2012 has been a terrible year for the soul & funk world with the passing of so many greats. Unfortunately the last week has been no different with the news of the loss of not one but two legendary singers.
First it was Marva Whitney – a.k.a Soul Sister #1. Like many of soul music’s legendary divas, Whitney’s career started way back at the age of three (in 1947) when she was part of her family’s touring gospel group, The Manning Gospel Singers (Manning was Marva’s birth name) After working with other r&b groups through the 60s, she finally pitched up with James Brown as one of his featured vocalists alongside Lyn Collins & Vicki Anderson. She recorded a number of tracks but it wasn’t until It’s My Thing – a response to The Isley Brother’s “It’s Your Thing” that she gained commercial success. She was to record further singles under James Brown’s guidance before eventually leaving Brown’s Revue and signing (ironically enough) to The Isley Brothers T-Neck Label.
Whitney was to retire from the music business before returning in the 80s to join forces with many of her colleagues from The James Brown Revue to tour as part of the JB Allstars. In December 2009 she collapsed whilst performing on stage in Australia which doctors later treated as a stroke. Sadly Marva was to catch pneumonia and this was to lead to her untimely death at the age of 68.
Fontella Bass’ story is strikingly similar to that of Marva Whitney. She was the daughter of a gospel singer (Martha Bass) and by the age of 9 was accompanying her mother throughout tours of the South West. Her big break came when she was discovered by legendary Chess artist Little Milton and it was Milton’s bandleader, Oliver Sain who recruited her to back Milton on piano for live shows & recordings.
Whilst Bass was only there to play piano, one night Milton didn’t show up for a gig and was drafted in as a replacement singer where she impressed so much that she was given a permanent slot as a vocalist within the newly formed “Oliver Sain Soul Revue” A few years later she quit the band and relocated to Chicago upon where she found herself auditioning for Chess Records. Chess like her so much that they immediately signed her up as a recording artist.
The first recordings for Chess records were released in 1965 and found reasonable success in the r&b charts, however it was to be an original composition that gave Bass commercial success. Rescue Me featured two artists that were to become huge in the funk & soul world – Maurice White on drums (who later became the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire) and a very young Minnie Ripperton on backing vocals. The song was a huge success and was to become a million seller (the first for Chess since Chuck Berry a decade or so before). Whilst a number of other singles followed, none was to have the success of Rescue Me and after a long period of legal wrangling, Bass was to finally be awarded her share of royalties & songwriting credits.
In 2005, Bass’ health started fading after a number of strokes and on 26th December 2012 it was announced that she had died as a result of complications from a heart attack. She was 72. We here at Gazfunk would like to pass on our condolences to the family & friends of two very special singers. May they both rest in peace.