Fontella Bass, 1966. © Photoshot/Everett Collection
Can't You See That I'm Lonely?
“Rescue Me,” on repeat
By David Ramsey
There is an old couple on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. A little bit sunburnt, but he says they’re too old to worry about that and she feels too old to try to change his mind. Or they are in Fort Myers, Florida. Or in Mexico City. Doesn’t matter. The point is that they are holding hands, and they are conscious of the way that feels, skin on skin. The first time they held each other’s hands was on a bright summer day many decades ago. They have held each other’s hands nearly every day since. It is so familiar, the folds of skin, the little pocket of moisture. But today, on this particular bright summer day, it feels once again as new. Perhaps because it was a hard year. A year of distance, of possibility foreclosed. They are pristinely attentive to every astonishing detail of their hands. They decide to stop for an ice cream. Or at a bar. Or at a shop hawking trinkets and need-nots. Doesn’t matter. The point is that there is a song playing, and they can hear it from the boardwalk. And he begins to dance. And she begins to dance. They have heard the song a thousand times. That is not a figure of speech, it is literally true. An undercount. And a little boy comes to join them, his mother watching and laughing. He knows it, he knows the song, too. He reminds the old couple of their grandson, and they take his hands and shimmy. And a woman walking alone stops and she doesn’t dance, she is not in the mood to dance, but she is in the mood to sing, and she sings along. And the customers in the ice cream shop or the bar or whatever—in Asbury Park or in the south of France or in Paris, Tennessee or wherever—they are singing along now, too, because how could they not? Because everyone knows this song. Because it feels good to dance, feels good to sing with strangers. They all know the words, even the little boy, automatically, without even thinking: “Can’t you see that I’m lonely? Rescue me.”
Fontella Bass is walking down Michigan Avenue on a warm late summer day in 1965. Her grandmother, who helped to raise her in St. Louis, died in January, and maybe that is part of what prompted her to finally make the move. She left the day after the funeral. Later, she will try to explain: “I went to seek the world.”
Chicago! Just the word has a charge. Her husband, trumpet player Lester Bowie, says Chicago is where the new music is. He says it’s where any musician in St. Louis wants to go. Later, he will try to explain: “Chicago is a place where music is created. New York is a place where it’s sold.”
Lester is a serious jazz player. He has opinions. The songs that Fontella has been recording with Bobby McClure, including a couple of sure-enough hits—that’s just “Mickey Mouse music,” Lester says.
Well. She knows this much: When the boys at Chess Records are woodshedding, just fooling around, and she comes in to sing—something happens. They are on the cusp of something.
That spring, civil rights protesters had been beaten and gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; President Lyndon Johnson launched the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in North Vietnam. That summer, Johnson committed another 50,000 troops to Vietnam and signed the Voting Rights Act into law. In August, the day after Watts began to burn, the Garfield Park neighborhood in Chicago erupted into several days of violent protest after Dessie Mae Williams, a twenty-three-year-old Black woman, was killed in an accident with a firetruck.
Fontella is twenty-five years old, raising her first child, trying to make it in music, trying to make ends meet. She is walking like she owns the avenue. The dusty Italian word diva doesn’t feel so dusty anymore as Fontella Bass struts down the street, feeling the breeze off Lake Michigan.
Perhaps she missed the river. The neighborhood she grew up in back in St. Louis was about two miles from the Mississippi River.
The bends and turns in a river are called meanders, named for the Maeander River in Asia Minor. Meander down the Mississippi River and you can trace your way back to Arkansas, where her grandmother came from. And the Mississippi Delta, where the men she played with in St. Louis came from. Ike Turner. Little Milton. Oliver Sain.
Maybe she thought of the river as she walked to the studio to get to work. Perhaps she still felt the old meanders and rhythms of home.
