Fontella Bass, who died this week at age 72, was a homegrown St. Louis gospel and R&B sensation whose 1965 “Rescue Me” sold millions of records worldwide.
While her song was a hit in the United States, it was an even bigger hit overseas. In St. Louis, Ms. Bass lived a relatively quiet life, raising her children in between trips to Europe, where she landed with what one critic described as the force of an occupying army.
“I wish more people in St. Louis knew about her,” longtime friend Dwight Bosman of the Bosman Twins said Thursday. “She was known and well-loved all over the world, in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France, doing international festivals where they would chant ‘Fontella, Fontella.’”
Ms. Bass mixed elements of gospel, jazz and R&B. Her torchy, smoking “Rescue Me” reached No. 3 in the U.S. charts and No. 1 in England. Ms. Bass teamed with the Oliver Sain Revue, Bobby McClure and others and was well on her way to singing stardom.
But Ms. Bass objected to the wigs she and other black singers were required to wear. She fought with her recording company over royalty payments. The company regarded her as a troublemaker, and she said the industry blacklisted her.
“I’m the kind of person,” she told an interviewer in 1984, “who is always going to respect you and will always expect that kind of respect in return. 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.”
Ms. Bass died Wednesday (Dec. 26, 2012) at Westchester House nursing home in Chesterfield after suffering a heart attack on Dec. 2 and multiple strokes since 2005, her family said.
Ms. Bass began singing professionally at age 5 at wakes at Buddy Walton’s funeral home with her mother, gospel singer Martha Bass Peaston.
“Every night we’d get another dead body,” she recalled. Some nights it was two. Her debut among the dead left her with an aversion to funerals.
Ms. Bass absorbed her mother’s gospels, rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, and blues and jazz at clubs in East St. Louis. Without telling her mother, she played piano with a group called J.C. Story & His All-Stars.
The band entered a talent contest preceding a Ray Charles concert and won. The Argus newspaper ran her photo and she was on her way. At graduation from Soldan High School in 1958, she fronted with a band, singing teen hits like “Tutti Frutti” and tore up the place.
She married her high school sweetheart and began taking courses at Lincoln University, St. Louis University and what is now Harris-Stowe State University. Two years after giving birth to her first son, she was singing at the Chain of Rocks Amusement Park while, separately, playing piano in a blues band with Little Milton and Oliver Sain.
No blacks were allowed in the club, so the blues band didn’t know that she could sing. “Then one night Milton got a little too full of scotch to sing, and Oliver asked me. And I just never stopped,” she recalled.
She became a featured singer with Sain’s group. She sang duets with McClure, including “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” later made famous by Dinah Washington.
On Jan. 4, 1965, she recorded “Rescue Me.” She sang so jubilantly, she forgot some of the lyrics. She ad-libbed, producing a memorable stew of shouting, humming and singing. It worked, and Ms. Bass received her first and only gold record.
Soon after her astounding success, she left her recording company, as much over artistic control and a desire for the respect she felt she deserved as the royalty payments she said she was owed.
She began knocking on doors and got jobs singing in commercials. She worked for Sears, Hamm’s beer and Nehi orange drink.
Pizza Hut turned her “Rescue Me” into “Deliver Me” to push pizzas. But instead of hiring Ms. Bass for the job, Pizza Hut used Aretha Franklin.
“I feel screwed,” Ms. Bass told the Post-Dispatch in 1992. “I’m sorry, but there’s no other word to use. I feel screwed all over again.”
By again, she meant that she had helped write the song but had received no credit or royalties.
Tom “Papa” Ray, a musician and owner of Vintage Vinyl who previously lived near Ms. Bass when she lived in University City, once opened her fridge to find two pizzas from the pizza company she was feuding with.
“You know, Tom, I don’t hold grudges,” she explained.
She recorded her last album, “Travellin’,” in 2001. She toured for a time with her brother, David Peaston, who died in February of complications from diabetes at age 54.
Blues singer Marsha Evans recalled when Ms. Bass was inducted into the Delmar Loop’s St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2000.
“She helped put St. Louis on the map, but I don’t think St. Louis really appreciated her,” Evans said. “But when she got her star on Delmar, that made her feel good. It really did her heart well. She told them in her acceptance speech, in so many words, it was about time.”
Survivors include two daughters, Ju’Lene Coney of University City and Neuka Mitchell of Florissant; two sons, Larry Stevenson of St. Louis and Bahnamous Bowie of New York City; and 10 grandchildren. She was divorced from musician Lester Bowie, who died in 1999.
Services are pending.