Fontella Bass, the St. Louisan who had a huge soul and pop hit in 1965 with "Rescue Me" but also sang jazz while married to trumpeter Lester Bowie, died Wednesday night in St. Louis of complications from heart failure. She was 72.
"Rescue Me," which Bass co-wrote as well as sang, sold more than a million copies. The song was the No. 1 R&B hit for four weeks, also reached the pop Top 10, and stayed on the charts for a total of nineteen months. In the decades since, it's been used in dozens of TV shows, movies and commercials and inspired numerous cover version, but in all too typical fashion for the music business, it took years for Bass to see any royalties from those uses.
Though "Rescue Me" will remain her best known work, Bass (pictured) was in fact a multi-talented singer and pianist who was raised singing gospel and got her professional start playing the blues with Oliver Sain and Little Milton. Just before hitting with "Rescue Me," Bass teamed with singer Bobby McClure to record Sain's composition "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing," which became a Top 10 R&B hit early in 1965.
She also had a number of credits as a jazz vocalist. Bass made three recordings with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, including the critically acclaimed 1970 album Les Stances A Sophie, while married to Bowie, and also did sessions with David Murray, the World Saxophone Quartet, and others.
After taking time off in the 1970s and 80s to raise a family, Bass eventually began singing in public again and in 1995, her gospel album No Ways Tired was nominated for a Grammy. She continued to tour occasionally, mostly overseas, into the 21st century, and even had another hit, providing guest vocals for the British dance music group Cinematic Orchestra on their 2002 track "All That You Give."
In 2003, Bass performed at the Sheldon Concert Hall in a benefit for the St. Louis Blues Society's Blues Mission Fund, and before that show I interviewed her for a story published in the Riverfront Times, archived online here. In that interview, she alluded to her fight to get her rightful royalties for "Rescue Me," a battle that took more than 25 years, and talked about her musical activities at the time.
It also should be noted that even before her marriage to Bowie, Bass already was part of a distinguished musical family. She was the daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass of the Clara Ward Singers, and her brother David Peaston, who died in Feburary this year, also was a successful professional vocalist who recorded R&B and gospel. Among those carrying on the family's legacy are Bass' youngest son Bonhamous Bowie, a keyboard player, and her son-in-law Tracy Mitchell, a guitarist. Bass has made few public appearances since 2005; sources close to the family have said she was in poor health and had been residing at a local extended-care nursing facility for some time now.
Local Fox affiliate KTVI has coverage of Bass' death here, while CBS Radio affiliate KMOX has a story here. We'll add other relevant links from local and national media to this post as they appear online.
Update, 12/31/12, 7:30 a.m.: A memorial service and tribute for Fontella Bass will be held at 7:00 p.m. this Friday, January 4, Shalom Church (City of Peace), 5491 North Highway 67, Florissant, MO 63034.
* The New York Times noted Fontella Bass' death here.
* The Post-Dispatch's story on Bass, written by Kevin Johnson, is here, and the obituary from the Associated Press is here.
* The Post's Johnson also has a story here with reactions from people involved in the St. Louis music scene.
* KDHX has re-posted Fontella Bass' version of Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Hamdsome Man," recorded for one of the station's promotional compilations.