There is no instruction book for keeping a tradition alive, no step-by-step directions for preserving a city's cultural heritage. When that history is contained in such fragile vessels as human beings, sometimes the best that can be done is simply to help those people keep on keeping on. Drawing inspiration from the ad hoc benefits often staged for musicians facing health problems or hard times, the board of directors of the St. Louis Blues Society created the Blues Mission Fund four years ago. "The intent was to do events, performances and fundraising, things to generate a fund which could be used to help musicians who may be in crisis," explains Blues Society president John May. The fund has already helped several ailing local musicians meet household expenses and pay for prescriptions, and May envisions a future in which the Blues Mission Fund will have its own board of directors and enough money to play a larger role in aiding deserving artists in need.
For this year's benefit, May and his colleagues have secured an especially appropriate headliner: Fontella Bass, who recorded the '60s soul hit "Rescue Me." Often featured in films, television shows and in commercials for everything from air conditioners to credit cards, the song has made Bass' voice familiar to millions who likely don't know her name. But as appropriate as her best-known tune may be for a benefit performance, serious music fans know that Bass is much more than a one-hit wonder.
A capable pianist as well as a singer, Bass' ties to significant local figures in gospel, blues, soul and jazz make her a one-woman history lesson on the roots of St. Louis music. Moreover, with a career characterized by resilience, versatility, love of family and dedication to her craft, and with an ensemble (the Voices of St. Louis) focused on "presenting the best of St. Louis to the world," as she puts it, Bass exemplifies the spirit underlying the Blues Mission Fund event.
Born in the summer of 1940 to Martha Bass, a member of the Clara Ward Singers, Fontella Bass was exposed early in life to some of the best gospel singers in the world. As a teenager, however, she was more interested in the blues. She became a working musician at seventeen, and gigs playing piano at a local club and backing a traveling carnival show soon brought her to the attention of Little Milton Campbell and his bandleader, Oliver Sain.
Bass was hired as the pianist in Campbell's band, a popular attraction on the then-thriving St. Louis R&B scene. She got her first professional experience as a vocalist filling in one night when Little Milton was late for a show, and the response was so enthusiastic that Bass soon got her own solo vocal spot every night. When Campbell and Sain split, Bass stayed with Sain, becoming one of the featured performers in his revue and eventually teaming with vocalist Bobby McClure. Meanwhile, Bass had married jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, and in 1965 she left Sain's employ to move with her husband to Chicago.
While Bowie was hooking up with the musicians who would become the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Little Milton introduced Bass to Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. She signed with Checker, a Chess subsidiary, and she and McClure recorded the Sain composition "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing," which became a Top 10 R&B hit early in 1965. Later that year, Bass released "Rescue Me," which became a No. 1 R&B and Top 10 pop hit, lingering on the charts for nineteen months.
Although "Rescue Me" was a monster hit, the near-soundalike follow-up, "Recovery," didn't do nearly as well. By 1969 the music scene was changing again, and Bass and Bowie were ready for a change, too. They moved to Paris, a haven for expatriate American jazz musicians, and during their stay Bass recorded several albums with the Art Ensemble, including, in 1970, the critically acclaimed Les Stances A Sophie.
Bass and Bowie returned to the States three years later. She signed a new record deal with Epic, but an executive reshuffling at the label killed the project before it began. A few singles recorded for smaller labels went nowhere. By this time, Bass and Bowie had started a family that would eventually expand to include two boys and two girls. With her recording career stalled and a growing brood at home, Bass decided to take a break from the music business, spending the rest of the '70s and most of the '80s raising her children.
Divorced from Bowie and her children grown, Bass began to make sporadic public appearances again in the late '80s, including occasional work with Sain; she also began performing gospel music again. Encountering lean times as she worked to restart her career, Bass wasn't earning a cent from her biggest hit. But after taking legal action in the early '90s, Bass finally began getting paid for her work as co-writer and performer of "Rescue Me," and the checks for the licensing fees have been most welcome. "That's through MCA, they keep me alive -- for a big percentage," she says somewhat ruefully.
Since her return to performing, Bass has guest-starred on albums by the World Saxophone Quartet and tenor saxophonist David Murray, and she has put out several solo recordings, including the Grammy-nominated releases No Ways Tired (1995), a gospel album, and 2001's Travellin', which showcased the Voices of St. Louis concept for the first time. In addition to royalty checks, Bass has also received some long overdue honors, getting a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2000 and a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2001.
Despite her stellar past, Bass is focused on the present and future. "We're just trying to keep St. Louis alive for the younger folks and let them know there was music here before Nelly," she says with a throaty chuckle. Bass' band features several well-known local musicians, including her brother David Peaston on vocals and the Bosman Twins, Dwayne and Dwight, on saxophones, flutes and clarinets. The family connection continues with Bass' son-in-law Tracy Mitchell, who plays guitar, and her "baby boy" Bonhamous Bowie on keyboards. Drummer Curtis Fondren and bass player Lincoln Calvin round out the ensemble. (Pianist Ptah Williams, who has toured and recorded with the group, is unavailable for the Sheldon concert, so Bass will play piano.)
"We travel all over the world," Bass says, ticking off an itinerary that this year includes music festivals in France and Italy and an upcoming week in Istanbul, Turkey. Her European popularity also received an additional boost last year thanks to her guest vocal on "All That You Give," a hit release by the UK dance music group Cinematic Orchestra. Composers/ producers J. Swinscoe and Phil France sought out Bass after hearing the reissue of Les Stances A Sophie. "They flew in to St. Louis from London and we recorded at Four Seasons," says Bass. "They were just like little crazy babies. We enjoyed each other. They were amazed at my age, and I was encouraging them to keep doing what they do."
In addition to performing the expected blues, soul, jazz and gospel, the Voices have worked up a version of "All That You Give," and Bass has no qualms about moving freely between so many different styles. "Music is music," she says. "If you get some changes to a blues, you're supposed to be able to read the changes. That's the purpose of music -- to be creative and versatile. We do ballads, we do blues, we do many, many things. That's what makes it fun -- when you work with great musicians, you get an opportunity to get their feel.
"Even if I could retire, I don't think I ever would," she concludes. "Music keeps me going. You have your ups and downs in life. I'm happier than some, I believe, from just having that much knowledge of the music and being able to use it."