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 Freedom? Hold 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.
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.