Fontella Bass’s musical talent, like that of Aretha Franklin and many other of the great voices that created and defined the popular “soul” and “rhythm n’ blues” sounds of the '60s, was nurtured in the strong gospel traditions of her family and community. She explained in a biographical interview for her 1995 Nonesuch album No Ways Tired: “My grandmother was a singer and all her children were musicians—my mother and all of my uncles—so that’s how I got into it. All gospel, and they’re still in the gospel world today.” Her mother, Martha Bass, had been a protégé of Willie May Ford Smith, considered by many to be the most influential soloist in the history of gospel music. Martha went on to become a gospel star in her own right, pursuing a singing career that included a stint with the famous Ward Singers at the height of their popularity in 1950.
Fontella was born in St. Louis on July 3, 1940. Her mother Martha was frequently absent during Fontella’s early childhood because of her touring schedule. So it was with her grandmother that she first began performing. Although Fontella did some singing, it was her piano playing that first attracted attention. “At five I was gigging," she said. “I was playing all the mortuaries, funeral homes. And if I was good, I got paid ten dollars. You know, in 1945-46, ten dollars was a lot of money for a five-year-old.” At nine, she was accompanying her mother and grandmother on tours through the South and Southwest.
“After she left Clara Ward, my mother used to go through Georgia, Texas, and the Southern states, and I’d go with her, playing piano … It was like three generations: grandmother, mother and granddaughter,” she said, “and we all had different segments. My mother would sing, I’d play the piano for everyone, my grandmother and I would sing. And they would take up a collection, (with) three baskets, and everybody would give to whomever they thought was the greatest. And my grandmother won every time, every time. Her name was Nevada Carter.”
She toured with her family until, at the age of 16, "I couldn’t pass for 12 anymore," she recalled. “You see, we would travel by train. And if you were 12 or under, you didn’t have to pay. So when I reached 16 and had to pay, that was it.”
During her teenage years, Fontella Bass continued playing religious music and employed her considerable instrumental skills as organist and pianist for a number of St. Louis churches. “Well, being in the church, my grandmother was very hard-core, you know, they didn’t [even] want me to listen to rock 'n’ roll on the radio.” But other influences on her music from outside the church began to come into play. In 1995, she recalled the first time it got her in trouble: “After I reached high school I would play in school, we would have talent shows and the first time I got ‘busted’ was when Ray Charles was in town and they were having a talent show before Ray Charles at the Riviera Club ... and I played for his group. I had a schoolteacher friend ask my Mom if he could take me to the show. He knew I was going to play so he dropped me off at the club and he told me would pick me up at 12 o’clock. I was in good hands! So my picture came out in the Argus newspaper because we won, right? And all my mother’s church members were calling, 'Did you see your daughter’s picture in the paper?' There I was on the piano, getting down.
“My grandfather and two of my mother’s brothers used to go out to all of the blues places. They would sneak me out of the window and I would dress in the car and I would be gone all night, till six and seven in the morning. They’d have me out and they’d send a note up and I’d sing or I’d go up and play. So my grandfather and my uncles were a great influence on my career because they just pushed me, I don’t care where we went. And then they would sneak me back in the house, and they did it for years."
After high school, Fontella sang and played at various locations in the St. Louis area. Once she decided to leave and travel with the Leon Claxton Show of the Royal American Carnival. But, as she said, “My mother heard about it. Well, I had worked two weeks here in St. Louis with the show, and it was paying $175 a week. That was the greatest gig in the world at that time. And my mother came and took me off the train, I mean bodily. I was so embarrassed because I thought I was grown. She said, ‘No way.’ Big, boom, Barn! And I was off the train in two jumps. But, you know what? I’m really thankful that she did that to this day.”
Little Milton and his band director, Oliver Sam, heard her perform with Claxton’s show and offered a job, not as a singer but as a musician. She joined Milton’s group as a pianist in 1961 and later became the group’s female vocalist, though almost by accident. “One night,” she recalled, Milton decided to get soused and we were there on the gig and everybody was waiting for Little Milton and he wasn’t there. Oliver said, ‘Hey, sing,’ and I’ve been singing ever since. So it got to be that I would do my little set. I used to go under the name 'Sabrina.'"
