Friday, July 06, 2012

Fontella Bass - Unsung

I call her St. Louis' First Lady of Soul. But she is also a fine gospel singer, who at one time also dabbled in Jazz.

Bass was born in St. Louis in 1940, and was influenced early on by her musical family. Her mother, Martha Bass, was a noted gospel artist who performed with the Clara Ward Singers. Her younger brother, David Peaston, was a noted crooner in the 1990's. Bass began singing with her grandmother at around age 5, and was also influenced early on by the great Willie Mae Ford Smith.

Despite being a great gospel singer, it was soul & blues that eventually put her on the map. Bass would sneak out of the house when she was 17 years old to perform in blues clubs around St. Louis, telling her parents that she was engaging in more wholesome activities. Bass was discovered by St. Louis R&B man Oliver Sain - band leader for Little Milton Campbell and producer extraordinaire at the time, and figurative Chairman of St. Louis music in the 1960's and 70's. Bass would eventually become pianist for the band, but occasionally provided vocals. During this period, St. Louis was a hotbed for talent. Grant Green, Albert King, David Sanborn, Michael McDonald, Donny Hathaway, & Tina Turner, to name a few, also used St. Louis as a training ground in some of the very same clubs that Bass trained in. It is no surprise that Bass eventually married another St. Louis great, Lester Bowie, one of the kings of Avant-garde Jazz. Bass briefly toured with Bowie and his band, The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Bass is probably best known for her hits 'Rescue Me' (which people often mistakenly credit to Aretha Franklin), and 'Don't Mess Up A Good Thing' a duet with singer Bobby McClure. 'Rescue Me' put Chess Records back on the map after a slump, and became part of the soundtrack of America. The song has since been used in commercials to sell all sorts of products. Singer, songwriter & actress Alicia Keys portrayed Bass in the TV series 'American Dreams' (I tried to like that show, but was never able to become a fan). However, Bass' best work can be found on the album "Free", a lost classic recorded in 1972, and produced by Oliver Sain. Bass also has a number of other great singles.

In debates about the great female voices of 60's & 70's American Soul, Bass is never mentioned. But her rich Mezzo-Soprano voice - a combination of the rawness of an Etta James, and the hearty texture of the great Gladys Knight - was among the best of the era. Unfortunately, with so many great singers on the national stage at the time, she was another great voice among many. It was hard for singers to stand out during that period, especially with competition from Stax and Motown. She would undoubtedly have been a bigger name in another era or perhaps if she had not taken such long breaks. But she had a more noble calling - raising a family being one. She put her family, her values and principles above commercial success. That's more than we can say for most of the singers in the spotlight today.

Put your headphones on!
Lucky In Love
Everyday I Have To Cry
I'm Leaving The Choice To You
The Soul of a Man
Talking About Freedom
Would also recommend her gospel.... if you are remotely into gospel music... good stuff.

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