Guitarist Johnnie Bassett is a special bluesman, possessing a certain inspired individuality and skill set rarely found these days. In a career dating back to the early 1950s, the spry 76-year-old has earned many accoladesâ€” just last year he copped Detroit Music Awards for â€śOutstanding Blues/R&B Instrumentalistâ€ť and â€śOutstanding Blues Artist/Group.â€ť Well-regarded in the Great Lakes region and blues America, yes, but arguably even more admired in Europe, where heâ€™s a favorite of festival-goers. Bassettâ€™s familiarity with jazz, R&B and soul is just as considerable as his blues knowledge; heâ€™s held his own in the fast company of luminaries from various strains of great American music including Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Smokey Robinson, Tina Turner, Dinah Washington, former neighbor John Lee Hooker and a young guitar fledgling named Jimi Hendrix.
For all his talent, Bassett has made just a handful of feature albums. The best of the five is his new one, I Can Make That Happen (Sly Dog Records)â€”its release is cause for celebration. Bassett, even-tempered and polite, says, â€śMy sound and the way I play and tune my guitar is different from anybody. I designed it that way when I was getting into the business. I heard all the other guitarists coming up and they all sounded the same to meâ€” everybody wanted to be B.B. King or T-Bone Walker. I wanted to be different-sounding.â€ť He realized his goal long ago through his open tuning, his impeccable timing, his personal way of bending notes, his mix of playfulness and relaxation in phrasing, and his arsenal of signature licks. Only a few of Bassettâ€™s peers play from the heart as convincingly as he does on his trusty old Gibson, Heritage and Conrad guitars.
The Florida-born septuagenarian turns in fine performances on strong original material for I Can Make That Happen, supported by ace musicians belonging to two popular Detroit bands. Keyboardist Chris Codish, bassist James Simonson and drummer Skeeto Valdez are The Brothers Groove. The Motor City Horns consists of saxophonistKeith Kaminski, trombonist John Rutherford, and trumpeters Bob Jensen and Mark Byerly. (Each of these players also contributed to the success of Bassettâ€™s 2009 Sly Dog release, The Gentleman Is Back.)
â€śThe whole experience was electrifying,â€ť says Bassett about recording the new album. â€śWe rehearsed three days. I like what we got out of that.â€ť Codish, who produced with Kaminski, recalls, â€śIt was a lot of fun. All of us have been playing together for a long time and we were comfortable with each other. And I think weâ€™ve grown as a band since the first record.â€ť So, whatâ€™s it like to play with Bassett? "Johnnie's the top of the groove pyramid,' says Chris Codish, "where he sets the time with his playing, it's very natural for the rest of the band to fall in beneath him to support and follow him. He makes it fun."
Happily, Bassett and his friends show no interest in churning up the same old chord progressions on threadbare songs, as do hordes of blues recording artists year in and year out. Instead, the Motowners freshen up the blues using elements of jazz, R&B and soul on a program of superior songs mostly written by Chris Codish and his father, Bob. Bassett even refurbished rock and soul classics. The bandleader opines, â€śI think people will like the choices made as far as the material is concerned.â€ť
Opener â€śProud to Be From Detroitâ€ť is a funky blues born of a band studio-jam based on a bass riff. â€śWe thought with all the problems in the city,â€ť comments Bassett, â€śthis song would make people forget about them.â€ť Bassettâ€™s singing of his own words about the cityâ€™s virtues has a slow-burning intensity; likewise, his guitar work is wonderfully expressive, a shining beacon of accumulated technique. Note the drama built by the mighty horns before Bassett sings. â€śYou can dance to that all day,â€ť he laughs.
â€śLove Lessonsâ€ť has a more relaxed groove, spun off the piano rhythm; here, Bassett gives Bob Codishâ€™s risquĂ© lyrics a real-life shimmer. â€śI donâ€™t know why we keep using Bobâ€™s stuff,â€ť jokes the bandleader, â€śbut it all turns out well for us.â€ť Ditto for â€śSpike Boy,â€ť still another bawdy tune, this one packed with wicked train metaphors and enlivened by the jaunty confidence of the crackerjack band. â€śThereâ€™s a bit of a Henry Mancini-meets-the-blues feel to this one,â€ť observes Chris Codish.
Bassett, as a singer and guitarist, has the capacity to sound fresh and involved emotionally at all times. But he seemingly outdoes himself with his excellent guitar solo on â€śI Can Make That Happen,â€ť a number that began life as a short duet demo by Chris Codish and fellow songwriter Jim â€śMooseâ€ť Brown, a top Nashville sessions guitarist and co-writer of â€śItâ€™s 5 Oâ€™Clock Somewhere.â€ť Strikingly, Bassett translates emotions into bent phrases and tone with startling clarity and timing. Revitalizing soul great Solomon Burkeâ€™s â€śCry to Me,â€ť Bassett proves once again that integrity and entertainment arenâ€™t mutually exclusive. â€śSolomon was one of my favorite balladeers,â€ť Bassett replies when asked how they happened to cover the 1962 R&B chart hit.
