Fontella Bass: “Rescue Me” (In Memoriam)
I’m a bit late in this “In Memoriam” post, as it was a week ago that Fontella Bass passed away at the age of 72. But between Christmas and traveling back from our vacation, and then New Year’s, I had little time to post at all, so I hope Fontella will forgive me.
Bass is primarily known for her one major hit, “Rescue Me,” which was released as a single in 1965 (and only afterward placed on an album, The ‘New’ Look). It would be shortchanging nearly any performer to neglect the rest of their musical output, but for Fontella, things didn’t work out as she had hoped in the aftermath of that huge hit, and it proved to be her sole lasting contribution to pop history. Following a dispute with her record label, Chess, over being left off the songwriting credits (and, therefore, royalties) for “Rescue Me,” Bass ended up leaving the music world for a time, moving to Paris with her husband, avant-garde jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. She later recorded a well-received album with his band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and staged a minor solo comeback in the ’70s, but she never had another hit.
But what a hit it was! It’s often mistaken for an Aretha Franklin song, which certainly must have been frustrating for Bass, but hopefully she took it as a compliment: to have sufficient vocal prowess to be mistaken for the Queen of Soul says an awful lot about your talent. Bass and Franklin both came from a gospel background, and it shows — they could both belt it out with abandon. But Bass could have gone in a Motown direction, like the Supremes, as easily as she could have been a Stax/Atlantic Records-style singer, like Franklin — her vocals straddled the two styles well. She could have certainly been known for so much more than this song if things had worked out differently for her in the business end of things — but as it is, we still have this great hit to remember her by.