Follow Us on Twitter

Obituary: Fontella Bass

Fontella Bass

Obituary by Jack Foley

AMERICAN soul singer Fontella Bass, best known for the hit single Rescue Me, has died of complications following a heart attack at the age of 72.

She had been in poor health for much of the past seven years but suffered the heart attack three weeks ago, before passing away on December 27, 2012, in a hospice in St Louis, Missouri, according to her daughter, Neuka Mitchell.

Born on July 3, 1940, Fontella was the daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass (a member of the Clara Ward Singers) and developed a talent for music at an early age.

At five-years-old she was providing the piano accompaniment for her grandmother’s singing at funeral services and by six she was singing in her church’s choir. By the time she was nine she was accompanying her mother on tours throughout the American South and Southwest.

Although she continued to support her mother until the age of 16, she developed a taste for more secular music during her teens and began singing R&B songs at local contests and fairs while attending Soldan High School, where she graduated from in 1958.

At 17, she started her professional career working at the Showboat Club near Chain of Rocks, Missouri, and was eventually signed to Chess Records, where she first found success in a duet with Bobby McClure on Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing and You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone).

After that, Bass returned to the studio and co-wrote the song that would become her signature, Rescue Me, which subsequently reached the top of the US R&B chart in 1965 and has since become one of the best known soul songs of all-time, being covered by many artists (including Elkie Brooks, Bryan Ferry, Guys ‘n’ Dolls and Diana Ross).

However, it took years of legal battles for her to receive full royalty rights to the song, culminating in a settlement more than 20 years after it was first released.

Although Rescue Me remained her biggest hit, she also enjoyed more moderate success with the tracks Recovery, which peaked at No.13 (in the R&B charts, I Can’t Rest (backed with I Surrender) and You’ll Never Know.

In her later years, Bass was attached to many labels but after her second album, Free, flopped in 1972, she retired from music and concentrated on raising a family with her husband, the great jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. They had four children together.

In May 2000, Bass received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Loop, in recognition of her services to the music industry and talent.

Paying tribute to her mother on the BBC website, Neuka Mitchell said: “She had a very big personality. Any room she entered, she just lit the room up, whether she was on stage or just going out to eat.”