With a nickname like "The Gentleman of the Blues," you know Johnnie Bassett is a class act.
The 75-year-old Detroit singer-guitarist has been in the business for over 50 years, but continues to be one of the top musical acts in the Motor City. His jazz-inflected, hollow-body blues guitar licks are a perfect complement to his silky smooth voice, which has just the right hint of smokiness. Add a rhythm section, a horn or two and a keyboard and you’ve got an evening of elegant jump blues sure to please.
He will make a live appearance on "Ann Delisi’s Essential Music" at noon Saturday on Detroit Public Radio WDET (101.9 FM) to discuss his upcoming shows in Detroit and his appearance in the new film "The Black Dove."
Bassett is a Florida native who was first exposed to the blues at his grandmother’s back yard fish fries, hearing bluesmen like Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Tampa Red. His influences include guitar great Aaron "T Bone" Walker.
Bassett moved to Detroit at age 9 in 1944, learned to play on his sister’s guitar, and eventually hooked up with his buddy at Northwestern High School, singer-piano player Joe Weaver, in the group Joe Weaver and the Blue Note Orchestra. The Blue Notes won many talent shows and often backed up big-name entertainers when they toured Detroit. The Blue Notes played on many of the releases by Detroit-based Fortune Records and were hired by Berry Gordy Jr. for his fledgling Tamla label. In 1960, Bassett played guitar on the label’s first hit, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Shop Around." The Blue Notes did much to lay the groundwork for the Funk Brothers, the session musicians for Gordy’s Motown label.
A stint in the Army sent Bassett to the West Coast. In Seattle, he played with musical greats like Guitar Watson, Little Willie John, Tina Turner and a young Jimmy James, known later as Jimi Hendrix.
He eventually returned to Detroit, working as a cab dispatcher and session musician. His musical career enjoyed a resurgence in the early ‘90s when he began a collaboration with drummer/producer/manager R.J. Spangler. Bassett has been at the top of his game ever since, with a plethora of live performances and numerous fine recordings with his band, the Blues Insurgents. "Party My Blues Away," a 1999 release on Cannonball Records, is a personal favorite. Like many of his recordings, it features longtime collaborators Chris Codish (The Brothers Groove) on the Hammond organ and Keith Kaminski on saxophone.
So, how did Bassett, a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree by the Detroit Blues Society, become known as "The Gentleman of the Blues"?
"I got that tag because of my playing and my character," Bassett noted with a chuckle in a release for his recording "The Gentleman is Back" on Mack Avenue Records. "You know, I’m not a teenager. I've been in this business over 50 years. I treat everybody like I would want to be treated. I never put anybody down. I'm always encouraging younger guys when they're coming up. That's what I try to be ... a gentleman."