Fontella Bass, best known for her 1965 hit ‘Rescue Me’, has died after suffering a heart attack earlier this month.
Born in 1940 in St Louis, Missouri, Fontella was the daughter of Martha Bass, a member of gospel group the Clara Ward Singers, and performed with her mother as a child. As a teenager she became more interested in performing R&B to gospel, and began entering local talent contests, before securing work at a club near her home town. She was later spotted by bandleader Oliver Sain, who hired her to perform at his shows, initially playing piano, but later singing too.
Bass first came to wider attention when, having fallen out with Sain, she relocated to Chicago and signed to Chess Records. Her first hit, in 1965, was a duet with Bobby McClure, who she had performed with as part of The Oliver Sain Soul Revue. ‘Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing’ reached number five in the R&B charts and number 33 in the main Billboard Top 100. The same year she co-wrote and recorded ‘Rescue Me’, her biggest hit, which has since been covered by numerous other singers.
Although other singles and a subsequent album for Chess also enjoyed commercial success, Bass parted company with the label after just two years as a dispute over the ownership of the copyrights in ‘Rescue Me’ began, she feeling she had been tricked out of the royalties she was due as co-writer of the song. The legal fight over ‘Rescue Me’ continued until the late 1980s, and Bass later said that she felt the royalty battle hindered her career in the US, because she was seen as a troublemaker by labels and publishers.
She and husband Lester Bowie relocated to Paris in 1969 where she continued to record, though when a second album in 1972 wasn’t a success she basically retired from music to raise the couple’s four children. She did occasionally appear performing backing vocals on tracks though, including some released by her husband. In the 1990s she returned to gospel music, including recording an album with her mother and brother David Peaston, and for a time hosted a radio show in Chicago. Interest in Bass’s music grew again in the last decade of her life, though a series of strokes after 2005 meant her health began to deteriorate.
Confirming her mother had died after suffering a heart attack three weeks ago, Bass’s daughter Neuka Mitchell told the Associated Press yesterday: “She was an outgoing person. She had a very big personality. Any room she entered she just lit the room up, whether she was on stage or just going out to eat”.
She is survived by her four children.