Fontella Bass, who has died aged 72, was a soul and R&B singer whose childhood and family life seemed to pre-determine her musical path: she was singing in a church choir by the age of six, her mother was a gospel singer and her brother had a series of R&B hits. But it was one single in particular – once described as the greatest song Aretha Franklin never made – that secured her fame: Rescue Me.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, Bass began performing at a young age, singing in her church's choir. At home too, she was surrounded by music, often travelling on national tours with her mother, Martha Bass, one of the Clara Ward Singers.
Her interest turned from gospel to R&B when she was a teenager and she began her professional career at the Showboat Club in north St Louis when she was 17. She eventually auditioned for Chess Records and landed a recording contract, first as a duet artist. Her duet with Bobby McClure, Don't Mess Up a Good Thing, reached No 5 on the R&B charts and No 33 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1965.
And then Rescue Me happened – it was a song that was to define her career, even though she didn't always get the credit for it in the public's mind – so powerful was her voice that the singer was often misidentified as Aretha Franklin.
Bass was the co-writer of Rescue Me, which reached No 1 on the R&B charts and No 4 on the Billboard pop singles chart in America. It reached No 11 in the UK in 1965, helped by an appearance on the television pop show Ready Steady Go!
In the rest of her career, In the years that followed, she never quite managed to move out of the shadow of that massive song. She had a few other modest hits but by her own accounts developed a reputation as a troublemaker because she demanded more artistic control, and more money for her songs.
She also haggled over royalty rights to Rescue Me for years, before reaching a settlement in the late 1980s, and sued American Express over the use of Rescue Me in a commercial, settling for an undisclosed amount in 1993.
The song has been covered by many top artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Cher, Melissa Manchester and Pat Benatar. Franklin eventually sang a form of it too – as Deliver Me in a Pizza Hut TV ad in 1991.
Bass lived briefly in Europe before returning to St Louis in the early 1970s, where she and husband Lester Bowie raised their family. She recorded occasionally, including a 1995 gospel album, No Ways Tired, that earned a Grammy nomination.
She was inducted into the St. Louis Hall of Fame in 2000.
She is survived by her children, Neuka, Ju'Lene, Larry and Bahnamous, and 10 grandchildren. She was pre-deceased by her husband Lester Bowie.