Here I’m speculating. But a few things I can confirm: It’s true about her grandmother, and about Lester. And it’s true that soon she will walk into the Chess Records studio at 2120 S. Michigan to cut a new song for the label's subsidiary Checker in three takes. And it will be so groovy and exultant, so inexhaustible, that it will stick to the culture like bubblegum. It will be a hit in Chicago and in St. Louis and all over the country. It will be a hit across the ocean in England, too, and it will be a hit among the soldiers in the jungle more than eight thousand miles away. It will be a hit everywhere.
That much is true.
And it is true that many years later, she will try to explain: “I was being rescued from a lot of things at that time.”
She was a gospel singer, always was.
Fontella Bass was born the day before the Fourth of July in 1940, named after a friend of her mother’s. “My mom said she knew that I was going to be a star one day,” she explained. “So that’s how I got the name.”
Martha Bass, her mother, toured the country with the renowned Clara Ward Singers when Fontella was a child, and her grandmother, Nevada Carter, was an acclaimed gospel singer in her own right. And so the family could not have been surprised when they heard Fontella’s voice at the Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis or when she showed a knack for the piano as a five-year-old prodigy. She had what the church would have called a gift, what the talent scouts would have called “it.”
“My mother sang, but when I came along I stretched it out further,” Martha Bass told the New York Times in 1989, describing the family tradition. “Fonnie stretched it out further.”
As young as nine, Fontella would travel with her mother and grandmother around the South and beyond as a multi-generational family act. They would take up a collection in three baskets so people could give to their favorite. The tours continued periodically until well into Fontella’s teenage years, when she could no longer pass for twelve to get a free ticket on the train.
By her own account, Fontella first started gigging when she was five years old, tagging along with her grandmother to perform at wakes at funeral homes in St. Louis. Funeral directors like Buddy Walton and Ellis Jones would try to shepherd her in and out without seeing the bodies (“so all I smelled was flowers,” she recounted later).
She was paid $7 a night. “And if I was good I got paid $10,” she said. “You know, in 1945, ’46, $10 was a lot of money for a five-year-old.”
It spooked her, but business was good: “Every night we’d get another dead body.”
I’m not going to tell you a story about the first time I heard “Rescue Me” because I don’t remember ever not knowing the song. It is snugly in the middle of the soundtrack of my life. Not tied to any particular memory or any particular time or any particular place or any particular person. But evocative of memory nevertheless.
I do remember posters for the movie Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which came out when I was seven years old. It’s a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle about Cold War espionage and I guess what would pass for mind-bending computer hacking in the mid-1980s. It’s so deliriously out of date that it’s amazing you can still stream it, but you can. At one point, Whoopi is in a payphone booth and then suddenly a sinister KGB agent hooks the booth with a tow truck. And there it is: “Rescue Me.” The truck rips the booth out of the ground and drags it, with Whoopi trapped inside, through downtown Manhattan. Come on baby and rescue me.
It’s Fontella’s version in the film (a mediocre cover made the official soundtrack), and it brought the song renewed attention. So I must have heard it then. And no doubt it was in rotation at home. My dad was trying to indoctrinate me with his love of classical music, but he had realized the same thing I would when I became a father decades later: Children love 1960s pop. I would have been sliding in my socks to the Supremes and jumping on the bed to the Monkees. Cue Fontella.
The way that bass line slinks in like a spy. As familiar as the pulse of my pulse, as the sound of my footfalls.
It was supposed to be a B-side. Or at least that’s one version of the story floating out there: She had previously recorded “Soul of the Man,” a gospel-tinged blues scorcher, and they needed a new song for the flip. In any event, when the record came out, Billboard magazine spotlighted “Soul of the Man” as the top side, predicting a “hit for Miss Bass”—perhaps the source of that rumor.
There are so many stories about how “Rescue Me” came to be that it’s hard to know what’s what. Here’s one: During the recording, on an impulse, producer Roquel “Billy” Davis walked around to each player, one by one, and tapped them on the shoulder to stop, so that it’s finally just the bass line and Fontella’s voice. And then, when it was over, a long silence in the studio. Because everyone knew.
