by Kevin Burton
From the heart of the Motown era came a million-selling hit that typified the Detroit sound.
But the song has been doubly mistaken through the years, shortchanging the artist whose vocal command made it a classic.
That song was “Rescue Me,” and it was a bit of a rescue for the label that put it out.
But that label was Chess Records out of Chicago, not Motown. “Rescue Me,” recorded on the subsidiary label Checker, was Chess’s first million-seller since Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” nearly ten years before.
The song sounds so much like a product of the Motown hit factory that many people assume it was made there. And, many attribute the song to Aretha Franklin, not to St. Louis native Fontella Bass, who actually sang it.
The mid 1960s was a time when Chess and Motown were in a heated competition for supremacy in the R&B market.
“In the 1950s, the Chicago-based Chess Records had been the pre-eminent label for blues and R&B, as well as a midwife at the birth of rock and roll,” wrote Sally O’Rourke of Rebeat Magazine, a publication focusing on mid-century pop music. “By the start of the ‘60s, however, the heavy blues sound of Chess was falling from favor, replaced by the catchy pop-soul made famous by Motown.”
“Bass got her big break playing piano behind blues-soul star Little Milton, eventually earning a vocal showcase during his sets,” O’Rourke writes. “After she left Milton’s band, Bass signed with his home label, Chess Records. She quickly earned her first hit, the duet “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” with Bobby McClure, which climbed into the R&B Top 5 and the pop Top 40.”
“Little Milton’s 1965 R&B number-one “We’re Gonna Make It” gave the old Chess sound a light makeover, and Bass and McClure’s “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” straddled the old-school and new soul divide.” O’Rourke writes. “Rescue Me abandons the label’s blues roots entirely, in favor of the melodic bass, light horn stabs, and danceable groove characteristic of Berry Gordy’s Detroit soul Mecca.”
While the song’s production and music screamed Motown, the commanding vocal performance led many to attribute the track to Franklin.
Bass nailed Rescue Me in just three takes. Rock journalist Dave Marsh called Bass’s powerful performance on the song, “the best non-Aretha Aretha ever.”
Yet, “anybody familiar with Franklin’s sound can quickly hear the many differences in the voice of the equally magnificent Fontella Bass,” writes the Daily Guru blog.
“The work of the lesser-known Bass is often attributed to the more familiar Aretha Franklin. Never mind that Bass’s voice is thinner and softer than Franklin’s, or that “Rescue Me” was released two years before Aretha earned her breakthrough hit, 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” writes O’Rourke.
Bass and Chess Records had created a masterpiece. The song was number one of the R&B chart for four weeks. It rose to number four on the hot 100 the week of Nov. 20.
But when the song was at its peak it was looking up on the charts at the new number one “I Hear A Symphony.” By the Motown act The Supremes.
“Though the music on “Rescue Me” is absolutely fantastic, there is never any doubt at any point on the song that it is all about the vocal performance of Fontella Bass,” wrote the Daily Guru. “With a powerful, soaring soulful sound, bass had a voice that refused to be ignored.”
Maurice White, who a decade later would found Earth Wind and Fire, played drums on the track. Minnie Ripperton (Loving You) provided background vocals.
Bass sang with gospel groups from the age of six until she switched to R&B as a teenager, according to Songfacts. She was the daughter of Martha Bass, who was briefly a member of the Clara Ward Singers who toured with Franklin’s father the Rev. C.L. Franklin.
Despite co-writing Rescue Me, Bass did not get credit originally. “It took 20 years and much litigation before she was given her due share of the songwriting and the royalties,” according to Songfacts.
Producer Billy Davis was responsible for the unique ending of the song, according to Songfacts. Instead of having the engineer fade the song he walked around the studio and tapped each musician on the shoulder when he wanted them to stop playing. On the track you can hear the instruments come out individually.
“’Rescue Me’ was a terrific example of the Chess studio system at its finest… One Saturday in August 1965, Bass was sitting in a rehearsal studio with producers-writers Carl Smith and Raynard Miner. They were fooling around with the song when arranger Phil Wright walked in, and the ensuing four-way jam session brought forth ‘Rescue Me’.”
According to Bass, the call-and-response moans heard in the song’s fade were unintentional. “When we were recording that, I forgot some of the words,” she told the New York Times. “Back then, you didn’t stop while the tape was running, and I remembered from the church what to do if you forget the words. I sang, ‘Ummm, ummm, ummm,’ and it worked out just fine.”