Soul singer Fontella Bass passed away on December 26 at age 72 following complications from a heart attack she suffered three weeks ago. Bass’ health had been slowly declining since 2005, when she suffered a stroke.
Most famous for her hit Rescue Me in 1965, Bass had a long and varied career in the industry. Here’s what you should know.
1. Bass was a Prodigy
Her mother and grandmother were both gospel singers, and by age 6 Bass had joined them in playing piano at services throughout her home state of Missouri. By age 9 she was touring throughout the deep South with her mother, singing at church services.
By the age of 16 Bass was beginning to move away from gospel singing and into more mainstream pop music, beginning by singing at R’n’B contests, the first one on a dare. From there she became a star in her hometown but saw little success outside of St. Louis. Her early work was produced by Ike Turner.
2. Her Career Took Off When She Moved to Chicago
Bass left St. Louis in 1963 to try to make it in Chicago. She auditioned for Chess Records and signed up to the label soon after. By 1965 she had released her first single Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing which was a huge hit across R’n’B radio. In 1979 the song was covered by Ry Cooder and Chaka-Khan.
3. Rescue Me Was a Mega-hit
Undoubtedly the song that Bass is most famous for, the 1965 mega-hit Rescue Me topped the R’n’B charts for months and reached No.4 in the Billboard charts. It was written by Bass, along with Raynard Miner and Carl William Smith.
Often miscredited to Aretha Franklin, the song was actually released three years before Franklin made her mainstream debut in 1968.
The song was covered by many stars from Linda Ronstadt in 1971, Cher in 1974, and Pat Benatar in 1994. Benatar’s version was used on the soundtrack to the movie Speed.
4. Bass Sued American Express for $50,000 in 1990
Bass said in The Tuscaloosa News in 1995 that the misuse of the song in a 1990 American Express commercial inspired Bass to take more creative control over her music. The song was not correctly licensed to the credit card company, and in 1993 Bass won $50,000 in damages from the company.
5. Bass was Chess Records’ First Million Seller Since Chuck Berry
The success of Rescue Me made Bass a star. Chuck Berry had been the last superstar produced by Chess Records, and that was in 1955. Despite this, Bass was poorly compensated.
The Cheryl Andryco biography of Bass quotes the singer:
I had the first million seller for Chess since Chuck Berry about 10 years before. Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my first royalty check, I looked at it, saw how little it was, tore it up and threw it back across the desk. It actually side-stepped me in the business because I got a reputation of being a trouble maker.
6. She Lived in Paris for 21 Years
Bass was reportedly disillusioned with mainstream music and retreated to Paris with her husband, avant-garde Jazz musician, Lester Bowie. While in Paris, Bass moved into more obscure recording with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as singing on her husband’s solo-albums in the early 1980s. She lived in Paris from 1969 to 1990.
7. Bass Returned to America in 1990
After making a brief return to Gospel music with her album Promises, which was nominated for a Grammy, Bass undertook a tour of the U.S. with her mother. She hosted a Gospel radio show in Chicago during this period too.
8. She Has a Space on St. Louis’ Walk of Fame
Joining Maya Angelou, Chuck Berry and Tennessee Williams, Bass is officially one of St. Louis’ most famous people.
9. Bass’ Brother, Another Famous Singer, Died Last February
In keeping with their musical family, Bass’ brother David Peaston was a well-known singer in his own right, with his singles “Two Wrongs (Don’t Make it Right)” and “Can I?” being the most well known. In 1990 he won a Soul Train award for Best New Soul Singer. Peaston died of a diabetes related illness in February at the age of 54.
10. Bass’ Daughter Called Her “Amazing”
Neuka Mitchell, a daughter of Bass and Bowie, told CBS-St. Louis:
She was an amazing person, she had a big personality, first of all, she put God first and family second and the next thing was music and food. She loved to spend time with her family.”