“When we were recording that, I forgot some of the words,” Fontella told the New York Times in 1989. In some versions of the telling, the lyric sheet actually fell off the music stand. “Back then, you didn’t stop while the tape was running, and I remembered from church what to do if you forgot the words.
“I sang, ‘Ummm, ummm, ummm,’ and it worked out just fine.”
I’m eleven years old, in the passenger seat of a Plymouth Duster we inherited from my grandparents. My mom is driving and she is grooving. We are listening to 96.3, the Nashville station which converted to an oldies format that year. “Rescue Me” is playing, part of the canon of decades-old hits in constant rotation.
Here’s the writer Lucy Sante on oldies radio: “a medium of chattering middle-aged men, audibly overweight, short-sleeved even in the dead of winter, who are capable of putting on the spookiest sides without seeming to notice the weirdness as they jabber on about trivia before and after.”
These few hundred songs, over and over again. The Golden Oldies.
My mother loves to sing along. She likes to dance with one arm while she drives with the other. It’s hard to say whether she’s nostalgic for the songs of her teenage years, or whether it’s the oldies format itself that has embedded these songs so deeply into our consciousness that it is difficult to imagine driving together, me and my mom, without them.
Perhaps in the future, the music apps will track it all, but all I have is the hazy power of my brain to populate the past with song: In the Plymouth with Mom, windows down because the AC was shaky, radio turned up so we could hear over the breeze, on the way to school—unembarrassed, I am singing along, too. Rescue me. At the wedding, at the party, in the drunken thrall, alone in my room, at the grocery store. Impromptu dance sessions with my daughter when we were all cooped up together, jumping around the living room while the cherry blossoms bloomed outside the window—when my wife and I were trading parenting and work like relay racers, a loop with no finish line, rescue me. The song is so familiar that it can fade into the background if you let it. Don’t let it. Listen with your body. How easy and free Fontella’s voice was for all of its Sunday morning force, how cool and cozy. My daughter says to play it again and we play it again, and again and again. I have the dad’s instinct to explain—to try to tell her how a song like this can bring us joy on a hard day, can bring us together, but she is laughing, she is shaking her hips, right in time.
“It’s the everyday living that I like about ‘Rescue Me’ because everybody needs to be rescued,” Fontella said in 2004. “Everybody needs to be loved.”
As a teenager, Fontella played piano or organ at various churches around the St. Louis area, including Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, which bought its first organ for Fontella to play (at this time, despite eventually winding up as musical director for multiple church choirs, she was too shy to sing).
Her mother and grandmother generally disapproved of secular music. “Being in the church, my grandmother was very hard-cored, you know,” Fontella explained in a 1986 interview with Blues Unlimited. “They didn’t want me to listen to rock on the radio.”
When Fontella was around sixteen, her grandfather and a couple of her uncles would take her on secret trips to juke joints, all over the area. Spots like Ned Love’s and the Red Top, across the river in East St. Louis.
“They would sneak me out of the window and I would dress in the car and I would be gone all night, till six and seven in the morning,” she recounted later. “They’d send a note up and I’d go up and…sing and dance or play the piano....
“And then they would sneak me back in the house…they did it for years.”
The first time she got busted was when she played piano with a band in a talent show held before a Ray Charles concert at the Club Riviera.
“And all my mother’s church members was calling, ‘Did you see your daughter’s picture in the paper?’” Fontella recalled later. “There I was on the piano getting down.”
“All hell broke loose,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2004. “I got my ass whipped over Ray Charles.”
At seventeen (or a bit older; accounts vary), she got a job performing at the Showboat Club near the northern tip of the city, where the Chain of Rocks amusement park then overlooked the Mississippi River from the bluffs. Later, she took on a gig with Leon Claxton’s traveling carnival show, which was in St. Louis for two weeks. She made $175 a week and decided to leave St. Louis and go on the road with the carnival. “That was the greatest gig in the world at that time,” she said. But her mother got word and showed up to (literally) pull her off the train.
