DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Soul and gospel singer Fontella Bass, whose 1965 hit "Rescue Me" endures as one of the most recognizable soul records of the '60s, died last week on the day after Christmas. She was 72 years old. Despite the success of "Rescue Me," it was the number one R&B single for four weeks, it took years of litigation before Bass could claim her share of songwriting credit and royalties. In 1993, she sued American Express for using the song in a commercial and received what she said was a significant settlement.
A few years after "Rescue Me," Bass left the pop music world. For a while she sang with her then husband, the late Lester Bowie, the trumpet player with the avant-garde jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Bass performed very little while raising her family. In 1980 though, she returned to the music she sang with her mother and grandmother as a child, gospel music.
In a moment, we'll hear an interview Terry Gross recorded with Fontella Bass in 1995, following the release of her gospel record "No Ways Tired." Here's the title track.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO WAYS TIRED")
FONTELLA BASS: (Singing) I don't feel no ways tired. I've come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me.
(Singing) I, I said I don't feel no ways, no ways tired. I've come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Fontella Bass, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BASS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Now, your new CD is really a return to gospel music for you. You grew up in a gospel family. Your mother and grandmother both performed?
BASS: Oh, yeah. When I was a little girl, five, I used to play for the funeral homes in St. Louis with my grandmother Nevada Carter - every night. Of course, $10 a night during those days was a lot of money, lots of money we're talking about, '50s now, early '50s, one, two, up until I graduated from grade school in '54. So I was, sort of, like an income person in the home.
GROSS: What was it like for you as a young girl to be playing at funerals where people are overcome by emotion and you're providing the musical backdrop for it?
BASS: Oh, believe me, we needed the funds and my grandmother said, you shall go and I went.
BASS: And that was the end of story. Of course, you know, I had the funeral home director, Mr. Buddy Walton and Mr. Ellis, they would walk me in, you know, so I couldn't see the remains and they would sit me at the piano with the - what do you call it? Thing that you fold up where you couldn't see the musician or my grandmother, and then after the funeral was over, you know, they walked me back out. So all I smelled was flowers.
GROSS: Would people fuss over you because you were so young and so talented?
BASS: Oh, yeah. We had negative things from people in the church because, by me being so young, a lot of the peoples would say, I just think it's a shame you got that child out there playing for you. And I was traveling all over Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis. You know, but that was very educational to me. And my mother thought so too. And my grandmother thought so.
But a lot of people, oh, she needs to be in school, blah, blah, blah. But, really, I never missed school that much. Maybe a week at the most.
GROSS: So you were on the road with your family.
BASS: Oh, yes. I was on the road with my family at an early age.
GROSS: Did you assume that you were given a special gift from God?
BASS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. That's the only person I can give thanks to for my talents.
GROSS: Growing up singing gospel, did you listen to and enjoy secular music?
BASS: Well, that was - of course, I listened to secular music but it was not really allowed in the home. And first of all, we really didn't have a record player until I was much older and out of grade school. But we had, like, record shops that would play the music on the outside of the record store, you know, as you would walk through town and stuff like that.
So, you know, coming from school every morning, you know, LaVerne Baker, Ruth Brown - "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." Johnny Ace, "Pledging My Love." All of those tunes, I remember them just like yesterday.
GROSS: So if your grandmother disapproved of you listening to that, would she punish you if she found out?
BASS: No. My grandmother was a little more outward with her. She would let us have those talent shows, you know, on Saturday, you know, because she knew that we would be listening to everything and we would be doing everything. You know, and if she went to choir rehearsal, you know, we got in and played the boogie woogie and all the Louis Jordan's tune.
And "Open the Door, Richard, and Let Me In." So on Saturday, she would bring the family together and we would do our music lesson first. And then she'd say what is that song I heard you playing the other day? What is that? I know now that she knew, but as a child, you know, I was going, like, what song?
What song, Granny? She'd say you know that little boogie woogie beat. She'd say play that for me. Let me hear you. And, oh, boy. And then she'd say, boy, if you could just play your lesson like you played that.
GROSS: Oh, I know that trick.
BASS: So that meant, like, sometimes 15, 20 minutes more with your music lesson because I know you have the ability...
BASS: ...to do these things. So that's what happened a lot of times.
GROSS: Take us to 1965, the year that you recorded your big hit, "Rescue Me." That was also the year, I believe, that your grandmother died and the year that you left your hometown of St. Louis. So how did you end up making "Rescue Me" that year?
BASS: OK. When we wrote the song I was working in the Regal Theater on "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" and I stopped in the Chess recording studio that morning. And Raynard Miner, who is blind, was in the studio. And he was sitting there playing. He said, hey, I got a song here. You know, come on, let's work together on this, because we were the only two there.
So we worked on the song. We worked on the song. We just - I said you can do this, you can do that. And at that time, you know, like somebody played rhythm, you know, I just gave the melody lines for the song - and a lot of the lyrics. And then I went on to work.
When I - maybe a week later, they say, hey, we're going to do this here song. You know the song you guys were working on? I said great. So we all, you know, went in the studio and they got the band, you know, and we cut "Rescue Me." And I was reading in the paper during the recording and it dropped on the floor. And I went Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Because I didn't want to, you know, mess up the band or stop the tape from rolling. So that's how "Rescue Me" got the famous Mm-hmm in it.
GROSS: So you were just filling time because you didn't know what the next lyric was?
BASS: Well, yeah. Well, you know, you have formats. You know, I didn't know whether we were going to go to that or whatever. I didn't know what was coming up next. So I just went to the hum until I got the paper of the structure in front of me.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
BASS: I thank you too, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCUE ME")
BASS: (singing) Rescue me. Oh, take me in your arms. Rescue me. I want your tender charms. 'Cause I'm lonely and I'm blue. I need you and your love too. Come on and rescue me. Come on, baby, and rescue me...
DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Fontella Bass in 1995. Bass died last week the day after Christmas. She was 72.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCUE ME")
BASS: (singing) Can't you see that I'm lonely? Rescue me. Come on and take my hand. Come on, baby, and be my man. 'Cause I love you. 'Cause I want you. Can't you see that I'm lonely? Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Take me, baby. Take me baby. Love me, baby. Love me, baby. Need me, baby. Need me, baby. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
(singing) Mm-hmm. Can't you see that I'm lonely? Rescue me. Rescue me. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan tells us about a new suspense novel set in Poland. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.