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Fontella Bass

Don't Mess Up A Good Thing

Fontella Bass & Bobby McClure with Oliver Sain and Orchestra

Don't Mess Up A Good Thing


The gospel highway couldn't steer Fontella Bass away from secular stardom. Born July 3, 1940 in St. Louis, her mother, Martha Bass, had been a member of The Clara Ward Singers. "I've been singing gospel all my life,"  says Fontella, who began playing piano before she was in kindergarten. But R&B soon caught her ear. "As a teenager, that was the thing to do," says Bass. "I just liked music. I liked it all."  In 1961, she joined the revue of popular St. Louis blues guitarist Little Milton as his pianist. "I was working with the Leon Claxton Show," says Fontella. "They heard me there, and they said if I didn't go out with the show, they would love for me to play with them." Fontella was forced to sing one night when Milton didn't show up, leading to her emergence behind the mic.

KATZ radio station manager Bob Lyons owned Bobbin Records. Milton was its main artist, and that's where Fontella cut her 1962 debut single, I Don't Hurt Anymore. When saxist Oliver Sain quit Milton's band the next year, she went with him. "Oliver was Little Milton's music director at the time," says Fontella. "The whole band, we left Milton, and then I was the featured vocalist in the Oliver Sain Revue. Then we added Bobby McClure as a male vocalist." She ended up at Chess in 1964. "I left St. Louis after my grandmother died, in search of a career. I had talked with John Burton at the time, who was the attorney up at Chess Records. I told him I was ready to go, so he sent for me." Saxman Gene 'Daddy G' Barge had just joined Chess's house band. "When I got in there that week, in rolls Oliver Sain with Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure for singers in his band," says Barge. "Everybody got so excited about Fontella's singing."Teaming Bass andMcClure was a natural. "Leonard asked me if I would record a record with Bobby," Fontella says. "And of course I said yes."

Born April 21, 1942 in Chicago but raised in East St. Louis, McClure sang gospel with The Spirit of Illinois as a youth and with Big Daddy Jenkins' R&B band later on. Fontella and Bobby's sassy Don't Mess Up A Good Thing for Checker was a #5 R&B/ #33 pop hit. Sain wrote it while driving between St. Louis and Chicago. "Some people assume that because I wrote it, that's me playing saxophone," said the late Sain. "But it's not. That's Gene Barge." The song was tailor-made for the Uncle Willie. "That was a big-time dance in Chicago,"  notes Gene.First pressings had a B-side revival of Jimmy Reed's Baby What You Want Me To Do, but it was soon replaced by Sain's instrumental Jerk Loose. "I think they probably used that because of publishing more than anything," said Sain. "Somebody decided, 'Well, the other side's a hit anyway; why should we give Conrad Music or whoever had that (the royalties)?'" Fontella and Bobby managed the mild hit follow-up You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone) before going their separate ways. McClure posted one solo hit for Checker, 1966's Peak Of Love. "Bobby McClure was a real soul singer, man," says Gene. "He was one of the better singers I had heard around. But he never could get that big break, that big record to get him over the hump." McClure died of a stroke on November 13, 1992 in L.A.

- Bill Dahl -

Various - Sweet Soul Music

Various - Sweet Soul Music 30 Scorching Classics From 1965

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