“My mother came and took me off the train, I mean bodily,” she said. “I was so embarrassed, because I thought I was grown. She said, ‘No way.’ Bip, boom, bam! And I was off the train in two jumps.”
Local musicians Oliver Sain and Little Milton spotted her at the carnival and hired her to play piano in their band.
They played the local circuit—the Moonlight, the Masonic Hall, the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis, Chuck and Al’s in Brooklyn, Illinois. And they toured through the South—Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas. “We couldn’t stay in the hotels or use the bathrooms in the South—we used to have to live with people that we knew,” she said. “I tell you, the road was rugged. Last stop for the bathroom: Memphis.”
One night, Little Milton got too loaded on scotch, so Sain asked Fontella to take the mic. “And I just never stopped,” she said.
For the last eighteen months or so, I have felt a little bit like Whoopi in that telephone booth. You know?
I keep trying to pitiably assert control, but really I’m just hollering and hanging on.
Putting a song called “Rescue Me” into heavy rotation during this period is a little on the nose, I realize. But this is not a season for subtle medicine.
“The secret lies in simplicity,” Fontella said in a 1966 interview. The key to composition, she said, was to “find an easy phrase in current use which everyone says ten or twelve times a day.…Titles like ‘Rescue Me’…are so simple that they make people think ‘why didn’t I think of that?’—that’s when you know you have a winner.”
Pop music is meant to be popular, natch. It is meant to be immersive and sticky. It is meant to seduce into comfort. To be a hit, a song has to wallop us, it has to be a showstopper—but it also has to worm its way into the background of our lives. It is only later that we even notice the chorus’s first line in the song that made Britney Spears famous: “My loneliness is killing me.”
The other day I heard an interview from 2019 with the neuroscientist and opera singer Indre Viskontas. She said that “repetition is the one universal feature of virtually every music that we know of.” An accident of the way we’re wired, perhaps: We make meaning out of patterns. I am playing “Rescue Me” as I type this, and I know what’s coming: here come the horns, here come Fontella’s hums, and it is beautiful, even still. Verse, chorus, verse.
Viskontas said something else in that same interview, something that stuck with me. “When you bounce in sync with someone else to music, you actually raise levels of an attachment hormone called oxytocin in both of your brains,” she said. “And that makes you feel more bonded.”
Experimenters have tried bopping along in rhythm with subjects, she said, and found that they’re more likely to do little acts of social kindness for the experimenter afterward. Toddlers are more likely to help pick up an object that was dropped if they’ve bounced in sync with an adult. I never know what to make of experiments like that. But I can report that when the weddings were canceled, and the bars closed, and the venues shuttered, it turned out that this was what I missed the most. Listening to music with strangers. Dancing with friends. I didn’t just feel isolated. I didn’t just feel lonely. I felt—I don’t know how else to put it—out of sync.
She was five-foot-four. She played chess and collected briar pipes. Her drink of choice was rum, favorite food steak.
These are among the responses she gave for the article “Life-Lines of Fontella Bass,” published in the British New Musical Express in December of 1965. She was in England for a promotional trip for “Rescue Me,” which entered the English charts that month, appearing on the television programs Ready, Steady, Go!, Discs A Gogo, and the BBC’s Top of the Pops, where she was presented with her gold record. As far as I know, this was her first trip to Europe. Back home, “Rescue Me” spent four weeks at number one on the r&b charts, and made it to number four on the Hot 100. It all happened so fast.
Biggest influence on her career: Nat King Cole and Pearl Bailey. Favourite singer: Billie Holiday. Favourite bands/instrumentalists: James Brown. Favourite clothes: Casual. Car: Pontiac.
