Johnnie Bassett (1935-2012): An Appreciation

Detroit bluesman Johnnie Bassett, a Florida native who only late in life began releasing well-received albums as a leader, has died at 76 after a battle with cancer.

Refined, yet deliciously groovy, Bassett’s I Can Make That Happen came out just a few months ago, one of two recent albums for Sly Dog, the blues subsidiary of Mack Avenue Records. He would, in fact, issue just five records under his own name, yet boasted an impressive number of career intersections — and had once been a member of the Blues Notes house band for Detroit’s Fortune Records, where Bassett’s sound became part of the local tapestry.

Even as I Can Make That Happen began receiving positive notices, however, he had been moved to hospice care at Detroit’s St. John Hospital.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete on Sunday night for Bassett, who is survived by wife Deborah, his daughter Benita, and Deborah’s children Lynn, Courtney and Kenneth.

Bassett, born on October 9, 1935 in Marianna, Florida, moved with his family to Detroit in 1944. He then got his first guitar, formed a well-regarded band and got some work in the mid-1950s as the house band at Fortune, the largest local indie at the time. He gigged with John Lee Hooker, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and others, and played on the Chess Records single “Got a Job” by a pre-Motown Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Soon, however, that tune became a sad new reality. Though he’d eventually craft the five-time W.C. Handy Award-nominated “Cadillac Blues,” Bassett never enjoyed the same blockbuster modern-day successes of, say, Robert Cray, Z.Z. Hill or B.B. King — with whom Bassett shared an inviting elder-statesmanly demeanor. Bassett was eventually forced to settle into a variety of every-day professions, work that included dispatching cabs and working at the local auto plant.

But Bassett never stopped playing — and he became a favorite, if largely unknown local delicacy. Beloved around town, where he earned a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Blues Society in 1994, he was without a record label deal. All of that changed when Gretchen Carhartt wandered into the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, during a four-night stand by Bassett. Carhartt, after hearing Bassett’s rich and raw rendering of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” signed him right then.

The result was 2009′s superlative The Gentleman is Back, which found Bassett moving with grit and aplomb from that Carmichael classic (made famous, of course, by Ray Charles) to the high-stepping “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” from the R&B groove of “A Woman’s Got Ways” and the lightly salacious “Nice Guys Finish Last” to the album-closing, long-form jazz-influenced “My Old Flame.” Bassett’s latest offering featured a similar gumbo of styles — mixing soul, R&B and jazz influences into a set with both originals (most by keyboardist/co-producer Chris Codish) and with some smartly selected older favorites. There was always an interesting complexity to Bassett’s music, in keeping with his own rich personal narrative: During a post-Army stint in Washington State, for instance, he jammed with Jimi Hendrix, backed Tina Turner and Little Willie John, even played in a country and western group.

Bassett’s regal bearing, by the way, belied his family’s rascally bootlegger roots: It’s perhaps no surprise, though, that many of the more well-known Florida-area bluesmen of the Prohibition era — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red — would stop by to sample the product. A young Bassett got to know them while they boozed, and eventually folded their unique idiosyncrasies into his own sound.

He leaves behind an ageless marriage of old-time jump blues, jazz guitar in the style of fellow Detroit product Kenny Burrell, and cotton-picking Delta stylings. Elegant yet earthy, with none of the out-sized trickery found on so many blues guitarist’s records, Bassett represents another connection to this music’s past now lost forever.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.