She Sang 'Rescue Me' in the '60s; Now She's Back -- Singing Praise
ST. LOUIS — Fontella Bass grew up singing gospel music in church and gained fame after recording the blockbuster pop single ''Rescue Me'' in 1965. Then she disappeared into relative obscurity. Now she's making a comeback with the gospel album ''No Ways Tired,'' an eclectic mix of vintage spirituals, uplifting pop tunes, and one original composition.
''Gospel is a thing you can never leave behind,'' Bass says during an interview at her home in St. Louis. ''Singing secular music was just a job for me.''
Now that she's returned to gospel music, things are different for Bass. ''I feel just as good as I did when ''Rescue Me'' came out,'' she says of the new album. ''And it's taken a long time for that.''
Bass knew ''Rescue Me'' was going to be a hit before it was even released. ''I had the demo and those folks wore that demo out,'' she recalls. ''Every time I'd put it on, they wouldn't take it off the box. They'd just play it over and over and over.''
Sure enough, the song went gold in two months and is still showing up in movies and television commercials today. But Bass became disillusioned with the pop-music industry after recording ''Rescue Me.'' Although she says she co-wrote the song, she never got credit for it. And she has been underpaid for royalties, she says. ''I would have been set for life, if I had been paid,'' Bass adds matter-of-factly.
Such treatment was not unusual for the time, the singer says. ''What happened to me happened to many artists. It was just that I had a gold record. I had a million-dollar seller that it happened to.''
Things were different in those days. ''We didn't have any lawyers back then,'' Bass says. ''Now you have lawyers that can get the bug off the juice,'' she adds with a rollicking laugh suggesting that she may not have forgotten, but she has forgiven. ''You can't hold on to bitterness. Bitterness makes your life go down. I want my life to always be on the rise.''
Bass has had some tough times over the years. She has lived in the same modest house for the past two decades. ''At one time, this home didn't have a good roof, a furnace, or hot water,'' she says, referring to just several years ago. ''I'm steadily rehabbing it and bringing it up to date.'' A new porch is being built out front -- a testament to Bass's revitalized career.
Fame and fortune come and go, but music has been a constant in Bass's life. She was raised in St. Louis by her grandmother, gospel singer Nevada Carter. Her mother, Martha Bass, was a protegee of gospel singer Willie May Ford Smith and spent much of her time on the road.
Bass began playing the piano by ear at age 3. By age 5 she was playing the piano for funeral homes. ''All my uncles were musicians too, but they didn't want to do it,'' Bass says. ''I told my grandmother I'd do it since they paid $10. That was a lot of money back then.'' At age 9, Bass began touring the South with her mother and grandmother, playing the piano and singing a song or two.
When she was a teenager, Bass's grandfather and uncles would sneak her out at night to the blues clubs to sing the night away. ''As a kid, doing the spiritual songs just came natural, and to get up in the juke joints was just a whole lot of fun,'' she recalls.
But today she recognizes a big difference between singing gospel music and singing secular music. ''All music is a form of communication, but gospel is spiritual praise,'' she says. ''You never know what is going on in a person's life that they might be saved by hearing a gospel song.''
In an effort to reach out to a younger, newer gospel audience, Bass adapted the inspirational pop songs ''Lean on Me'' and ''What the World Needs Now'' for her new album. The funky gospel versions of these old favorites mix well with traditional gospel hymns such ''This Little Light of Mine'' and ''All My Burdens.''
Being a ''legend'' ought to count for something, Bass says. ''I wanted to reach out to the young generation and try to get my message across through song. One thing's for sure: When praises go up, blessings come down.''