In just a few years, she would break with Chess Records, and for the rest of her life, she insisted that she was cheated out of what she was owed for “Rescue Me.” She would never again have a hit anywhere close to that scale. She and Lester would move their family to France, where she periodically sang and played piano with his avant-garde collective, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “I was always a little avant-garde,” she said. And later she and Lester would split—and she would eventually return to St. Louis, and to gospel, including touring with her mother like the old days. But she always sang “Rescue Me,” every time she performed. She died the day after Christmas, 2012, of complications from a heart attack. One St. Louis television station began its obituary: “You may not immediately recognize her name, but there’s a good chance you can easily sing along with her signature tune.”
There is something so intimate about a song we know well, something familial about that voice in our earbuds. Which perhaps explains my inclination to hunt the newspaper archives, to dig up these forgotten interviews, to savor these trivial details. Because when a song gets its hooks in you, it unfolds into stories, it latches onto memories, it colors in the margins of your life. And so our instinct is to seek to know the story of the singer, too. Her name was Fontella Bass.
Best friend: Too many to mention. Most thrilling experience: Coming to Great Britain.Tastes in music: Jazz, gospel, r-and-b. Personal ambition: To travel. Professional ambition: To be an entertainer throughout the world. Biggest disappointment in career: None really. Things have just been swinging!
Todd Storz, owner of KOWH in Omaha, Nebraska, was at a diner in the early 1950s, the story goes, when he noticed something. A patron would amble over to the jukebox and play a song. And then a few minutes after the song was over, someone else would come to the jukebox and pick the very same song. And the waitress, when she got a tip, she would drop a nickel in the jukebox to play her favorite new song—that same one, over and over again. People wanted to hear the hits, and their appetite was insatiable. Storz decided he could replicate this on his radio station. And so he began playing the biggest songs of the day, several dozen of them, in constant rotation, with no other programming. This sounds simple, but it was a brand-new way of doing radio: Storz is often credited with pioneering what became known as Top 40 radio. He brought the KOWH format to other stations across the country, and everywhere he broadcast, he found the same thing. The insight is familiar to parents of small children. If a song really pops, we don’t want to hear it just once, or ten times. Play it again. We can’t get enough.
Fontella knew that “Rescue Me” would be a smash.
“I had the demo and those folks wore that demo out,” she recounted. “Every time I’d put it on, they wouldn’t take it off the box. They’d just play it over and over and over.”
Chess Records had made its name in blues, but had brought in a stable of talent that could bring the soul and flair of the Motown sound, including producer Billy Davis, recruited from Detroit, where he had sung with an early incarnation of the Four Tops and collaborated as a songwriter with Motown founder Berry Gordy. Davis, who would go on to help write the Coke jingles that you can’t get out of your head (including “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”), had a knack for knowing what could make a song swing and pop. On Fontella’s previous hit, “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,” a duet with Bobby McClure, Davis suggested the tempo that enlivened what had been a flat session, according to McClure. “Do you do the Uncle Willie?” Davis asked, a dance then popular in the Chicago scene. “Let’s put it there.”
Take a minute, now. Put on “Rescue Me.” What a house band they had. There is Maurice White on the drums. He would go on to found Earth, Wind & Fire, but spent more than four years as a session drummer at Chess, what he called “Chess University,” keeping time behind Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. On the bass, his future Earth, Wind & Fire collaborator Louis Satterfield. Saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge led the horn section, added after the initial recording, which included a turn from Satterfield on the trombone. The elements layer and build—guitar, organ, piano. Backing vocals from the Gems, featuring then-seventeen-year-old Minnie Riperton, who also did a stint as a receptionist at the studio.
And Fontella. When I listen to her performance, I forget altogether that the material here is a milquetoast love story. In her voice, “Rescue Me” has an everyday urgency, a defiant joy. Like a kind of prayer.
I’m forty-two years old, driving my daughter Marigold, who has just turned four, home.
“Rescue me!” she shouts from her car seat.
