Fontella Bass, 72, a St. Louis-born soul singer who hit the top of the R&B charts with "Rescue Me" in 1965, died Wednesday at a St. Louis hospice of complications from a heart attack suffered three weeks ago, said her daughter, Neuka Mitchell. Bass had also suffered a series of strokes over the last seven years.
Bass was born in 1940 into a family with deep musical roots. Her mother was gospel singer Martha Bass, one of the Clara Ward Singers. Her younger brother, David Peaston, had a string of R&B hits in the 1980s and 1990s. Peaston died in February at age 54.
Bass began performing at a young age, singing in her church's choir at age 6. She was surrounded by music, often traveling on national tours with her mother and her gospel group.
Her interest turned from gospel to R&B when she was a teenager and she began her professional career at the Showboat Club in north St. Louis at age 17. She eventually auditioned for Chess Records and landed a recording contract, first as a duet artist. Her duet with Bobby McClure, "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing," reached No. 5 on the R&B charts and No. 33 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1965.
She co-wrote and later that year recorded "Rescue Me," reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 4 on the Billboard pop singles chart. Bass' powerful voice bore a striking resemblance to that of Aretha Franklin, who is often misidentified as the singer of that chart-topping hit.
Bass had a few other modest hits but by her own accounts developed a reputation as a troublemaker because she demanded more artistic control, and more money for her songs. She haggled over royalty rights to "Rescue Me" for years before reaching a settlement in the late 1980s, Mitchell said. She sued American Express over the use of "Rescue Me" in a commercial, settling for an undisclosed amount in 1993.
"Rescue Me" has been covered by many top artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Melissa Manchester and Pat Benatar. Franklin eventually sang a form of it too — as "Deliver Me" in a Pizza Hut TV ad in 1991.
Bass lived briefly in Europe before returning to St. Louis in the early 1970s, where she and husband Lester Bowie raised their family. She recorded occasionally, including a 1995 gospel album, "No Ways Tired," that earned a Grammy nomination.
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