The first Fontella Bass album was titled The ‘New’ Look; once “Rescue Me” broke out in the fall of 1965, Checker, a Chess sublabel, resisted the temptation to retitle it. Then again, she’d already had a hit of sorts: “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,” a duet with Bobby McClure, keyed to the briefly popular (in Chicago, anyway) dance known as the Uncle Willie. “Good Thing” made Top Five on the soul chart and Top 40 pop; for some inscrutable reason, Checker didn’t bother to include it on The ‘New’ Look, preferring to fill up the tracks with cover versions. Then again, Bass was able to make “Our Day Will Come” sort of funky.
Still, “Rescue Me” was a monster, and we quickly worked it into our school-bus singing rotation. (You gotta kill half an hour somehow.) What we couldn’t do, being young and shrill, was duplicate Louis Satterfield’s cosmic bass line. The follow-up, “Recovery,” got lots of airplay locally but barely dented the Top 40, and Bass and Checker parted on something less than the best of terms: for some reason the label had never bothered to note her cowriting credit on “Rescue Me.” Bass and her husband, jazzman Lester Bowie, relocated to France; she sang on two albums by Bowie’s Art Ensemble of Chicago. The second of them, the soundtrack to Moshe Mizrahi’s film Les Stances a Sophie, features Bass on the idiosyncratic “Theme de Yoyo”, arguably farther out than anything conceived by George Clinton’s Parliafunkadelicment Thang.
She kept a lower profile after that, recording the occasional gospel album and contributing guest vocals here and there. Still, everyone remembered “Rescue Me,” and in the 1990s she established her claim to part of the take. Her death the day after Christmas left many of us feeling stranded.