All that you give: Fontella Bass rescues herself
July 30, 2017 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Fontella Bass (1940 – 2012) is often regarded as a one-hit wonder, and even that one hit is often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin. “Rescue Me” briefly made her a star, and is the only side she ever recorded to reach the top ten (#4 Pop, #1 R&B). However, there is much more to Fontella Bass and her music. Bass was a third generation gospel singer, a fine pianist, and a singer who performed and recorded in six decades, encompassing gospel, RnB, soul, pop, jazz, and the avant garde. If you don't know Don't Mess With A Good Thing, Theme de Yoyo , No Ways Tired, Travellin', and All That You Give -- you don't know Fontella Bass.

Child star
Bass was born in 1940 in Saint Louis, Missouri into a musical family. She was the daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass, granddaughter of gospel singer Nevada Carter, and the older sister of singer David Peaston.
My grandmother was a singer and all her children were musicians—my mother and all of my uncles—so that’s how I got into it. All gospel, and they’re still in the gospel world today.
Fontella's mother, a protégé of Willie May Ford Smith, toured with the Ward Singers during the 1940s and '50s. With her mother away on tour, Fontella began performing in St. Louis with her grandmother -- as a pianist, not a singer.
At five I was gigging. I was playing all the mortuaries, funeral homes. And if I was good, I got paid ten dollars. You know, in 1945-46, ten dollars was a lot of money for a five-year-old.
Later she went on tour with her mother and grandmother.
After she left Clara Ward, my mother used to go through Georgia, Texas, and the Southern states, and I’d go with her, playing piano … It was like three generations: grandmother, mother and granddaughter, and we all had different segments. . . .
She toured with her family until the age of 16.
[We travelled by train] and if you were 12 or under, you didn’t have to pay. . . [When] I couldn’t pass for 12 anymore . . . that was it.”
Teenage years
During her teenage years, Fontella Bass continued playing organ and piano in various St. Louis churches -- and elsewhere.
My grandmother was very hard-core, you know, they didn’t [even] want me to listen to rock 'n’ roll on the radio. . . . . But after I reached high school I would play in talent shows and the first time I got ‘busted’ was when Ray Charles was in town and they were having a talent show . . . [We won, so my picture was in the Argus newspaper]. There I was on the piano, getting down. All my mother’s church members were calling . . . "

“My grandfather and two of my mother’s brothers used to go out to all of the blues places. They would sneak me out of the window . . . and I would be gone all night, till six and seven in the morning. They’d send a note up and I’d go up and play. And then they would sneak me back in the house . . . they did it for years."
Early recordings
In 1961, when she was 21 years old, Little Milton and his band director, Oliver Sain, heard Bass perform and offered her a job as Milton’s pianist. The opportunity to sing arose one night when Little Milton himself didn't show for his own gig. Bandleader Sain suggested that Bass sing ". . . and I’ve been singing ever since. . . . I used to go under the name 'Sabrina.'"

In the early 1960s, Bass did session work as a pianist in St. Louis for the Bobbin label. She appeared on recordngs with Albert King and Muddy Waters, among others. She also, finally, had the opportunity to record a number of sides under her own name.

Bobbin records soon went out of business, and Milton’s contract was picked up by Chess Records in Chicago. Milton vouched for Bass with Leonard Chess, who signed her in 1963.

Chess at first paired her with Bobby McClure, and the duo recorded two singles, “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” b/w "Baby What Do You Want Me to Do" (a cover of the Jimmy Reed blues standard) and “You’ll Miss Me When I'm Gone" b/w "Don’t Jump.” “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” became a minor hit in early 1965, which led to tours and television appearances.

Rescue Me
"Rescue Me" was recorded late in 1965 (a year and a half before Aretha Franklin's break-out hit, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T"). Originally intended as a B-side for the Oliver Sain composed "Soul of The Man", it quickly over-shadowed that song, became a number one hit, remained on the charts for months, and became (according to Bass) Chess records first million seller in ten years (presumably, Chuck Berry's "Maybellene").

Note: The session band included Maurice White on drums and Louis Satterfield on bass, both later founding members of Earth, Wind & Fire. Chess records receptionist Minnie Riperton was on background vocals.

Tours followed, as did television appearances and a hastily recorded album, The New Look. Like a lot of long players in the 1960s, it's a mix of one or two hits, plus filler consisting of popular covers in a variety of styles and lesser originals.

Here's Bass performing "Rescue Me", semi-live on Shindig. The song is truncated and the band is obviously miming, but I believe the vocals are live. The back-up 'singer' on the highest riser is, I believe, Minnie Riperton. Here’s a second performance from that same show: "Everyday I Have To Cry"

Bass recorded several singles after The New Look, but trouble was brewing between Bass and the record company. She was never properly credited for her compositional contribution to "Rescue Me". She had limited creative control, and her considerable keyboard skills were under-utilized. The record company began to regard her as a trouble-maker. By the end of 1968 she'd been let out of her contract with Chess.

