While nicknames in music should usually be taken with a pinch of salt, Johnnie Bassett, known to many as the Gentleman, has certainly earned his.
Meeting with the 76-year-old bluesman at his Oak Park home and sitting on his porch on a gorgeous Michigan summer day, it's impossible not to immediately like him. Bassett has a smile that projects warmth, albeit a cautious warmth. Questions that he likes, he'll answer at length. He'll answer those that he doesn't like, but with less words. And the Gentleman thing? Bassett says that he doesn't really know where that comes from. "I'm an even-tempered person," he says. "I don't really let anything upset me. I try to treat everybody right, and I respect everybody like I want everybody to respect me."
Bassett was born in Florida, and he moved here when he was 10 years old, originally settling in Ferndale then moving to the city of Detroit a few years later.
"It's very scary to come from a small town, like I lived in, to a metropolis like Detroit," Bassett says. "Just coming here on the bus and passing through all of the other parts of the country, it was really amazing. I didn't sleep very much on the bus because there was so much to see. My father was up here for four or five months before we came up. He came here for work. There wasn't anything [in Florida] left for him to do anymore. He was a bootlegger and that dried up."
The 1943 race riots were still a few years away, but Bassett says that he didn't experience any racial tension when he arrived in the area, or at least, he didn't pay it any attention. "As a kid, you don't," he says. "You follow the rules, follow the crowd, and that's it. You don't have a clue. I didn't, because it wasn't something that I grew up with in Florida. It had no impact. The closest neighbor's kids were the deputy sheriff's kids. We played together and ate together. I assume that was a good thing. It never had an impact on my life, and to this day it doesn't."
Young Bassett settled fast, making new friends and enjoying his new surroundings. Throughout this time, he says the music was all around him. "My mom and her sisters sang spiritual all the time," Bassett says. "Once a year, we'd go to my grandmother's house and have a big fish fry, and all you heard was blues. I heard it, but I was doing my job, which was keeping the fires going so the fish fry could keep going. Put wood on the fire and they'd cook all night, and you'd hear music all night. But I never imagined being a musician back then, even when I first started framming on my sister's guitar at the age of 12. I had no aspirations at that time of playing it, that's just something that happened."
Bassett says that he was influenced by the old bluesmen of the time, people like Robert Johnson and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and that, with black music not on the radio (and the Internet still five decades away), people had to rely on word of mouth and each other's records to discover new blues music.
He soaked it all up, messing around on his sister's guitar with no intention of taking it seriously. Then, in high school, he formed a band. "I started playing with a group at house parties with a friend of mine, Rudolph Stansfield," he says. "We'd play house parties in the neighborhood every Saturday, and I got my first electric guitar. My brother bought it from a pawn shop. One pickup and a little amplifier. I started practicing with that, and I heard him playing one day and I asked him if I could get my guitar and we could play something together. That's how we started playing house parties together with Joe Weaver, a piano player. We put a group together called Joe Weaver & the Blue Notes. We played every day and that went on for about four months, and we got to be pretty good."
That's a bit of an understatement. In fact, Bassett and his band, rehearsing regularly at Joe's Record Store in Detroit, quickly earned themselves a rep as one of the backing bands in town, and would up playing with everyone from the Miracles and Alberta Adams to Dinah Washington and, of course, John Lee Hooker. Bassett had made a home in Detroit but, following a period in the service stationed in Seattle, in 1960, he decided to stick around in the rainy city a little while longer.
Now, the official Johnnie Bassett story is that, while in Seattle, he befriended a young Jimi Hendrix, who would perform with Bassett at a bar. However, since Hendrix biographers have Hendrix in the Army in 1961, their overlap would have been slight.
Bassett says, "Everybody thinks I hung out with him, but I did not hang out with Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix hung out at a spot where we used to have jam sessions. He would come in on the Sunday with a couple of guys. We would have different segments in that session, and one of the people who sat in was a cousin of Jimi Hendrix."
Like Hendrix, Bassett has a distinctive guitar sound, in part because of the fact that he uses what's sometimes called "vestibule tuning," an open tuning that went out of style decades ago. "I do it because it distinguishes my sound from everybody else's," he says. "I can play standard tuning any time I want to, but I don't. I don't want to sound like everybody else."
During the '70s and '80s, back in Detroit, Bassett had an organ trio, playing club dates and backing musicians when called upon. He admits that they were low profile years, but he maintains that music kept him busy, as did his salesman day job.
In the '90s he became more visible, including a regular slot at Greektown's now defunct Music Menu with the Blues Insurgents, cutting records, touring and getting nominations for W.C. Handy Awards — the Grammys of the blues world.
The resurgence is growing stronger.
"It might be because of the material we've chosen over the past couple of albums," he says. "I have incredible musicians working with me. I appreciate those guys sticking with me. The Brothers Groove and the Motor City Horns are backing me. I couldn't have any better musicians with me. The Horns like working with me because it's so different to what they do with [Bob] Seger. They have a lot of freedom working with me."
Bassett's new album is I Can Make That Happen, out on Sly Dog, the blues imprint of the more jazz-focused Mack Avenue Records. Bassett says it's a perfect fit, as he able to attract both jazz and blues fans. He says that "blues" is nothing more than a name anyway.
"It's what you perceive it to be," Bassett says. "It don't have to be somebody who's down in the dumps or had hard times. It could be that sometimes, but I don't know who made it that. I don't see it like that. I don't do it. I can, but why? I let guys like Buddy Guy do that. I don't need to. I like my music to be happy. I like my music where people find themselves humming it, whistling it, and playing it over and over again."
And we do, sir.
Johnnie Bassett performs every Thursday at Northern Lights Lounge; 660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; 313-873-1739. This Saturday, June 30, he also appears at Dylan's Raw Bar, 15402 Mack Avenue Grosse Pointe, Michigan 313-884-6030.
Brett Callwood writes City Slang for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]