The Joy of Fontella Bass Lives On in Her Songs
Most R&B fans remember Fontella Bass as the dynamic voice delivering us from teenage pain and suffering with the song “Rescue Me.” This chart-topping record, released in the fall of 1965, was a #1 hit on the R&B charts for four weeks. Today we honor Fontella and her music in our memory since she passed away in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 26, 2012.
At five years old in 1945, Fontella was accompanying her grandmother's singing on the piano at many funeral services, and was singing in her church's choir at six years old. By the time she was nine she was touring with her mother, gospel singer Martha Bass from the Clara Ward Singers, throughout the South and Southwest.
Fontella also valued her family life and became Mrs. Lester Bowie when she married the well-known trumpeter for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They also toured together with that band. Mr. Bowie passed on in 1999. They are survived by their four children.
My friend, Sherry Margolin, now a musician/pianist living in Paris “had the pleasure of accompanying her” around the time her Grammy-nominated Gospel Album, “No Ways Tired,” was released in 1995. Sherry was hired to play for Fontella’s band for a week-long booking at Paris’s Meridien Hotel. The regular Hammond B-3 organ player couldn’t make it so Sherry took the gig, “even though I’m under-qualified. Seeing I was in fact a pianist like herself, she let me take over the piano on some numbers,” Sherry recalled.
Sherry also remembers her as “a wonderful singer and pianist who should be known for a lot more than the one hit usually associated with her. She was a warm person who made me feel welcome on her stage. … I hoped I would see and hear her again.”
Fontella was signed by Chess/Checker Records in 1963. She had a couple of minor hits as part of a duet before her big top ten hit as a soloist, “Rescue Me.” It was the first gold record for the Chess/Checker label since Chuck Berry’s hits several years before. The house musicians/ arrangers at Chess, Raynard Miner and Carl William Smith, got the official listing as songwriters, for both lyrics and music, of “Rescue Me.”
Sherry recalled how Fontella fought for her rightful share of the lyric royalties. “She WROTE that song … During her adult life, she fought hard for some of the royalties from that hit which were denied her like so many great artists in the 50’s and 60’s.” Fontella became disillusioned with Chess and left the label in 1967.
As she told Cheryl Andryco, the author of The Story of Fontella Bass, "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.”
She eventually sued for and received a $50,000 settlement when “Rescue Me” was used in an American Express commercial in 1993. She was credited with her share of the songwriting royalties. Fontella
(Thanks to Wikipedia for some of this information!)