Lester Bowie
By this time she'd met and married another St. Louis musician, trumpet player Lester Bowie. Bowie had been part of the exodus of St. Louis talent to Chicago and had become Bass's music director. Bass and Bowie married and had four children together. Meanwhile, Bowie had founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Between 1969 and 1972 the band lived and worked in Paris, France, where Bass contributed vocals to two albums, Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass and Les Stances a Sophie, a film soundtrack.

How Strange / Ole Jed
Theme de Yoyo

Other appearances on jazz recordings:
Lester Bowie, The Great Pretender (1981), The Great Pretender
Lester Bowie, All the Magic (1982), For Louie
World Saxophone Quartet, Breath of Life (1992) Suffering with the Blues
You Don't Know Me
Breath of Life

Second solo album, Free (1972)
Back in the states in 1972, Bass recorded a second solo album, Free.
If Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me" is the best soul single that Aretha Franklin never made, then Free is the lost classic that deserves space in any record collection . . . . Reuniting Bass with producer Oliver Sain, who helmed her classic mid-'60s sides for Chess, Free draws on the singer's gospel roots to forge a deeply spiritual and moving examination of post-civil rights America. Cuts like "To Be Free," "Talking About Freedom," and "My God, My Freedom, My Home" showcase the remarkable power and poignancy of Bass' vocals, couched beautifully by Sain's nuanced, blues-inspired arrangements. . . . excellent stuff from a singer unjustly dismissed as a one-hit wonder. -- Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide
However, the album was a commercial flop. You be the judge:
Talking About Freedom
Wiping Tears
It's Hard to Get Back In

Bass spent most of the next twenty years away from the music business, raising her four children in St. Louis. She and Lester Bowie divorced amicably in 1978.

On Night Music
Here's Bass in a one-off 1988 appearance on the music mash-up show, Night Music, with Lyle Lovett, George Duke, and David Sanborn and the Night Music house band.
Rescue Me
Don't Mess Up A Good Thing (duet w/ Lyle Lovett)

American Distress
In a 1995 interview Bass explained that on New Year's Day 1990 she was surprised to hear her own voice singing "Rescue Me" on a television ad for American Express. This came at a particularly low point in her life, and the event somehow inspired her to get her house in order, and assert more control over her career, past and future. In 1993 Bass secured a settlement of $50,00 plus damages against American Express and the advertising agency that had produced the commercial.

Bass remained in St. Louis while returning to her gospel roots in a big way, with the release in 1995 of the (Grammy-nominated) album No Ways Tired. The album featured Lester Bowie on trumpet, David Sanborn on alto, and Harvey Brooks on bass.

No Ways Tired (title track)

With the Voices of St Louis (2001)
Voices of St. Louis was a musical collective led by Bass that included members of Bass’ extended family and St. Louis' extensive musical community.
“A lot of the greats aren’t in St. Louis anymore. Everything is all about New Orleans. But we’ve got great musicians right here in St. Louis who are part of the jazz scene, part of the gospel scene, part of the rock ‘n’ roll scene, and part of hip-hop now that Nelly is breaking through.”
The album encompasses jazz, R&B, gospel, and blues.
Travellin' (title track)

Live with the Voices of St. Louis (2003)
Made it on Over
All That You Give

Tribute to Chuck Berry / public radio benefit (2004)
In 2004, St. Louis radio public radio station KDHX commissioned a tribute album to local music legend Chuck Berry, proceeds to benefit the station. Bass contributed a slow, bluesy take on Berry's Brown Eyed Handsome Man.

With the Cinematic Orchestra
I confess that I haven't been able to uncover how the connection was made, but somehow Jason Swinscoe persuaded Fontella Bass to contribute vocals to two albums and appear in at least one evocative video, with fantastic results. Even this late in her career, Fontella Bass' presence improved any project she's participated in.
All That You Give

St. Louis Walk of Fame
In 2000, Bass was recognised by her home town with a star on the Walk of Fame.

Fontella Bass died in St. Louis on December 26, 2012 at the age of 72, following a series of strokes and a heart attack.

Mmm hmm.

Selected Discography

Solo singles, early 1960s Duet singles with Bobby McClure (1965) First Album: The New Look (1966) Solo singles, late 1960s Second album: Free (1972) With the Art Ensemble of Chicago (1970 - 1972) with Lester Bowie (1981 - 1982) with the World Saxophone Quartet Breath of Life (1992) Gospel album: No Ways Tired (1995) Eclectic album: Travellin' (2001) with the Voices of St Louis On the Tribute to Chuck Berry / Benefit for public radio Station KDHX STL 2004 with the Cinematic Orchestra
Every Day (2002) Ma Fleur (2007) ___________________________________________

Obits and career summaries Contemporary stories Local Links (STL)
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posted by Herodios (12 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of notes first, SVP.

