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Friday, 28 December 2012 07:00

The life, legacy and musical light of Fontella Bass

The life, legacy and musical light of Fontella Bass Chess Records
Written by Papa Ray

The past several years of medical set backs kept her from the public eye, then came the word: Fontella Bass, St. Louis' leading woman of song for the past half-century, died the day after Christmas. She was 72 years of age.

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Our 24/7 instantaneous media machine will make sure the info couplet "Fontella Bass, Rescue Me" will go 'round the world and Internet for the news cycle given when notable performers have passed, but Ms. Bass was quite, quite more than the sum of one great song released by the Chess brothers back in the 1960s.

Yes, she was from a family that boasted a great gospel singer, Fontella's mother Martha Bass (she also recorded for the Chess label). The influence of a mom who sang with the influential Clara Ward Singers and later had her own solo career was a defining part of her daughter's musical DNA. By the time the younger woman came to perform with Oliver Sain and Little Milton's band, she was more than an accomplished singer and pianist; her musical talent and singular voice insured Bass would be heard internationally within a couple of years after being a featured artist with the cream of St. Louis R&B/blues performers. Fontella also had married a childhood and school friend, the notable trumpet player Lester Bowie. A sideman for men such as Albert King and Solomon Burke, Bowie was fated for far greater recognition in the world of '70s contemporary avant-garde jazz.

It was Sain who contributed two jewels of Fontella's songbook: "The Soul of A Man" and "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing". The latter paired her with fellow St. Louisan Bobby McClure, and since it's release has been recorded by everyone from Booker T & the MGs to the Grateful Dead, Gregg Allman, Chaka Khan and Ry Cooder. Sain and the singer had the normal ups and downs to be expected of a multi-decade relationship, but there was no questioning the strength of personal and musical bonds between them. When the saxophonist was laid to rest in 2003, both Little Milton and Bass sang at his funeral: only the fires burning the hills surrounding Los Angeles prevented Ike Turner from joining them here for the service.

Her ties to Chess didn't last beyond the 1960s, and much of the next decade saw her raising a family while performing/recording with her husband, Mr. Bowie. "Les Stances A Sophie" and "Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass" were never as well known by the public as her Chess soul sides, but these albums recorded with Bowie's famed group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, have aged well and are celebrated in avant jazz circles as well as record collectors. She also released for the Shreveport, La. Jewel/Paula label her second LP "Free," recorded at Oliver Sain's Archway Studios and featuring a stunning photo of her standing in St. Louis' Forest Park, wearing afro-centric clothing and head-wrap, a look that preceded Erykah Badu's similar choice of dress by nearly three decades. The album went nowhere commercially, and for a period of time only those in the pews of her church would hear the voice of this world-class vocalist.

The '90s showed renewed interests in her talents, as well as the beginning of some payback: American Express was made to hand over $50,000 and damages when "Rescue Me" was utilized in one of their TV commercials. She recorded an album with her mother and brother David Peaston in 1990, "Promises." There were tours of Europe, a Grammy Award-Nominated release for the Nonesuch label entitled "No Ways Tired" in '97, and in 2001 she wowed the audience at the St. Louis Big Muddy Festival when she brought a stunning band that had toured Europe, featuring St. Louis multi-instrumentalists the Bosman Twins.

In 1989, Fontella was gracious enough to be interviewed by me for the local publication Listen Up. We talked about her career, the demands made by the commercial music industry, and how she felt about her accomplishments. I made the comment that a dream concert in St. Louis would be with her fellow Chess label-mate, Etta James. She said:

I can relate to Etta, because Etta and I hung together at that time…she knew what was happening. She'd say, "Well Fontella, one of these days it'll come around to us." We ran into each other enough in Europe that we realized we had to stick together. We knew they were trying to drown us out, but we were gonna stick!

Listen to how Fontella Bass took the Chuck Berry classic "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," and transformed it into what is called in black church circles "a freedom song." You can hear her voice and piano totally re-frame what had been a vehicle for Berry's service to teenaged juke box desires into something much more thoughtful and personal, as if she wanted to honor someone who'd persevered and triumphed over the rough odds of life in this river city. Fontella's version is a new jewel, and I'm proud KDHX had a hand in its birth.

Hers was a unique and commanding voice, and those of us in her hometown should be proud of what Ms. Bass meant, and still means to the world. Her works and legacy helped define St. Louis' place as a source and foundation for gospel and soul music. This woman's light will continue to shine, have no doubt.

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