Fontella Bass died aged seventy-two on 26th December 2012 at a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. from complications of a heart attack suffered earlier in the month.
In the 2000s, Fontana toured Europe with her younger brother David Peaston until she fell ill. For her last years she had to struggle due to her deteriorating health. Fontella Bass survived breast cancer, a series of strokes beginning in 2005, and also had a leg amputated.
Fontella Bass was born in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. the daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass. At an early age, Fontella showed great musical talent. At the age of five, she provided the piano accompaniment for her grandmother's singing at funeral services, she sang in her church's choir at six, and by the time she was nine, she had accompanied her mother on tours throughout the South and Southwest America.
Fontella continued touring with her mother until the age of sixteen. As a teenager, Fontella was attracted by more secular music. She began singing Rythm & Blues songs at local contests and fairs while attending Soldan High School from which she graduated in 1958. At seventeen, she started her professional career working at the Showboat Club near Chain of Rocks, Missouri. In 1961, she auditioned on a dare for the Leon Claxton carnival show and was hired to play piano and sing in the chorus for two weeks, earning $175 per week for the two weeks it was in town. She wanted to go on tour with Claxton but her mother refused and according to Fontella, she literally dragged her off the train. It was during this brief stint with Claxton that she was heard by vocalist Little Milton and his bandleader Oliver Sain who hired her to back Little Milton on piano for concerts and recording.
Fontella originally only played piano with the band, but one night Milton didn't show up on time so Sain asked her to sing and she was soon given her own featured vocal spot in the show. Milton and Sain eventually split up and Fontella went with Sain; he also recruited male singer Bobby McClure and the group became known as "The Oliver Sain Soul Revue featuring Fontella and Bobby McClure".
With the support of Bob Lyons, the manager of St. Louis station KATZ, Fontella recorded several songs released through Bobbin Records and produced by Ike Turner.
Two years later she quit the Milton band and moved to Chicago after a dispute with Oliver Sain. She auditioned for Chess Records, who immediately signed her as a recording artist. Her first works with the label were several duets with Bobby McClure, who had also been signed to the label. Released early in 1965, their recording "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing" (credited to Oliver Sain) found immediate success, reaching the top five at Rythm & Blues radio and peaking at number33 at pop. In 1979 the song was covered by Ry Cooder with Chaka Khan on Cooder's album Bop 'Til You Drop'.
Fontella and McClure followed their early success with "You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone)" that summer, a song that had mild success, reaching the Top 30 on the Rythm & Blues chart, although it made no significant impression on the pop chart. After a brief tour, Bass returned to the studio. The result was an original composition with an aggressive rhythm section; backing musicians on the track included drummer Maurice White (later the leader of Earth, Wind, & Fire), bassist Louis Satterfield and tenor saxophonist Gene Barge, with the young Minnie Riperton among the background singers. The song, "Rescue Me", shot up the charts in the fall and winter of 1965. After a month-long run at the top of the Rythm & Blues charts, the song reached number4 on the US pop charts and number11 in the UK, and gave Chess its first million-selling single since Chuck Berry a decade earlier. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
Bass followed with "Recovery," which did moderately well, peaking at number13 (Rythm & Blues) and number37 (pop) in early 1966. The same year brought two more Rythm & Blues hits, "I Can't Rest" (backed with "I Surrender)" and "You'll Never Know." Her only album with Chess Records, The New Look, sold reasonably well, but Fontella soon became disillusioned with Chess and decided to leave the label after only two years, in 1967. Fontella claimed that, although the credited co-writers Carl Smith and Raynard Miner, and record producer Billy Davis, had assured her that her contribution to co-writing the lyrics of "Rescue Me" would be acknowledged, this was never done.
Fontella said she had the first million seller for Chess since Chuck Berry about ten years before and things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect her first royalty cheque, she looked at it, saw how little it was, tore it up and threw it back across the desk.
Fontella demanded a better royalty rate and artistic control; she approached her then manager Billy Davis about securing her writing credit on the song but was told not to worry about it. When the record came out and her name was still not on it she was told it would be on the legal documents, but this never happened. She continued to agitate about the matter for a couple of years but later recalled that it actually side-stepped her in the business because she aquired the reputation of being a trouble maker.
Tiring of the mainstream music scene, she and husband Lester Bowie left America and moved to Paris in 1969, where she recorded two albums.
Even with the success of "Rescue Me" it was many years and much litigation before Fontella would be credited with her share of the songwriting and the royalties. In 1993 Fontella sued American Express and Ogilvy & Mather for the unauthorized use of the song in a commercial for the credit card giant.
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song: 'Rescue Me' by Fontella Bass