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Smithsonian Institution
Midwestern CrossroadsAmericans Old and NewMidwestern CrossroadsSouthern FusionLouisiana, Where Music is King
Fontella Bass

 
Fontella Bass grew up on the gospel highway, then made a side trip to the top of the soul charts before coming home to the church. By the time she was in her teens, she was touring across the Midwest and the Southwest, playing piano for her grandmother and her mother, Martha Bass, a member of the groundbreaking Ward Singers. She broke out in her late teens, joining Little Milton's band as a pianist. One day, when Milton was off the bandstand, she took a vocal solo, and her career was launched. Soon she was up in Chicago, at Chess Records, cutting "Rescue Me," one of the defining hits of the soul revolution.
       Bass married jazzman Lester Bowie, living first in Chicago and then in Paris, France, and singing both r&b and jazz. In the end, though, she came back to St. Louis and the church. She, her mother, and her brother David made several successful gospel albums, and she became choir director at her local church. River of Song filmed Bass with her mother, now 75, singing together over Fontella's strong gospel piano chording just as they used to do in the old days. The older woman's rough power and the younger's soaring soul shout combine in a duet that exemplifies the majesty and power of gospel music.
       "All music is about feeling," Fontella says. "And in gospel you have to feel the Lord. Now, if I do blues I send out the blues message. I have had plenty of things touch down in my life that can give me the blues, but I get happy when I do the blues. And jazz, I'm feeling just mellow and I want to send that kind of feeling out. But in gospel I want the people who are listening to me to know the Lord. I have to feel Him myself and the only way I can feel him is to terminate a lot of the other things in my life, and present that gospel out."

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