Fontella first recorded in 1961 for the St. Louis-based Bobbin label as a pianist with Milton’s group. During these early years, she also did session work as an instrumentalist with a number of other artists and groups including Albert King and Muddy Waters. In 1962, she recorded her first four sides as a vocalist under her own name. The following year, Oliver Sam took over leadership of the band and installed Fontella as the featured vocalist of the Oliver Sam Revue. Also in 1963, she recorded two more vocal sessions in St. Louis, this time for Ike Turner’s labels. Though these early recordings met with little commercial success, they laid the groundwork for a dramatic change of events.
With the demise of Bobbin in late 1962, Milton’s contract and a number of Bobbin masters were picked up by Chess Records in Chicago. It was Milton who recommended Fontella to Leonard Chess. It was just at this time that Fontella’s grandmother died. This event, compounded by a disagreement with Oliver Sam, led to her decision to leave St. Louis for Chicago to “seek the world,” as she put it, and pursue a solo career.
Her first recording at Chess was a duet with Bobby McClure, “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,” recorded in June of 1964. Released in January of 1965, it proved to be a hit and ended the year as the No. 12 best-selling R&B Single. The duo followed up with “You’ll Miss Me/Don’t Jump.” Then in mid-1965, Fontella cut what was to become her biggest-selling record, the one ever-associated with her name.
"Rescue Me" captured the record-buying public’s attention, both in the US and Great Britain. In late September, it entered the Top 40 R&B charts and by the end of October had climbed to No. 1. It remained at No. 1 for four weeks and on the Top 40 R&B chart for a total of 19 weeks. Fontella toured almost continuously during the year following the release of "Rescue Me." Her 1966 follow-up recording entitled "Recovery" made the Top 40 R&B, which was followed by her next album The New Look, and several more singles.
In the early '60s, she married trumpeter Lester Bowie, who came to prominence with the Chicago Art Ensemble and by 1967, the first of their four children had been born. In addition to having started a family, Fontella was, by this time, becoming somewhat disenchanted with the recording business. “I bought them a new building. I had the biggest hit they’d had in the record company ... I was at the height of my career, and I felt like that was what I had worked for all my life. And when I reached this point, I had no say over what I was supposed to do, and then the money wasn’t right, you know—it was the same old story. That was happening with the whole industry at that time. But I thought I was a new breed [when it came to talking about royalties and about money up front], and I wanted to change the industry." By the end of 1968, she had asked for and obtained a release from her contract with Chess.
Through the '70s and '80s, though continuing to perform, her priorities had shifted and she no longer pushed her musical career full time. While raising her four children, she restricted her performing schedule to two or three months a year. From 1969 to 1972, the family lived in France; two of her children were born there. During this period, she worked primarily with her husband and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Her recording activities were limited; on occasion she recorded with the Art Ensemble, and in the early '70s did several sessions for Jewel/Paula and one with Epic.
During the years she was raising her family and essentially away from the popular music scene, Fontella rediscovered her love for gospel music. "Gospel was something I ran away from, because I was raised on it,” she said in 1995, “but finally I realized that music is about emotion and feeling, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with labels … Gospel is music I know totally, and the music I’m most relaxed with … I can just sit down at the piano and really be creative.”
The year 1980 marked Fontella’s return to the performance of gospel music with her family. "This was really what I wanted to do: sing the gospel as head of my life … I still do secular music in the studio as part of my work, but as an artist I do gospel." She began touring Europe in a gospel ensemble directed by Lester Bowie, which featured Fontella, her mother Martha, and her brother David Peaston. In 1981, they collaborated on a gospel album for Italy’s Black Saint label and continued to tour Europe annually through 1989. A few years later, she was called by Hamiet Bluiett, founder and baritone sax player for the renegade World Saxophone Quartet, who wanted Fontella to overdub several tracks for their Nonesuch recording Breath of Life. "She came in and stared singing ‘Suffering with the Blues’ at the piano, in perfect B flat," Bluiett said. "Without stopping, she went to the piano and began accompanying herself, still in perfect pitch. Everyone sat there with his mouth wide open.”
Fontella received rave reviews for her performance on Breath of Life. Shortly thereafter, she recorded her solo album, No Ways Tired, which was released on Nonesuch in February 1995.
The vocal abilities so evident in her '20s had by then come to full maturity; the range, the heightened expressiveness inflected with an elegant reserve, the mastery of interpretation and gospel nuance reveal an artist clearly at the height of her powers. “They say it takes 20 years to come into whatever career you get into," she said at the time. "There’s no substitute for experience. If you haven’t experienced it, you don’t really know about it."
Fontella Bass died on December 26, 2012, at the age of 72.