Rescue Mission

The legendary St. Louis songstress Fontella Bass headlines a benefit for the Blues Mission Fund

There is no instruction book for keeping a tradition alive, no step-by-step directions for preserving a city's cultural heritage. When that history is contained in such fragile vessels as human beings, sometimes the best that can be done is simply to help those people keep on keeping on. Drawing inspiration from the ad hoc benefits often staged for musicians facing health problems or hard times, the board of directors of the St. Louis Blues Society created the Blues Mission Fund four years ago. "The intent was to do events, performances and fundraising, things to generate a fund which could be used to help musicians who may be in crisis," explains Blues Society president John May. The fund has already helped several ailing local musicians meet household expenses and pay for prescriptions, and May envisions a future in which the Blues Mission Fund will have its own board of directors and enough money to play a larger role in aiding deserving artists in need.

For this year's benefit, May and his colleagues have secured an especially appropriate headliner: Fontella Bass, who recorded the '60s soul hit "Rescue Me." Often featured in films, television shows and in commercials for everything from air conditioners to credit cards, the song has made Bass' voice familiar to millions who likely don't know her name. But as appropriate as her best-known tune may be for a benefit performance, serious music fans know that Bass is much more than a one-hit wonder.

A capable pianist as well as a singer, Bass' ties to significant local figures in gospel, blues, soul and jazz make her a one-woman history lesson on the roots of St. Louis music. Moreover, with a career characterized by resilience, versatility, love of family and dedication to her craft, and with an ensemble (the Voices of St. Louis) focused on "presenting the best of St. Louis to the world," as she puts it, Bass exemplifies the spirit underlying the Blues Mission Fund event.

Fontella Bass: much more than a one-hit wonder
Fontella Bass: much more than a one-hit wonder
Sheldon Concert Hall

Born in the summer of 1940 to Martha Bass, a member of the Clara Ward Singers, Fontella Bass was exposed early in life to some of the best gospel singers in the world. As a teenager, however, she was more interested in the blues. She became a working musician at seventeen, and gigs playing piano at a local club and backing a traveling carnival show soon brought her to the attention of Little Milton Campbell and his bandleader, Oliver Sain.

Bass was hired as the pianist in Campbell's band, a popular attraction on the then-thriving St. Louis R&B scene. She got her first professional experience as a vocalist filling in one night when Little Milton was late for a show, and the response was so enthusiastic that Bass soon got her own solo vocal spot every night. When Campbell and Sain split, Bass stayed with Sain, becoming one of the featured performers in his revue and eventually teaming with vocalist Bobby McClure. Meanwhile, Bass had married jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, and in 1965 she left Sain's employ to move with her husband to Chicago.

While Bowie was hooking up with the musicians who would become the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Little Milton introduced Bass to Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. She signed with Checker, a Chess subsidiary, and she and McClure recorded the Sain composition "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing," which became a Top 10 R&B hit early in 1965. Later that year, Bass released "Rescue Me," which became a No. 1 R&B and Top 10 pop hit, lingering on the charts for nineteen months.

Although "Rescue Me" was a monster hit, the near-soundalike follow-up, "Recovery," didn't do nearly as well. By 1969 the music scene was changing again, and Bass and Bowie were ready for a change, too. They moved to Paris, a haven for expatriate American jazz musicians, and during their stay Bass recorded several albums with the Art Ensemble, including, in 1970, the critically acclaimed Les Stances A Sophie.

Bass and Bowie returned to the States three years later. She signed a new record deal with Epic, but an executive reshuffling at the label killed the project before it began. A few singles recorded for smaller labels went nowhere. By this time, Bass and Bowie had started a family that would eventually expand to include two boys and two girls. With her recording career stalled and a growing brood at home, Bass decided to take a break from the music business, spending the rest of the '70s and most of the '80s raising her children.

Divorced from Bowie and her children grown, Bass began to make sporadic public appearances again in the late '80s, including occasional work with Sain; she also began performing gospel music again. Encountering lean times as she worked to restart her career, Bass wasn't earning a cent from her biggest hit. But after taking legal action in the early '90s, Bass finally began getting paid for her work as co-writer and performer of "Rescue Me," and the checks for the licensing fees have been most welcome. "That's through MCA, they keep me alive -- for a big percentage," she says somewhat ruefully.

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