Music: Hearing Fontella Bass Is Believing

The Lord speaks in mysterious ways, and on Jan. 1, 1990, he spoke to Fontella Bass through a television commercial. Bass, now 54, was at the lowest ebb in her life. Twenty-five years after her No. 1 R&B single "Rescue Me" had placed her in the permanent hit pantheon, she bad no career to speak of. Her four children were grown or in college, and she bad strayed far from the church where she had started singing gospel as a child. She was broke, tired and cold; the only heat in her house came from the gas stove in the kitchen. "I said along prayer," Bass recalls. "I said, 'I need to see a sign to continue on.' And all of a sudden on the TV I heard... 'Rescue Me'." Unbeknownst to her, American Express was using Bass's song on a TV commercial. "It was if the Lord had stepped right into my world!" she says. "I looked around and got my back royalties. I started to go to church every Sunday. And that's what saved me."'

With her new album, "No Ways Tired," released through Nonesuch's acclaimed American Explorer Series, it's Bass's turn to save you. Combining churchly elements like organ and choir with snazzy sax solos and Bass's own barrelbouse blues piano, "No Ways Tired" is the kind of gospel that might seriously convert people: it needs to be believed to be heard. Bass's voice leaps and exults through traditional hymns ("You Don't Know What the Lord Told Me"), bursting with a spirit that couldn't come from this world. Onstage, she gets so carried away that her gaze ascends to a spot above the crowd, her eyes cross slightly and a smile of unfiltered joy covers her face. "People think I'm going to preach, but the message is in the voice, in the music," she says. "Sometimes I get so filled with the blessings He has brought upon me. I get very emotional."

Bass has always moved easily between the secular and sacred music worlds. A third generation church singer, she crossed over for the first time around 17: "I was daydreaming. I wanted to be like the Martha Reeves, the Patti LaBelles." She recorded for Chess Records from '64 to '68, got ripped off like most other black artists of the era and wound up singing jingles which, to her, wasn't such a bad thing. "I loved it!" she says. "I had a hit commercial for Nehi. They wanted to sign me -you know, like Anita Bryant is to orange juice." Instead Bass moved to France from '69 to '72 with her husband, avant-garde trumpeter Lester Bowie, a member of Art Ensemble of Chicago. Back in the United States, she recorded sporadically through the '70s and '80s, usually with Bowie (they divorced in 1978, but still work together). Last year, she made "Breath of Life," an album with the World Saxophone Quartet. But she believes the Lord has served her career best. "For so many years I tried doing it, and it didn't work," she says. "Then I took it out of my bands and turned it over, and everything's happening." Skeptics might call it a happy turn of fate, but Bass knows better.