at the age of 72 on Dec. 26 at St Louis Hospice from a heart attack…