Friday, May 21, 2010

May 21: Fontella Bass, "Rescue Me"

Artist: Fontella Bass
Song: "Rescue Me"
Album: Rescue Me (single)
Year: 1965

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While most people look to the mid-1960's as the era when rock music came into its own, the fact of the matter is, there were many other genres that were churning out their best music during the same time period.  The reality was, with recording costs plummeting and personal music players becoming far more common, the entire decade represents a massive change in how music was made, as well as how it was experienced by the listener.  This time period is also well known for the "beginning of the end" of the rivalry between Chess Records and Motown Records.  While both labels were releasing some of the most memorable songs in history, there happened to be one artist and a single that may very well be the most commonly mistaken song ever recorded.  Having already spent many years working her way up the ranks within the music industry, Fontella Bass had gained a name for herself thanks to a handful of respectable hits throughout the early 1960's.  Constantly being uncredited on these recordings, she moved to Chess Records in 1964 where her debut single, "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" was a top ten hit.  With a powerful, soaring, soulful sound, Fontella Bass had a voice that refused to be ignored, and it would be her next single that would permanently solidify her name as one of the greatest singers in history.  However, in an almost tragic turn of events, history has taken much of the credit from her, as many believe it is another famous soul singer that performs the vocals on Fontella Bass' monumental 1965 single, "Rescue Me."

Remaining today as one of the most powerful and irresistible dance songs ever recorded, Fontella Bass finds herself backed by some of the most talented musicians of her generation.  There is really no single musical aspect that stands out from the others, as the musicians move as a single unit, creating one of the greatest arrangements ever captured on tape.  Bringing one of the most instantly recognizable, "walking" basslines ever, Louis Satterfield instantly catapults his name up to the status of the finest Motown players, and it is this deep groove that drives much of the song.  This groove is present from the onset of the song, and the way in which the other instruments work around it is the key to making "Rescue Me" such a classic.  The bright, powerful sound of tenor sax master Gene Barge almost singlehandedly carries the song, as his playing stands far in front of the rest of the brass section.  However, even with these two playing in top form, one simply cannot ignore the presence of drummer extraordinaire, Maurice White.  Though he would eventually go on to found Earth, Wind, and Fire, it is his work on this track that clearly sets the stage for his later work.  Bringing countless creative fills and giving the song its signature swing, "Rescue Me" represents one of the finest drum performances ever captured on tape.  Upon its release, the song shot up the charts, spending more than a month in the top ten and selling enough copies to make it Chess Records' first "million seller" since Chuck Berry a decade earlier.

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.  Tragically, most people believe that it is fellow power-soul singer Aretha Franklin who performed the song, and this plays a large part in Bass' "loss of legacy."  Able to bring just as much feeling and energy to the vocals, Fontella Bass is nothing short of stunning in her performance on "Rescue Me," as she runs the gamut from softer humming to all out yelling, all with equally perfect results.  Bringing an uncanny beauty to her singing, Bass makes the song swing with her vocals, and one can quickly understand why the song was such a massive hit.  The way in which the entire song comes together elevates it beyond "just soul," as one can hear heavy elements of both pop and Motown within "Rescue Me," and this hybrid of styles also played a large part in the songs' success.  Adding to this, the lyrics were extremely straightforward, and spoke to a universal subject matter, making the song easily relatable by nearly every listener.  Structured as a "simple" song called out by a lonely lover, another interesting aspect of "Rescue Me" is how Bass is able to deliver these almost pained lyrics with a bright, hopeful feeling.  Though the protagonist is clearly "lonely and blue," there is an undeniable feeling that their love will be returning soon, and it is perhaps this upbeat sense of hope that was able to futher add to the songs' overall success.

Though quite regularly attributed to Aretha Franklin, after giving the song a bit of a closer listen, anyone familiar with Franklin's sound can quickly hear the many differences in the voice of the equally magnificent Fontella Bass.  The fact that Bass is also in the same company as Chuck Berry insofar as sales are concerned further adds to the fact that the lack of credit she has received over the decades is one of the greatest injustices in the history of the music business.  Using the entire vocal scale as well as countless different vocal approaches, Bass almost instantly solidifies herself as one of the most dynamic performers in history, and nearly fifty years later, her singing on "Rescue Me" remains largely unrivaled in the realm of "power soul" singers.  Backed by some of the most talented musicians in history, the songs' groove also remains intact, as the winding bass and brilliant drumming stand together as one of the finest rhythm section performances ever captured. Adding in a bright horn section and a guitar piece that at times almost seems to be playing a ska-style pattern, there is simply no other recording in music history that quite compares to "Rescue Me," and it remains a timeless classic five decades later.  Covered by artists ranging from Pat Benatar to Tom Jones to John Lennon, Franklin also performed part of the song for a commercial nearly thirty years after Bass first recorded the tune.  The wide range of later covers, combined with the staggering sales achieved by the single serves as proof as to what a truly special song lives within "Rescue Me," as well as a testament to the stunning, soulful sound of its performer, Fontella Bass.

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