She died, age 72, the day after Christmas, having been in ill health for the past six years due to a series of strokes. A heart attack on December 2nd left her in critical condition and it was only a matter of time after that. Ironically, her beginning in show business was in singing at a local funeral home. She was only five when she was in demand for singing religious and spiritual songs. Her mother Martha Bass Peaston was a gospel singer. Martha, who died in 1998, was also the mother of David Peaston, who was a St. Louis teacher before finally scoring a hit with a 1989 solo album that featured "Can I?" and "Two Wrongs Don't Make it Right." He, Martha and Fontella Bass recorded an album together called 'Promises: A Family Portrait of Faith." He needed it: after being diagnosed with diabetes, he ended up a double amputee, and died in February of 2012 at the young age of 54.
Fontella graduated from high school in 1958, married her high school sweetheart, and got her big break as a piano player in a blues band featuring Little Milton and Oliver Sain. As Fontella put it, "one night Milton got a little too full of scotch to sing, and Oliver asked me. And I just never stopped." Her one-shot wonder hit, "Rescue Me," was recorded on January 4, 1965. Legend has it that she got so carried away during the session that she ignored some of the lyrics, adding more traditional gospel shouts. Originally released for the R&B market, Bass's song was a crossover sensation, hitting the Top 10 and becoming the first million seller for Chess Records since Chuck Berry a decade earlier.
Unfortunately, Fontella's name was not on the credits for songwriting. It was common in those days for record labels and artist managers to play those kinds of games. There was fine print on the contracts, careless (deliberate) mistakes in bookkeeping and sometimes even a quick shuffle on writing credits with perhaps a fast-talking conjob urging an artist to take a (paltry) cash buy-out over royalties. A classic example a few years after "Rescue Me" was Matthew Fisher getting no co-write credit on "A Whiter Shade of Pale." He was told to forget about it because there would surely be many more #1 million-seller hits for his band, and he'd get due credit the next time around.
In Bass's case, she naturally felt race had something to do with it: "The recording companies had been taking advantage of black musicians for a long time, and I decided to take a stand against it, but I was standing alone. I was a black female, so I automatically had two strikes against me in that white world.” Chess Records may have specialized in black artists, but it was run by Leonard Chess, born in Poland, real name: Lejzor Czyz. Not that he was more racist than businessman; guys like him, or Morris Levy a Roulette or even Jerry Wexler at Atlantic were known to play hardball with white artists asking for an accounting of earnings. CEO's in every business screw their employees and take millions in salary while paying minimum wage.
Fontela was furious at the paltry royalty check that Chess Records finally handed her, and within two years, she was off the label and, she felt, blacklisted (maybe that's white-listed). She claimed that others resisted signing her because of rumors that she was "too difficult." But it's also possible that she was, even with the fantastic performance on "Rescue Me," considered just another gospel R&B singer of which there were many. And many of the best (Etta James was also on Chess) weren't high on the charts like Diana Ross.
Bass not only failed to establish herself against all the competition in the R&B world, she lost out in singing a revised version of her hit, "Deliver Me," for the Pizza Hut chain. Aretha Franklin got that gig. You can hear Aretha's spot via the download below. “I feel screwed,” she complained to a local reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m sorry, but there’s no other word to use. I feel screwed all over again.” But there was a limit to how much screwing she'd allow, and when "Rescue Me" was also used in an American Express commercial, she took legal action and won a settlement. It was probably for more money than she made on any of her various gospel albums released over the years. Her last was "Travellin'" in 2001, though she still traveled for live shows, either ones involving singing her greatest hit, gospel concerts, or programs featuring herself and her brother David.
Most mainstream music fans only know Bass for "Rescue Me," and frankly, it's because the song was even better than she was. Same applies to "Band of Gold" from Freda Payne. Be honest. Either woman could've had a hit with either song. That's why so many very talented artists end up "one shot wonders." They couldn't find another smash hit song to showcase themselves, and their voices, faces and figures weren't quite enough. But for those who want to catch up with the hardcore soul fans, the white gays who love black R&B women (the ones who'd refer to Bass, Payne or Diana Ross as "divas") , down below is not just "Rescue Me," but also appropriate titles "I Can't Rest" and "Leave It In the Hands of Love," fond tributes to Fontella.
Three Songs from FONTELLA BASS. Zip file. Download to open and listen.
sung by ARETHA FRANKLIN in 1992 for PIZZA HUT Download or listen on line...no capcha codes, no sneaky pop-ups, no demands to buy a premium account or "support my hard work" with a Paypal donation.