Rescue Me has been described as the best record Aretha Franklin never made.
This is a somewhat backhanded compliment to Fontella Bass, whose insistent gospel-tinged vocals graced the 1965 single. As none of her other records emulated Rescue Me's commercial success, Bass, who has died of complications from a heart attack aged 72, was sometimes regarded as a one-hit wonder. However, she embraced a wide range of music during her career, including sacred songs and the politically and artistically radical free jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
She was born in St Louis, Missouri, into a highly musical family. Both her mother, Martha, and her grandmother were professional gospel singers. From an early age, Fontella sang in public and learned piano and organ. She toured with Martha who was a featured soloist with the Clara Ward Singers, one of the most respected groups on the gospel music circuit.
As a teenager, Bass felt the pull of the secular sounds of jazz and R&B. After graduating from Soldan high school in St Louis, she took her first professional jobs with the bands of Little Milton and Oliver Sain. Among her colleagues was the trumpeter Lester Bowie, whom Bass married in 1969.
A duet that she recorded with Bobby McClure, Don't Mess Up a Good Thing, led to a solo recording session for Chess Records in Chicago. The final song of the session was Rescue Me. The arrangement was improvised on the spot by the producer Billy Davis and the musicians. The bass guitar player Louis Satterfield came up with the hypnotic figure that opens the track, while Davis created the memorable ending in which each instrumentalist drops out in turn, leaving Bass to complete the song a capella.
Rescue Me rose quickly to No 4 in the American charts. In the UK, an appearance by Bass on Ready Steady Go! helped the record reach No 11 in 1965. Another single, Recovery, also sold well the following year, but only made No 32 in the UK. Bass became embroiled in an argument about money with the record company and unsuccessfully sought to be recognised as the co-writer of Rescue Me. In the early 1990s, she had more luck in challenging the use of the recording without her permission in an American Express commercial.
In 1969, Bowie and what would become known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago decided to move to Paris to seek a European audience. Bass joined them, adding piano and vocals to the group's performance art approach to collective improvisation. She is featured on two albums made by the ensemble in France in 1970.
When they returned to St Louis the following year, Bass made further soul records before devoting herself to raising her four children. She later returned to the stage, playing gospel shows and R&B events. She recorded occasionally with Bowie and in 1980 released an album of religious music, From the Root to the Source, recorded with her mother and her younger brother, the soul and gospel singer David Peaston. Her 1995 album No Ways Tired was nominated for a Grammy.
Bass remained popular in Europe, where she toured occasionally, and she made a memorable appearance at the Womad festival in the UK in 2001. She was also sought out by young producers such as Jason Swinscoe of the electro-jazz group Cinematic Orchestra. When Swinscoe travelled to St Louis in 2007 to record vocals by Bass, he found her in poor health, having suffered a series of strokes.
Bass is survived by her children, Neuka, Ju'Lene, Larry and Bahnamous, and 10 grandchildren. Bowie died in 1999 and Peaston died in 2012.
• Fontella Bass, singer, born 3 July 1940; died 26 December 2012
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