I want to give some birthday love to one of my favorite figures from the '60s soul scene, the underrated Fontella Bass! Fontella is most remembered for a song that everyone knows but many people think is by Aretha Franklin! "Rescue Me" was a #1 hit in 1965 for Chess Records, their biggest seller since Chuck Berry's mid-'50s reign. Bass was denied songwriting credit, despite her contribution as a co-author. The tune has lasted forever and has been covered many, many times, as well as used in movies, ads, etc. The song was banned from radio by Clear Channel after 9/11, but what fools they proved to be!
Bass was from a gospel-singing family in St Louis and she learned to play piano at 5 and was touring with her mother, Martha Bass, from ages 9-15. As a teenager she was playing with a carnival, as well as backing Little Milton. When Milton's bandleader Oliver Sain broke off, Bass joined Sain's group as co-lead vocalist. She also worked with Ike Turner in St Louis (a duet with Tina called "Poor Little Fool").
She married another native St Louis musician from Little Milton's band, trumpeter Lester Bowie. In the mid-'60s the couple moved to Chicago where she signed to Chess and Lester was a founding member of the avant-garde group Art Ensemble of Chicago. After the success of "Rescue Me" and the failure to secure her proper rewards, she quit and Lester and Fontella moved to Paris with the Art Ensemble, with whom she joined as fifth member at times. (Check out the cult funk-jazz hit "Theme De Yoyo"--yup, that's Fontella wailing on vocals!).
She made a few scattered recordings in the '70s for America, Paula, Gusto and Soul Note (a family record), covering soul, gospel, jazz and disco. She cut some disks with her husband as well as an interesting collaboration with World Saxophone Quartet in '94 and an album with David Murray in '99. Lester died in '99 and the song she wrote in his honor, "All That You Give", surfaced on an album by Cinematic Orchestra (the underrated Every Day on Ninja Tune) in 2002.
She became ill with various dominoing ailments and passed the day after Christmas 2012. An interesting career, no doubt, from gospel to a #1 pop hit to free jazz to disco to collaborating with a UK underground group. "Rescue Me" and "Theme De Yoyo" surely stand as her two best-known tunes.