I put it on. “On repeat,” she adds. On repeat, on repeat: her request and refrain. Just as a joke, if funny once, is funny a thousand times—if she loves a song, she loves it again and again. Her demands are insistent and urgent, her preferences specific and enduring. For the whole month of June, she woke up every morning wanting to hear “Dreams” by the Cranberries; in July, it was “Rescue Me.” (I try to be strategic about my suggestions. I thought that I could not tire of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” I was wrong.)
I’ve got one hand on the steering wheel and I’m dancing with my other hand. Marigold is exploring the boundaries of possible movement while strapped in a car seat. She is shrugging and shaking and reaching and scooching. She is singing along, with some slight variations (“I need you / and your rub, too”). Her eyes are upward and her mouth is wide open in a smile. We look at each other through the rearview mirror. In sync.
“We are having a party,” she says.
“We are having a party,” I agree.
“Mama is going to be surprised what a big party we’re having,” she says.
“A full-on dance party,” I say.
“Full-on dance party,” she says.
She adds that we’ll tell Mama that we had the biggest party we’ve ever had, and that Mama will be very, very surprised.
And can I say that it really was a pretty big party. That it felt like partying. Like the thing I’ve missed: that catharsis, that connection, that sense of timeless abandon.
The most profound fact about someone you love is their otherness. Their mystery and their resistance. And this is what is beautiful and difficult about your child turning from an extension of yourself in infancy into a wild thing of their own. But still, there are moments, like this one. Where the gap between you and a person you love feels so small.
When the song ends, it starts again. “It’s on repeat!” Marigold shouts. “You knew that’s what I wanted!”
The songwriting credit on “Rescue Me” went to a pair of in-house songwriters at Chess: Raynard Miner, then around nineteen years old, a blind musician who had been writing songs since he was twelve, and his writing partner Carl Smith, who had a knack for fleshing out the story in a song’s lyrics. The creative atmosphere at Chess was freewheeling and loose—musicians would fool around in rehearsal studios as producers, arrangers, and performers popped in and out, jam sessions turning into songs.
Some version of this process seems to have led to “Rescue Me,” but just how it happened was a matter of hot dispute between the team at Chess and Fontella.
Miner and Smith first developed the bones of the song in a rehearsal space across the street from the Chess headquarters, according to an account described in Nadine Cohodas’s book on Chess Records, Spinning Blues Into Gold. They brought the song, with the working title “Take Me With You,” to producer Billy Davis, who suggested calling it “Rescue Me.” According to Miner and Davis, they worked it up with some of the house musicians at Chess and then got the tape to Fontella, who was initially skeptical.
Other accounts, such as Robert Pruter’s telling in his book Chicago Soul, place Fontella in the room with Miner and Smith, along with arranger Phil Wright, for the “woodshedding” session on an August Saturday that led to “Rescue Me.”
Certainly Fontella remembered it very differently from the story told by Davis and Miner. She said that she stopped into the studio while Miner was working on the song and helped develop key elements, including the melody. “I just literally wrote the song,” she told Cohodas. “You know anybody can do rhythm takes. You have to put the melody over the top of them….I was tricked out of the publishing.” She said she asked about getting songwriting credit at the time, and Davis assured her that it would be taken care of, but it never was.
Davis told Cohodas that Fontella “had nothing to do with the writing” and Miner concurred. In a later interview, Davis would credit her only with “a bunch of ad-libs—that doesn’t make someone a songwriter.” Louis Satterfield, the bass player, said “she didn’t do nothin’ but sing the song.” Pete Cosey, who played guitar, gave her a little more credit, saying that by the time everyone gathered in the studio to record, “there was a definite song. It was more than a skeleton. There was a body, but Fontella embellished quite a bit, especially the ending.”
“I would have been set for life, if I had been paid,” Fontella said. The dispute may have been tangled up in larger frustrations with relatively low payments Chess made to artists, and a general lack of artistic control. (“They definitely wanted to keep the same groove,” she told Terry Perkins of the Riverfront Times in 1991. “I mean, honey, nobody was creative enough to say let’s break away and show what Fontella can really do. Instead it was ‘Let’s just hold it right here, babe, and do the same old thing.’”) When Leonard Chess, the label’s cofounder, gave her a royalties check for her “Rescue Me” performance—according to Fontella, $11,000 and the only check she received for the hit from Chess—she was furious.
