This episode is part of Pledge Week 2022. Every day this week, I’ll be posting old Patreon bonus episodes of the podcast which will have this short intro. These are short, ten- to twenty-minute bonus podcasts which get posted to Patreon for my paying backers every time I post a new main episode — there are well over a hundred of these in the archive now. If you like the sound of these episodes, then go to patreon.com/andrewhickey and subscribe for as little as a dollar a month or ten dollars a year to get access to all those bonus episodes, plus new ones as they appear.
Click below for the transcript
Today we’re going to look at a record which I actually originally intended to do a full episode on, but by an artist about whom there simply isn’t enough information out there to pull together a full episode — though some of this information will show up in other contexts in future episodes. So we’re going to have a Patreon bonus episode on one of the great soul-pop records of the mid 1960s — “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass, “Rescue Me”]
Fontella Bass was actually a second-generation singer. Her mother, Martha Bass, was a great gospel singer, who had been trained by Willie Mae Ford Smith, who was often considered the greatest female gospel singer of the twentieth century but who chose only to perform live and on the radio rather than make records. Martha Bass had sung for a short time with the Clara Ward Singers, one of the most important and influential of gospel groups:
[Excerpt: The Clara Ward Singers, “Wasn’t It A Pity How They Punished My Lord?”]
Fontella had been trained by her mother, but she got her start in secular music rather than the gospel music her mother stuck to. She spent much of the early sixties working as a piano player and singer in the band of Little Milton, the blues singer. I don’t know exactly which records of his she’s on, but she was likely on his top twenty R&B hit “So Mean to Me”:
[Excerpt: Little Milton, “So Mean to Me”]
One night, Little Milton didn’t turn up for a show, and so Bass was asked to take the lead vocals until he arrived. Milton’s bandleader Oliver Sain was impressed with her voice, and when he quit working with Milton the next year, he took Bass with him, starting up a new act, “The Oliver Sain Soul Revue featuring Fontella and Bobby McClure”. She signed to Bobbin Records, where she cut “I Don’t Hurt Any More”, a cover of an old Hank Snow country song, in 1962:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass, “I Don’t Hurt Any More”]
After a couple of records with Bobbin, she signed up with Ike Turner, who by this point was running a couple of record labels. She released a single backed by the Ikettes, “My Good Loving”:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass, “My Good Loving”]
And a duet with Tina Turner, “Poor Little Fool”:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass and Tina Turner, “Poor Little Fool”]
At the same time she was still working with Sain and McClure, and Sain’s soul revue got signed to Checker records, the Chess subsidiary, which was now starting to make soul records, usually produced by Roquel Davis, Berry Gordy’s former collaborator, and written or co-written by Carl Smith. These people were also working with Jackie Wilson at Brunswick, and were part of the same scene as Carl Davis, the producer who had worked with Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Gene Chandler and the rest. So this was a thriving scene — not as big as the scenes in Memphis or Detroit, but definitely a group of people who were capable of making big soul hits.
Bass and McClure recorded a couple of duo singles with Checker, starting with “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing”:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure, “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing”]
That made the top forty on the pop charts, and number five on the R&B charts. But the follow-up only made the R&B top forty and didn’t make the pop charts at all. But Bass would soon release a solo recording, though one with prominent backing vocals by Minnie Ripperton, that would become one of the all-time soul classics — a Motown soundalike that was very obviously patterned after the songs that Holland, Dozier, and Holland were writing, and which captured their style perfectly:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass, “Rescue Me”]
There’s some dispute as to who actually wrote “Rescue Me”. The credited songwriters are Carl Smith and Raynard Miner, but Bass has repeatedly claimed that she wrote most of the song herself, and that Roquel Davis had assured her that she would be fairly compensated, but she never was. According to Bass, when she finally got her first royalty cheque from Chess, she was so disgusted at the pitiful amount of money she was getting that she tore the cheque up and threw it back across the desk.
Her follow-up to “Rescue Me”, “Recovery”, didn’t do so well, making the lower reaches of the pop top forty:
[Excerpt: Fontella Bass, “Recovery”]
Several more singles were released off Bass’ only album on Chess, but she very quickly became disgusted with the whole mainstream music industry. By this point she’d married the avant-garde jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, and she started performing with his group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The music she recorded with the group is excellent, but if anyone bought The Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass, the first of the two albums she recorded with the group, expecting something like “Rescue Me”, they were probably at the very least bemused by what they got — two twenty-minute-long tracks that sound like this:
[Excerpt: The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass: “How Strange/Ole Jed”]
In between the two albums she recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bass also recorded a second solo album, but after it had little success she largely retired from music to raise her four children, though she would make the odd guest appearance on her husband’s records. In the 1990s she made a few gospel records with her mother and her younger brother, the R&B singer David Peaston, and toured a little both on the nostalgia circuit and performing gospel, but she never returned to being a full-time musician. Both she and her brother died in 2012, Peaston from complications of diabetes, Bass from a heart attack after a series of illnesses.
“Rescue Me” was her only big hit, and she retired at a point when she was still capable of making plenty of interesting music, but Fontella Bass still had a far more interesting, and fulfilling, career than many other artists who continue trying to chase the ghost of their one hit. She made music on her own terms, and nobody else’s, right up until the end.