Although she should not be labeled a ‘one-hit wonder’, it’s difficult to think about Fontella Bass and not immediately remember her signature song, 1965’s “Rescue Me.” The talented R&B singer, who was 72 when she died in her home city of St. Louis on December 26th, had several other good-charting records during her career, but there’s little doubt that she’ll always be remembered for that song. (Although many mistakenly remember it as a song introduced by Aretha Franklin.) In fact, the song was at least partially responsible for her salvation in later years — but more later about that.
Like many of her contemporaries, Fontella Bass grew up in a culture that celebrated gospel music. Her mother and grandmother were both professionals and she was a natural herself, singing in her church choir while still a child. But as she approached adulthood she began turn in a different direction, finding spots in clubs as a pianist and R&B singer.
By the time she turned 21, she was touring with bluesman Little Milton’s group (and eventually married bandmate Lester Bowie, who would go on to a big career as a jazz trumpeter). Her first experience in a recording studio was singing behind Little Milton’s lead on 1962’s “So Mean To Me,” but she soon began to show up more prominently by recording with Ike and Tina Turner. Within a couple of years she was sharing billing with singer Bobby McClure on what would be her first charted records, “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” and “You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone).”
Her big breakout soon followed when her first true solo record on a song she co-wrote — “Rescue Me” — shot to the top of the charts. Unfortunately things went downhill from there, in a lot of ways. Although Bass had good-selling records with songs like “Recovery” and “I Can’t Rest,” she spent the next few years battling for royalties and recognition, and after working in Europe with her husband’s jazz combo for a while she cut back on music to raise a family.
She continued to dip her toe into the business from time to time in the 1970s and 1980s, but never reached her previous heights, and as the years passed she returned more and more to the gospel music of her younger days. Helping lift her spirits was her ultimately successful attempt to regain her royalty rights, and the subsequent payments helped make her last two decades more comfortable.