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Rescue Mission

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

Since her return to performing, Bass has guest-starred on albums by the World Saxophone Quartet and tenor saxophonist David Murray, and she has put out several solo recordings, including the Grammy-nominated releases No Ways Tired (1995), a gospel album, and 2001's Travellin', which showcased the Voices of St. Louis concept for the first time. In addition to royalty checks, Bass has also received some long overdue honors, getting a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2000 and a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2001.

Despite her stellar past, Bass is focused on the present and future. "We're just trying to keep St. Louis alive for the younger folks and let them know there was music here before Nelly," she says with a throaty chuckle. Bass' band features several well-known local musicians, including her brother David Peaston on vocals and the Bosman Twins, Dwayne and Dwight, on saxophones, flutes and clarinets. The family connection continues with Bass' son-in-law Tracy Mitchell, who plays guitar, and her "baby boy" Bonhamous Bowie on keyboards. Drummer Curtis Fondren and bass player Lincoln Calvin round out the ensemble. (Pianist Ptah Williams, who has toured and recorded with the group, is unavailable for the Sheldon concert, so Bass will play piano.)

"We travel all over the world," Bass says, ticking off an itinerary that this year includes music festivals in France and Italy and an upcoming week in Istanbul, Turkey. Her European popularity also received an additional boost last year thanks to her guest vocal on "All That You Give," a hit release by the UK dance music group Cinematic Orchestra. Composers/ producers J. Swinscoe and Phil France sought out Bass after hearing the reissue of Les Stances A Sophie."They flew in to St. Louis from London and we recorded at Four Seasons," says Bass. "They were just like little crazy babies. We enjoyed each other. They were amazed at my age, and I was encouraging them to keep doing what they do."

In addition to performing the expected blues, soul, jazz and gospel, the Voices have worked up a version of "All That You Give," and Bass has no qualms about moving freely between so many different styles. "Music is music," she says. "If you get some changes to a blues, you're supposed to be able to read the changes. That's the purpose of music -- to be creative and versatile. We do ballads, we do blues, we do many, many things. That's what makes it fun -- when you work with great musicians, you get an opportunity to get their feel.

"Even if I could retire, I don't think I ever would," she concludes. "Music keeps me going. You have your ups and downs in life. I'm happier than some, I believe, from just having that much knowledge of the music and being able to use it."

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