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Remembering Fontella Bass, Voice Of A Soul Classic


The voice of a great soul classic has died. Fontella Bass sang the 1965 hit "Rescue Me." She was 72 years old and died from complications caused by a recent heart attack. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: It's a perfect song with a perfect voice.


BLAIR: Fontella Bass recorded and co-wrote "Rescue Me" for Chess Records. The song was a smash hit, but for many years, she never received any songwriting royalties for it. When it came time to record the song, Fontella Bass told NPR, she had to improvise a little.

: While I was recording it, I lost my paper. I had jotted down lyrics, you know, and things that I wanted to do. And so I just went (singing) um-hum, um-hum.

BLAIR: And those um-hums became one of the song's trademarks.


BLAIR: Fontella Bass was raised in a big family in St. Louis. Her mother was a gospel singer. Her uncles were musicians. Bass started playing piano for money when she was five years old accompanying her grandmother when she sang at funerals.

: I was getting paid $10 and then the family would just love a five-year-old and they'll knock a $5 tip in.

BLAIR: A working musician from the start, Fontella Bass also had the artistry to play with her husband, the renowned jazz trumpet player Lester Bowie. After the success of "Rescue Me," the couple moved to Paris where she performed with him in the odd ensemble of "Chicago."


BLAIR: Fontella Bass took a long break from music to raise her children, but like so many artists, she struggled to make ends meet. Then, in 1990, she and her daughter heard her song unexpectedly.

: We heard something go, da, da, da, da, da da, da, da, da. And we looked around and it was "Rescue Me," you know, American Express.

BLAIR: But Bass had never been paid performance royalties for that American Express commercial that used "Rescue Me." She filed a lawsuit and reportedly received a settlement of more than $50,000. She told NPR that boost inspired her to go back to recording, this time returning to gospel.


BLAIR: Fontella Bass died at a hospice in St. Louis on Wednesday. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.