Fontella died just two days after Ray Collins, another unjustly under-appreciated musician, and the subject of an earlier mega-post. I knew a lot more about Ray Collins than Fontella Bass and it still took me the better part of a year to get that post out. Meanwhile, I'd wanted to post about Bass' later career for some time, but I was waiting for a decent copy of "How Strange / Ole Jed" to show up online. At some point in the past 5 years, that track and some of the others I've linked to finally became available to link to.

Secondly, I've tried to do my best, but gospel music is not something I have much first-hand knowledge about. However, it's worth pointing out that it's one of the sources of nearly all popular music today. It informs the blues, R&B, jazz, country, and bluegrass. Rock and roll returns periodically to that well, from Little Richard to Leon Russell, to today's pop divas.

So even if singing about Jesus isn't your thing, it's worth giving a listen to what inspired some of the people who have also contributed to these other pleasures.
posted by Herodios at 4:08 PM on July 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Great post, and I will resist the temptation to call the encyclopedic FPP "all about that Bass."

I actually never thought "Rescue Me" was Aretha Franklin and while I don't think their voices are that similar, I can see how the style might lead some to believe it was. Further muddying the waters, Wikipedia's page for the song mentions:
"Rescue Me" was also adapted as the jingle for a 1991 and 1992 TV ad campaign for Pizza Hut, with Aretha Franklin rendering the song as "Deliver me".
That cannot have helped Fontella's profile.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

What a welcome antidote to all the politics I've been immersed in. Thank you for the post. I knew Rescue Me but nothing about its creator. I'll be taking breaks from my often futile attemps to keep up with the politics and Game of Thrones threads to listen to your linked songs. Gospel music to lift my spirits. Just what the doctor ordered!
posted by LeftMyHeartInSanFrancisco at 4:58 PM on July 30, 2017

Great post! I interviewed Ms. Bass once for an article in the local alt-weekly, she was a nice person as well as a gifted musician and singer.

One more link - 27.5 minutes of a live show from 1983 in Italy (I think) billed as "Lester Bowie & From The Root to the Source," which features Bass (singing "Blueberry Hill" and later playing some piano), her brother David Peaston, and some other first-rate musicians:

(Checked this post twice to see if this link was included and didn't see it, but if it's a duplicate, my apologies.)
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 6:06 PM on July 30, 2017

Fontella Bass (1940 – 2012) is often regarded as a one-hit wonder, and even that one hit is often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin.

Well, count me among the bamboozled masses.

while I don't think their voices are that similar, I can see how the style might lead some to believe it was

Yeah, there are some similarities between "Rescue Me" and "R-E-S-P-E-C-T", as songs, that I think contributed to the confusion. And the Pizza Hut thing definitely doesn't help.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:44 PM on July 30, 2017

Fontella Bass (1940 – 2012) is often regarded as a one-hit wonder,

Well, I mean, with a song as great as "Rescue Me," you only need one.

Seriously, thanks for this post. Lots to digest here.
posted by entropicamericana at 6:50 PM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have ONE Fontella Bass song on my iPhone, "Hard to Get Back In". It came up on Pandora. I listened to about the first 10 seconds and went and bought it without even hearing the rest. It's in regular rotation and I didn't even know she's who sang "Rescue Me".

It's been on my to-do list to research more about her and now Herodios has saved me the trouble. I'll be digging into this tomorrow and probably emptying my wallet shortly thereafter. Thanks, Herodios!
posted by Defective_Monk at 7:07 PM on July 30, 2017

"Hard to Get Back In".

Great tune.

That second album is really good in a "lost worlds of R&B" sort of way.
posted by Herodios at 7:30 PM on July 30, 2017

Hell yeah. Her work with the AEoC is fuckin awesome.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:03 PM on July 30, 2017

I nearly named one of my cats Fontella. (She was a very expensive, but well worth it, rescue cat)

I've only listened to a couple of the links so far, but that duet with Lyle Lovett is killer. Thank you for this most excellent post.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:18 AM on July 31, 2017

Thanks for that link, Nat, that's the real stuff. Fontella, her mother, her brother, and half of the AEC on stage at the same time. Lester Bowie sure knew how to throw a party.

I never met nor interviewed Fontella Bass, however, one highlight of my checkered career was running the house sound for the Art Ensemble of Chicago when they played Cleveland in 1980. Had to supply a lot of my own equipment, because the university's house system was completely inadequate. It was a lot of work, cuz you never knew when one of those guys would put down a bari sax and pick up a flute -- or maybe finger cymbals. Then somebody else would go from quiet to loud and I'd have to trim his mic. I was sweating, but it was intense serious fun.
posted by Herodios at 6:37 AM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

A supreme post, Herodios -- thanks a million.
posted by On the Corner at 12:25 AM on August 17, 2017

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