You Mean That Isn’t … ?

You’ve heard this song in commercials. You’ve heard it on oldies radio. It’s been used in The Crown and I, Robot and even as the name for a TV series, but odds are still good you see the wrong face in your mind when you hear Fontella Bass sing “Rescue Me.” Despite the song reaching #4 on the Billboard pop chart two years before Aretha Franklin ever had anything close to a hit single, so many people still think “Rescue Me” belongs to the Queen of Soul. Here’s the original Fontella Bass track laid over a colorized version of a live TV appearance.

You can understand why someone might hear Aretha in “Rescue Me.” Both Bass and Franklin were soul singers who grew up in the gospel choir – Bass in St. Louis and Franklin in Detroit. Aretha never officially covered “Rescue Me,” although she recorded a thirty-second version with new lyrics in the early 1990s to promote Pizza Hut. You gotta wonder if the ad agency knew it was Fontella Bass’ song when making the pitch.

In 1965, the original “Rescue Me” sold more than a million copies, the first big hit for Chess Records since Chuck Berry ten years earlier. Despite helping write the lyrics, Bass wasn’t a credited writer on the single until the 1980s and missed out on some healthy songwriter royalties. Bass kept recording, but “Rescue Me” would be her only big hit. After fighting for royalties and fed up with the music industry, Bass moved to Paris in 1969 with her husband, jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. Three years later, she was back in St. Louis, divorced, and singing in her church.

On New Year’s Day 1990, Bass and her daughter, Neuka, heard “Rescue Me” coming out of the radio. It was an ad for American Express that used the song, but Bass hadn’t been involved in the deal. It was a TV spot too.

Bass sued American Express and got enough money to make needed repairs to her home and help get her life back on track. The commercial’s popularity also brought “Rescue Me” back into pop culture where it still lives on oldies radio. Here she is, just before her pop culture resurgence, on a 1989 episode of the syndicated show Night Music (aka Michelob Presents Night Music). Joining her in performing “Rescue Me” are co-host David Sanborn on saxophone, Hiram Bullock on guitar, and George Duke on keys.

As you might expect, Bass had a career resurgence after the revival of “Rescue Me.” She toured and recorded new music, both as a solo performer and a guest vocalist. In 1995, her album No Ways Tired was nominated for a Grammy in Best Traditional Soul Gospel Performance. (She was also nominated back in 1965 for “Rescue Me” as Best Contemporary Vocal Performance Female.) After surviving breast cancer, several strokes, and a leg amputation, Fontella Bass died from complications of a heart attack in 2012.

Let’s close out with one of Fontella Bass’ later projects. Here she is, as a guest vocalist with The Cinematic Orchestra in 2002, singing “All That You Give.”