Born in St Louis on 3 July 1940, Fontella Bass began her career by playing the piano as a child in the funeral homes of her home town, St Louis, where both her mother (Martha Bass) and grandmother were gospel singers.
At the age of 19, she jumped ship – much to her mother’s chagrin – to go out on tour as the pianist with blues singer Little Milton, and when she settled in Chicago she began doing recordings for Chess accompanying the great bluesmen Muddy Waters and Albert King.
In 1965, aged 25, Bass walked into a Chicago recording studio and performed a song called Rescue Me which she had co-written. The song was released on Checker Records and within two months it had sold a million copies.
Rescue Me became a classic and to this day is heard in various forms, including many television and radio commercials. Fontella Bass should have been on her way to stardom, like her friend Tina Turner. But things didn’t work out that way.
Like many young singers of the period, Bass concentrated on her art and did not have a manager to take care of her business affairs. As a result, she received very few royalties from the song and, in fact, made more money from singing on commercials.
The experience left Bass disillusioned and she left America behind in 1969, moving with her jazz trumpeter husband Lester Bowie and their two young children to France, where she began a rewarding career. She made several records in Europe and even appeared in a film.
But Bass was homesick for America and wanted to be with her family and friends, and in 1972, she returned to St Louis. Bowie, feeling stifled in the Midwest, moved to New York and a successful career. He and Bass were divorced.
In St Louis, Bass became active in her church and sang there regularly. As her children grew, she revelled in their success: all four went to college and began careers. But Bass never rekindled her American success and by the late 1980s, her financial state was precarious.
The rights to Rescue Me had long since been acquired by the entertainment conglomerate MCA. When she telephoned them out of the blue to ask about the use of her voice in radio commercials that were appearing at the time for American Express, she found a sympathetic ear.
On the day she was down to her last $10, a thick envelope arrived at her house with cheques for royalties. Fontella Bass was on her way back.
In 1995, she released an album in the US called No Ways Tired, a collection of spiritual songs that landed squarely on the gospel charts and kick-started an international career appearing in gospel concerts. Her subsequent releases included Travellin’ in 2001 and All That You Give, a collaboration with a British electronic group called The Cinematic Orchestra in 2002.
Fontella Bass died in St Louis in December 2012, aged 72, following complications from a heart attack she suffered three weeks previously. She suffered a series of strokes in the last seven years of her life.