“I had the first million seller for Chess since Chuck Berry about ten years before,” she told Perkins. “Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my first royalty check, I looked at it, saw how little it was, tore it up and threw it back across the desk.”
“I’m the kind of person,” she said in a 1984 interview, “who is always going to respect you and will always expect that kind of respect in return. The recording companies had been taking advantage of Black musicians for a long time, and I decided to take a stand against it, but I was standing alone. I was a Black female, so I automatically had two strikes against me in that white world.”
“It actually sidestepped me in the business because I got a reputation of being a troublemaker,” she said later.
Fontella recounted one day when Leonard Chess, fed up with her and popping nitro pills for his heart condition, said, “I just don’t know about you, Fontella. The trouble with you, Fontella, is you don’t trust no one, you don’t even trust your mother.”
She didn’t skip a beat: “You’re right Leonard. ’Cause I know if I got some money in my purse my mother gonna take it.”
If “Rescue Me” was featured in a film soundtrack prior to Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I’m not aware of it. It’s so cinematic, and the chorus so ready-made for movie chases and high suspense, that this seems surprising.
But perhaps the song was less ubiquitous in the years between its release and my childhood memories. Certainly “Rescue Me” has been played on oldies radio many orders of magnitude more times than it was in its heyday. The oldies format dates at least back to the early 1970s, but all-oldies stations became more widespread in the 1980s. Oldies radio used a version of the Storz formula: Listeners wanted a certain kind of nostalgia evoked by the familiar, so the format often sticks with several hundred songs recycled ad infinitum. It’s great! But we’re also pummeled by this repetition. Nothing defangs a piece of art like becoming iconic. What do I really, really think of the Mona Lisa? How could I possibly know? I’d like a designer drug that lets me watch Marlon Brando’s opening scene in The Godfather as if for the very first time, with no context at all.
The problem is even more acute for popular music, which derives some of its power from the fresh surprise of the new. “Rescue Me” is everywhere. “Every time I go to New York, I can’t get out of the tunnel before I hear ‘Rescue Me’ on the radio,” Fontella Bass said in 1996. It has been featured in countless commercials and more than half a dozen movies since Jumpin’ Jack Flash, including Air America; A Cinderella Story; Best; In the Army Now; I, Robot; and Mo’ Better Blues. And, of course, Sister Act—Whoopi once again, cleaning up at the convent in a montage while Fontella wails and the horns blare. A 1988 Slim-Mint television ad featured a goofy version of “Rescue Me” as people were tempted by pizza and cherry cheesecake, only to be rescued by the diet-aid gum; the ad’s creative director explained that the spot was meant to be “very positive and uplifting and helpful to people.” At some point, as “Rescue Me” plays on a re-run of ER, we become so oversaturated that this singular masterpiece risks winding up calcified as cultural wallpaper.
Or worse, misremembered as Aretha Franklin singing “Deliver Me” on a Pizza Hut commercial: “Deliver me, I want you in my hands…Come on Pizza Hut, deliver me…’Cause I’m hungry, yes it’s true.”
Fontella Bass c. 1963 courtesy PRANN Records.
Nearly twenty-five years after “Rescue Me” raced up the charts, Fontella Bass was broke. It was an icy winter and a storm had knocked a tree onto her house near St. Louis. She wound up without a car, without heat, and had her telephone cut off.
“I needed a new roof, I needed a furnace, I needed a hot water tank, I needed many, many, many things,” she said in a 1995 interview with Cheryl Andryco, who made a documentary on Fontella as part of a master’s thesis. Over Christmas, she said, her four children, now grown, gave her a pep talk: “‘it’s time for you to be Fontella again and stop trying to be Mom.’ That sort of snapped me back into it.”