On Bob Codishâ€™s â€śTeach Me to Love,â€ť Bassett joins â€śDetroit Divaâ€ť Thornetta Davis in resting their splendid vocals on what Chris calls a â€śwarm background pillow of harmonyâ€ť generated by the horns. Kaminski weighs in impressively with a tenor saxophone solo. Next up is the albumâ€™s sole instrumental, â€śDawging Around,â€ť penned by Kaminski in honor of Bassettâ€™s Blues Insurgent Band saxophone player, the late Scott â€śE. Dawgâ€ť Petersen. The musiciansâ€™ comfort level with swinging jazz is obvious. Letâ€™s hope Bassett, a veteran of many jazz organ combos, and always musically intelligent, records more instrumentals on the jazzy side of blues in the future.
The blues, of course, is about rising above difficulties, and â€śChaâ€™Mon!â€ť and â€śLetâ€™s Get Hammeredâ€ť both emphasize the fun factor. Bob Codishâ€™s â€śMotor City Bluesâ€ť acknowledges the harder times of Detroit residency but it derives its emotional clout from Bassett singing witty lyrics that are optimistic about the future. Bassett and his producers unleash the biggest surprise near the albumâ€™s end with a stirring rendition of Jimi Hendrixâ€™s â€śThe Wind Cries Mary.â€ť Bassett hosted a Sunday night jam session decades ago in Seattle where a young Hendrix regularly attended and performed, often picking up tips and licks from watching Bassett. The enterprising guitarist brings their connection full circle as he and his colleagues locate many new pockets of freshness in the familiar song.
Bassett, after all, isnâ€™t just playing for the blues crowd. â€śMy style of playing is laid back. I try to play my music where everybody of all ages can enjoy it,â€ť he says with characteristic graciousness. â€śThatâ€™s what keeps you working, and Iâ€™ve been doing it since 1953. I hope the new album catches on.â€ť Rest assured, Mr. Johnnie Bassett will make that happen.
Joe Weaver, Alberta Adams, Johnny Bassett
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Detroit blues legend Johnnie Bassett, born in Florida in 1935, recalls watching Tampa Red, Big Boy Crudup and others perform at fish fries in his grandmotherâ€™s Florida backyard. After his family moved to Detroit in 1944, Johnnie got his professional start playing guitar in the early 1950s with the teenage R&B group "Joe Weaver and The Bluenotes," the house band for the Motor City's Fortune Records label, The Bluenotes, and winner of scores of local talent contests. Soon he was playing back up for visiting artists such as Big Joe Turner and Ruth Brown as well as hometown blues artists John Lee Hooker, Eddie Burns, Washboard Willie, Mr. Bo, and Alberta Adams.
During the early 1960s Bassett appeared on the very first recording of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and, while briefly living in Seattle, periodically jammed with Jimi Handrix, and worked as back up to Tina Turner and Little Willie John. Other memorable credits include gigs with John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, and Dinah Washington. After returning to Detroit in the late '60s, he began working with Michigan Heritage Awardee Little Sonny Willis and eventually formed what would be the first of his many Blues Insurgents. Johnnie has been honored with many Detroit music awards as well as the Detroit Blues Society Lifetime Achievement Award (1994). Today, Johnnie frequently tours the U.S. and Europe and has been recording albums recently with the Dutch Black Magic label.
At the 2003 Great Lakes Folk Festival, Johnnie Bassett is backed up by veteran musicians RJ Spangler (drums), Paul Carey (guitar), Ben Luttermoser (bass), Keith Kaminski (saxophone), and Martin Simmons (piano).
During the 2003 Folk Festival, look to see Johnnie Bassett performing as part of the Detroit Blues Revue with Alberta Adams and Joe Weaver.
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Johnnie Bassett grew up with blues music all around him in his native Florida. His unique ability to combine jump blues and Delta stylings gives his playing a distinctive sound.
The self-taught guitarist recalls seeing Tampa Red, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and other classic blues artists at fish fries in his grandmother's backyard. Bassett cites Aaron "T-Bone" Walker as a major influence, as well as B.B. and Albert King, Tiny Grimes and Billy Butler.
After Bassett's family moved to Detroit in 1944, he made his debut as a guitarist with Joe Weaver and the Bluenotes, a teenage R&B band. The group won local talent contests and were hired to back up Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and others on their tour stops in Detroit. Bassett went into the Army in 1958 and played in a country & western group while stationed in Washington state.
After returning to Detroit, he found work as a session guitarist for Fortune Records by day and in nightclubs at night. In the studios, he played backup to musicians and groups like Nolan Strong and the Diablos, Andre Williams and the Don Juans and the Five Dollars. He also played guitar on the first recording by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles while traveling to Chicago to record as a session man for the Chess Records label. During his Detroit days, he also accompanied John Lee Hooker, Eddie Burns,Alberta Adams, Lowell Fulson and the T.J. Fowler Band at their live shows, as well as Dinah Washington.
In the 1960s, Bassett moved to Seattle, where he backed up Tina Turner, Little Willie John and others.Jimi Hendrix was a frequent guest at the bluesman's club gigs around Seattle. Before the decade ended, he moved back to Detroit, where he's been based ever since.
In 1994, Bassett received a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Blues Society. He later recorded an album for the Dutch Black Magic label, I Gave My Life to the Blues (1996).