Fontella Bass is an amazing lady. Not only is the trajectory of her career fascinating, but she’s arguably the archetype for what Aretha Franklin was to become: a sassy, soulful siren in the first degree.
Ms. Bass comes from the St. Louis, and is a part of a group of St. Louis native vocalists that made their way in Chicago (this includes Chuck Bernard, Little Milton, and Bobby McClure). Her voice can be described as a salt-sweet contralto that is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion.
She is best known for the HUGE hit “Rescue Me”, which is a Chicago-written, recorded,and produced slice of 60s Soul. Her greatest hit (which she also co-wrote), “Rescue Me” has been featured in movies, commercials, and TV shows galore; but it is also too often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin. Ironically, at the time of its release, Aretha Franklin was singing jazzy pop standards, a’la young Dinah Washington.
In fact, “Rescue Me” predates Aretha Franklin’s soulful breakthrough release “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by a couple of years.
“Rescue Me” was released on Chess Records’ Checker imprint, after which Fontella continued to release soulful gems for the label (my favorites being “I Can’t Rest” and “Lucky in Love”) until 1968 or so.
By 1970, in a plot twist worthy of an arthouse movie, Fontella Bass was married to musician Lester Bowie and had joined him as an expatriate in France in The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There, she served as the vocalist in the group: a seminal, Chicago-based free-jazz combo… I suspect that’s her in the white face paint in the far right corner of the album pictured below.
In 1990, she heard her own voice singing “Rescue Me” on an American Express commercial and was inspired to look into her rights, and wound up suing American Express and its ad agency. She won over $50,000 plus damages in a settlement. Awesome.
Enjoy Fontella Bass singing “Rescue Me” (while looking quite Chicago Mod in a houndstooth cap and jacket) on Shindig! in 1965.
…and, below, listen for some of her vocals on a righteous jazz workout from The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Jive on!