Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rescue Me, Fontella Bass (1965)

I reacquainted myself last week with Taxi, an old album of Bryan Ferry's that he produced with Robin Trower, and on that he's got an intriguing cover of Rescue Me. Which led me to ask myself the musical question, "whatever happened to Fontella Bass?" Or for that matter, who was Fontella Bass? - because I never knew a thing about her to begin with other than that she had a fabulous name.

Chess Records' first million seller since the Chuck Berry days 10 years prior, Rescue Me was all over the charts in 1965. And Bass didn't see one thin dime in royalties from the song, which she co-wrote - typical in those days, especially for a black female who had scribbled the lyrics on a piece of paper she no longer possessed. About which - more later, because she snapped when American Express started using Rescue Me in a commercial at the same time she was in dire financial straits, in 1990. 

The shocker for me is that Bass has been performing for decades, and I've heard exactly none of the songs I'm now listening to and marveling at. Why am I just now discovering Talking About FreedomHold On This Time? Soul of a Man? This woman has got pipes, and wonderful feel to go along with it. Why didn't she have a career as big as Aretha Franklin's, for whom she has often been mistaken, and who found fame several years later? It's not entirely clear.

Bass' mother was a member of the Clara Ward Singers, a gospel entourage for Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. (Her brother was the late gospel singer David Peaston, with whom she is seen singing here in 2002.) Equipped with this pedigree, Bass began playing piano in church at the age of 5, accompanying her grandmother who was also a singer, often at funerals. And she went on the road with her mother as well. But by the time she was a teenager, the secular life beckoned to young Fontella and she started sneaking around to the clubs. She became the house pianist at a St. Louis nightspot, and auditioned for a spot in a 2-week carnival show that stopped in St. Louis. There, Little Milton and his bandleader, sax player Oliver Sain, discovered her.

There was a lot of competition among bandleaders in St. Louis in those days; the notorious Ike Turner led the pack of those with his band the Kings of Rhythm. Sain and Little Milton were giving Turner a run for his money, though. They were recruited by the leading blues label, Chicago's Chess, and began putting out records on that label. Soon Bass was not just playing piano but also singing.

After Milton and Sain parted ways, Bass joined Sain's soul revue. Enter Bobby McClure, with whom she had a hit, Don't Mess Up a Good Thing. Here she is much later dueting on the same song with a young Lyle Lovett, of all people, on Jools Holland's UK show. And somehow she was able to work with Ike Turner as well, because a song Sain wrote, but Turner produced, Poor Little Fool, led to a duet with the inimitable Tina. Talk about your six degrees of separation with this woman ...

The deep groove of Rescue Me, with its bouncy bass line by Louis Satterfield and drums by Maurice White (both eventually to join Earth, Wind & Fire) and backing vocals from Minnie Riperton, made it distinctive for the times as far as crossover music went.  

Returning once again to the subject of royalties and absent songwriter's credits, Bass finally rose up against the exploitation of her talent for the enrichment of others when, decades later, she took on American Express and its ad agency after she heard Rescue Me on TV promoting financial products. The details are a bit hazy but from what I'm able to tell, Bass ultimately struck a deal with MCA, which by then owned the Chess catalogue, having made the argument that the parties had violated an AFTRA agreement requiring performers' consent for commercial use of recordings to which Chess was a signatory. With a reported $50,000 in back royalties and damages, that's some rescue.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Funky Worm, Ohio Players (1973)

Certain historical events are gifts that just keep on giving. Coming of age in the 60s and 70s, Watergate holds that distinction for me; call me a Watergate junkie if you want to. It happened at a time when music seemed headed for places I didn't feel like going. Example: Funky Worm by the Ohio Players, which was topping the charts in May of 1973.

That same month, my budding interest in public affairs and journalism was galvanized by the live theatre that was the televised Senate investigation of the Watergate break-in. I lived briefly after college graduation in Washington, and will never forget opening my apartment door the morning of August 9, 1974, greeted by the beefy Washington Post emblazoned with the momentous 2-inch headline, NIXON RESIGNS.

Sens. Howard Baker, Sam Ervin getting it done
Watergate's dramatis personae have always been a source of fascination to me. So Thomas Mallon's historical novel, Watergate: A Novel, fictionalizing some aspects of the scandal as it unfolds from the perspective of selected characters, was high on my reading list. Like other Mallon works I've read, it did not disappoint.

They're all there, from Nixon on down, including two with whom I've had actual interactions - Jeb Stuart Magruder and John Dean. Magruder, who found redemption in becoming an ordained minister after doing time for his role heading up the aptly-named CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), became the pastor of a church in Columbus, Ohio, where I was once a member of the flock. I'd been thinking of leaving, but no way was that going to happen with a Watergate conspirator giving the Sunday sermons!  I also commiserated about investigative journalism then and now with John Dean, the hapless White House counsel, when he spoke to the City Club of Cleveland about his book Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush a few years ago. Like me, he couldn't understand how the media had fallen asleep at the switch during that entire administration.

Mallon's flair for both dialogue and narrative meticulously weaves together the stories of Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's ultra-loyal secretary and eraser of tapes; Pat Nixon, his long-suffering wife; Fred LaRue, one of the least well-known but most embedded cover-up conspirators; E. Howard Hunt, one of the "plumbers," and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the ancient daughter of Teddy Roosevelt who was a major Washington wag. The overwhelming sense I get is that, as with so many things, actions that could just as easily not have been taken led to calamity that ruined lives. Tragedy in the best Shakespearean tradition ensues.