Johnnie Bassett, the celebrated Detroit blues guitarist and vocalist, died from complications of liver cancer on Saturday, August 4, at Saint John Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He was 76 years old.
“This is, of course, a sad day for us,” said Mack Avenue Records President Denny Stilwell. “Johnnie was the second artist signed to our Sly Dog imprint, and we will miss his gritty vocals, raw guitar sound and mostly his gentlemanly ways.”
“Johnnie Bassett was a wonderful musician and a good friend,” noted Gretchen Valade, owner of Mack Avenue Records. “Whenever I walked into a room where he was playing, he would start singing ‘Georgia,’ my all-time favorite. He was sympathetic and loyal to his friends, and had a good sense of humor. He was a heck of a blues singer who wasn’t appreciated as much as he should have been, and didn’t have as many gigs as he should have had, but he never complained about anything. Johnnie was one in a million, and I will miss him terribly.”
In 1944, Bassett relocated with his family from his hometown in Marianna, Florida, to Detroit, Michigan, where his legacy flourished as he held his own in the fast company of luminaries such as Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Smokey Robinson, Dinah Washington, former neighbor John Lee Hooker and a young guitar fledgling named Jimi Hendrix. Even as a young boy in Florida, Bassett was surrounded by music. His mother, sisters and aunts took him to church and surrounded him with gospel spirituals, and he spent the summers at his grandmother’s fish fries where the likes of Tampa Red, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Lonnie Johnson and others would play while people ate and danced. It was years before Bassett realized these people he was meeting as a young teenager were big names.
While attending Northwestern High School, Bassett’s brother gave him his first guitar. After much practice, the young teenager went on to perform in talent shows, theaters and nightclubs with pianist Joe Weaver, a close friend, as Joe Weaver & The Blue Notes. The group, which was performing in some of Detroit’s greatest nightclubs before they were old enough to drink, became the house band for Frolic Showbar in the mid-’50s after just three weeks performing there. It was unlikely that Bassett knew at the time that this was what would lead him to performing with legendary vocalist Dinah Washington when she made it to the gig and her band didn’t. The band was eventually playing gigs with John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Eddie Burns and a tenure as the house band for Detroit’s Fortune Records label. Bassett also spent a bit of time with Chicago’s Chess Records and appeared on the first sessions for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles before Motown’s existence.
In the mid-’60s, after a six-year run in the United States Army, Bassett decided to remain in Seattle, Washington. He hosted a Sunday night jam session frequented by Hendrix. During this time, he was also backing John Lee Hooker, Little Willie John and, on one occasion, Tina Turner. In the late ’60s, he returned to Detroit.
It wasn’t until the early-’90s that Bassett emerged as a leader and formed his own band, The Blues Insurgents. Subsequently, Bassett recorded a series of albums, including The Heid/Bassett Blues Insurgents (with keyboardist Bill Heid and the late saxophonist Scott Petersen), I Gave My Life to the Blues, Bassett Hound (also with Bill Heid), Cadillac Blues (nominated for five W.C. Handy Awards and included in DownBeat magazine’s best albums of the ’90s) and Party My Blues Away. He kept working and eventually became a hometown legend. In 1994, he received a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Blues Society. He has also earned five Detroit Music Awards. Jim Gallert, a Detroit music historian, says, “Johnnie Bassett took the sounds of the Delta, the Basie band, and funk, and made them into a personal dynamic style. He was a unique and special person.”
Years later, during a four-night residency at Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe, Bassett found himself speaking with Gretchen Valade during a break. When Valade asked if Bassett had a label and he said no, she replied with, “Well, you do now.” Bassett soon signed a deal with Sly Dog Records, a Mack Avenue imprint, on which he released 2009’s The Gentleman is Back. His most recent album, I Can Make That Happen, also on Sly Dog, was released in June 2012. Both albums were produced by his longtime sidemen, organist/pianist Chris Codish and saxophonist Keith Kaminski, and feature their Detroit bands The Brothers Groove and The Motor City Horns, respectively. Codish and Kaminski toured, recorded and performed regularly with Bassett and helped to guide his career for almost 20 years.
Bassett is survived by his wife Deborah, daughter Benita Litt, and his wife’s children, Lynn Tolbert, Courtney Campbell and Kenneth Pringle.
For more information on Johnnie Bassett, go to www.johnniebassett.net.
Photo credit: Cybelle Codish