On New Year’s Day, 1990, she had tea with her youngest daughter; with no working furnace, they had the gas stove turned on for heat. At this point, she was hoping for a sign.
And then, from the black-and-white television in the kitchen: “We heard something go, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da...” Then her own voice—an American Express commercial that had licensed “Rescue Me” without Fontella’s permission. She eventually sued American Express and reportedly received a significant settlement.
I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but here’s how she told the story: “I walked into the court and I was a nervous wreck. The lawyers were all there at this long table and then finally, the judge called us into his chambers. He turned to me and said, ‘I’ve wanted to meet you for years!’ and that was the end of the story! I finally got paid.”
Once there was a major league baseball pitcher they called The Bird. This was before my time, but when I was a kid I was in the habit of memorizing old baseball statistics, and his stat line always stuck with me. Mark Fidrych was his name: The Bird. His rookie year, in 1976, when he was twenty-one years old, he pitched for the Tigers and won nineteen games. No one could touch him. Then he got hurt and wasn’t ever the same. Only won ten more major league games the rest of his career. Twenty-eight years old, retired. I used to think this was a sad story, but I’ve changed my mind. Who wouldn’t take comfort in one rhapsodic year?
Fontella Bass sometimes gets labeled as a one-hit wonder. But will you take a detour with me? Can I play you a song or two? Here’s Fontella vamping her way through “Poor Little Fool,” one of her early recordings back in St. Louis, with producer Ike Turner’s crackling guitar and Tina Turner on backing vocals. Or, around forty years after “Rescue Me,” check out Fontella in undiminished glory on “No Ways Tired,” the title track on her comeback gospel record—the luminous, sanctified singer that her grandmother no doubt imagined she would become. Or try “Theme de Yoyo,” recorded by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in Paris as part of the soundtrack for the French film Les Stances à Sophie. Her voice slides and glides around the cacophony of horns—Fontella as the wily, outré muse for Lester Bowie’s psychedelic jazz. Or the underrated soul album she made when she returned to St. Louis, along with her old collaborator Oliver Sain, released in 1972 to little attention. The record was called Free.
“That was my part of the movement, you know,” she explained later. “Everything was still going strong then. Just to be free for a little while, you know, I’m gonna go down by the river, sit down, try to rest my mind, clear my mind.”
“Rescue Me” has been covered dozens of times, but none of them quite work.
Cher’s rendition can’t summon her usual pomp and melodrama; Pat Benatar’s sounds like filler that didn’t quite make the Top Gun soundtrack. The Reggae Girls in the Sixties, Guys ’n’ Dolls in the Seventies, Dee Dee Warwick in the Nineties: Pass, pass, pass. Melissa Manchester reimagines it as elevator music. I don’t have an ill word to say about Diana Ross, but I can’t say that she adds anything to “Rescue Me” that wasn’t already achieved in the original. The Tom Jones version, from 1979, just makes me deeply uncomfortable, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
If anyone could pull it off, you might think, it would be Linda Ronstadt, perhaps the twentieth-century vocalist most capable of being at once wildly malleable and utterly distinctive. But nope. At least to my ears, she winds up sounding like she’s doing some throaty karaoke on her rendition, featured on her eponymous third album.
This is the thing about the fight over credit on “Rescue Me.” However it came to be, by my lights, Fontella will forever own this song. I keep thinking about that comment from Satterfield: “she didn’t do nothin’ but sing the song.” But that was everything!
Some time soon you will hear it, you will hear her voice. It’s inevitable. You have heard it a thousand times, but then, you could say the same thing about thunder. I hope it’s at a party. I hope you see someone there who hasn’t been to a party in a very long time. I hope you start dancing. That, in any event, is my plan: I’ll be somewhere, dancing, too.
I ask Marigold how I ought to end this story, and she says we should listen to “Rescue Me” on repeat and so we do.
“Here comes the fade,” I say.
“Here comes the fade,” she says.
Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.
And then it starts again.