Fontella Bass, 72, singer famous for ‘Rescue Me’

Fontella Bass belted out “Rescue Me” at a festival in 1995.
Odell Mitchell Jr./St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Fontella Bass belted out “Rescue Me” at a festival in 1995.

ST. LOUIS — Fontella Bass, a soul singer who hit the top of the rhythm and blues charts with ‘‘Rescue Me’’ in 1965, died Wednesday night at a St. Louis hospice.

She was 72.

Ms. Bass had suffered a heart attack three weeks ago, her daughter, Neuka Mitchell, said. She had ­also suffered a series of strokes over the past seven years.


‘‘She was an outgoing person,’’ Mitchell said. “She had a very big personality. Any room she entered she just lit the room up, whether she was on stage or just going out to eat.’’

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Ms. Bass was born into a family with deep musical roots. Her mother was gospel singer Martha Bass, one of the Clara Ward Singers.

Her younger brother, David Peaston, had a string of R&B hits in the 1980s and 1990s. Peaston died in February at age 54.

Fontella Bass began singing in her church’s choir at age 6. She was surrounded by music, often traveling on national tours with her mother and her gospel group.

Her interest turned to R&B when she was a teenager, and she began her professional ­career at the Showboat Club in North St. Louis at age 17.


She eventually auditioned for Chess Records and landed a recording contract, first as a duet artist.

Her duet with Bobby McClure, ‘‘Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,’’ reached number five on the R&B charts and number 33 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1965.

She co-wrote and later that year recorded ‘‘Rescue Me,’’ reaching number one on the R&B charts and number four on the Billboard pop singles chart.

Ms. Bass’s powerful voice strongly resembled that of ­Aretha Franklin, who is often misidentified as the singer of that chart-topping hit.

Ms. Bass also worked with famed avante garde jazz trumpetist and band leader Lester Bowie. The two married and reared a family in St. Louis. Bowie died in 1999.


Ms. Bass had a few other modest hits, but by her own accounts she developed a reputation as a trouble­maker because she demanded more artistic control and more money for her songs.

She haggled over royalty rights to ‘‘Rescue Me’’ for years before reaching a settlement in the late 1980s, ­Mitchell said. She sued American Express over the use of ‘‘Rescue Me’’ in a commercial, settling for an undisclosed amount in 1993.

‘‘Rescue Me’’ has been covered by many top artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Melissa ­Manchester, and Pat Benatar. Franklin eventually sang a form of it, too, as ‘‘Deliver Me’’ in a Pizza Hut television ad in 1991.

Ms. Bass lived briefly in ­Europe before returning to St. Louis in the early 1970s.

She recorded occasionally, including a 1995 gospel album, ‘‘No Ways Tired,’’ that earned a Grammy nomination.

Ms. Bass was inducted into the St. Louis Hall of Fame in 2000.