St. Louis' Fontella Bass Hit Paydirt 46 Years Ago With "Rescue Me"

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RFT File Photo
Super Bass: Fontella Bass' biggest hit helped her out of a financial jam in the 1990s.
"Rescue Me" is ubiquitous in commercial culture, featured in everything from a Pizza Hut commercial to an edgy television show starring the delightful Dennis Leary.

But before the song became entwined in the glitz and glam that comes with endorsements, "Rescue Me" was St. Louis native Fontella Bass' springboard to musical immortality. The song was number one on Billboard's R&B charts on this day in 1965. It was also hitched at number four on the magazine's Hot 100 charts.

The daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass, Fontella Bass started her professional career early playing piano at a local club and backing a traveling carnival show. She eventually signed with Checker Records, a subsidiary to the legendary Chess Records.

Before "Rescue Me" burned up the charts, Bass had a hit with Bobby McClure called "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing." Soon after, "Rescue Me" was released and became the signature hit of Bass' musical career.

While Bass didn't release a song popular as "Rescue Me," she soldiered on in her musical career throughout the next few decades. In an article that was released 11 years ago, RFT writer Terry Perkins noted that Bass toured Europe extensively. Her 1995 album "No Ways Tired" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album.

Despite being used extensively in movies and commercials, Bass didn't earn any royalties from "Rescue Me" for quite a bit of time. As RFT writer Dean C. Minderman wrote in August 2003, Bass was going through a rough financial patch as she was working to resuscitate her career:

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.

This Tuscaloosa News article notes that one of the tipping points came on New Year's Eve 1990 when Bass heard the song being used in an American Express commercial:

The rights to "Rescue Me" had long since been acquired by the entertainment conglomerate MCA. When she phoned them to ask about the use of her voice in commercials, she found a sympathetic ear. On the day she was down to her last $10, a thick envelope arrived with paychecks for royalties.

The furnace was fixed, the telephone was reinstalled and Fontella Bass was on the road back.

Which goes to show to some respect that endorsements can be more than just an ego boost for musicians - they can be a financial lifeline.


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