Born in Florida, where his father was a bootlegger during prohibition, Johnnie was surrounded by music. His mother, sisters and aunts took him to church and surrounded him with gospel spirituals. But in the summer he'd head out to his grandmother's famous fish fries, where the likes of Tampa Red, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Lonnie Johnson and others would set up and play while folks ate and danced. “They were my dad's friends,” Bassett recalls. “He would meet them on the road. I didn't know they were gonna be big names 'til I got to be a teenager and we moved to Michigan. I'd hear them on records when I was 13, 14, 15 years old and go, ‘Hey, these are the same people I heard play when I was just a little kid.’ And dad said, ‘Yeah, that's them.’”
Johnnie started playing guitar himself at that time, “framming around” on an old arched-top instrument of his sister's and taking informal lessons from a neighbor on the front porch at night. “One day he let me take his guitar home, which was just next door,” Bassett remembers. “I'd work at it for three, four hours at a time. That was the start. I just fell in love with it.”
An older brother bought Johnnie an electric guitar and small amplifier from a pawn shop, and he never looked back. He met Uncle Jessie White at a record store on Detroit's Hastings Street and started playing with him. He formed the Bluenotes with keyboardist Joe Weaver, which led to 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 and company also spent a bit of time at Chess Records in Chicago and played on the first sessions by The Miracles, which resulted in the single “Got A Job.”
“It was fun, just fun — that's all we were having,” Johnnie recalls. “They didn't ever pay us. They sent out and got some lunch meat and some crackers and some pop, fed us some lunch, and we went right to playing.” He notes with a laugh that, “They still owe us for that session!”
A stint in the army sent Bassett to Seattle during the late ‘50s, where he remained for a bit and played around the local scene — including jamming with a “talented” young Jimi Hendrix. By the end of the ‘60s he was back in Detroit, working a series of day jobs — from dispatching cabs to the requisite auto factory position — but never putting down the guitar as he continued to lead his band, the Blues Insurgents. He recorded a series of excellent albums such as I Gave My Life To The Blues, Bassett Hound, Cadillac Blues (nominated for five W.C. Handy Awards) and Party My Blues Away, but his last label, Cannonball Records, went out of business. He kept working and eventually became a hometown legend and treasure, receiving a well deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Blues Society in 1994.
In recent years, however, Bassett and his supporters have had but one goal; “We really wanted him to get a new label deal,” says Codish. That transpired when Mack Avenue Records owner Gretchen Carhartt caught Johnnie in live performance during a four-night stand at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. She was particularly taken by his soulful rendition of “Georgia.” “On the break I was talking to her, and she looked at me and said, ‘Do you have a label?’” Bassett remembers. “I said, ‘No,’ and she said, ‘Well, you do now,’ and that was that.”
Johnnie didn't have to think twice about what The Gentleman Is Back would sound like. “I like doing fun music — fun jump music and fun blues music and stuff like that,” notes the father of two and grandfather of five. He really does like some “Meat On Them Bones,” as the song says (“Not too much,” he notes, “but enough to keep you warm”), plus there were plenty of real-life tales to draw on for “My Old Flame.” And he fully understands the allure of the “Real Gitchieegumee,” which noted jazz drummer Leonard King wrote for this record.
Johnnie also works with a formidable group of musicians on The Gentleman Is Back; a potent ensemble of Detroit music makers that includes all three members of the Brothers Groove (keyboardist Chris Codish, bassist James Simonson and drummer Skeeto Valdez), The Motor City Horns (saxophonist / arranger Keith Kaminski, trombonist John Rutherford and trumpeters Mark Byerly and Bob Jensen) and special guests such as James Morris, whose pedal steel adds silk to the aching “I Can't See What I Saw In You.” Duncan McMillan (writer of “I’m Lost”) sits in on Hammond organ for two numbers and drummer Sean Dobbins smacks the skins on “I Love The Way You Look.”
“Oh man, all those guys were so excellent,” Bassett notes. “It made (recording) this album such a pleasure.” And, as an even greater pleasure for fans, many more than these 11 songs were worked up during the recording sessions —meaning that the Gentleman (who never really went away) is here to stay for a while.
“I just love to play,” Johnnie says. “People come out and enjoy it and the guys I'm playing with are enjoying it and having fun with it. As long as that's happening, I'll keep on doing it.”
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