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Wednesday, September 16,2009

Gentleman calling

Detroit guitarist sings the blues with style

by Eric Gallippo
After 50 years in the blues and a resume that includes gigs with John Lee Hooker, jams with Jimi Hendrix, sessions with The Miracles and a handful of acclaimed solo records, Detroit guitarist Johnnie Bassett found himself without a label home for his latest musical project about three years ago, but he plugged away at it, just like he had his whole life.

Then Bassett and his band played what he thought would be an ordinary job at Detroit’s Dirty Dog Jazz Café.


Slowing it down a little as the first set wound down, the band played Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” — which, coincidentally, was a favorite song of one important patron.


During the break, Bassett saddled up to the bar next to club owner Gretchen Valade and asked her how she was enjoying the show. “I enjoyed it very much; you guys are real good,’” she said, continuing, “Incidentally, do you have a label?”


“I looked at her and said, ‘no,’” Bassett said. “She said, ‘You do now.’”


To Bassett’s surprise, he had been playing for the head of Mack Avenue Records, a bastion of Detroit jazz, with a roster than includes contemporary greats, like drummer Carl Allen & bassist Rodney Whitaker, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and Gypsy jazz outfit Hot Club of Detroit. “I did not know at the time she owned the Mack Avenue label,” Bassett said. “I wasn’t auditioning for it, I was there to do a job and get paid and go home.”

What
Bassett thought might be a one- CD deal ended up being a three-disc
contract with Mack Avenue subsidiary, Sly Dog Records, with the
agreement that “Georgia” appear on the first album. Bassett said it’s
his willingness and ability to seamlessly work such a song into a
jumping blues set that sets him apart from his peers. “You’ve not going
to hear this sound anywhere in the country, because of what I do, and
the way I pick my material,” he said. “We start jumping right off the
bat, and then slow it down to something [the audience] can relate to.
“It’s 12-bar blues, but it’s all different.”

Bassett,
72, was first introduced to the blues as a child in rural Florida,
where his father was friends with players like Tampa Red and Arthur
“Big Boy” Crudup, before the family moved to Detroit. While in high
school, his lead playing caught the ear of Detroit blues legend John
Lee Hooker, who overheard his band rehearsing and asked him to play
with him for a few dates. Since then, he’s backed up a slew of Detroit
notables, like Little Sonny and Chicago Pete. During a stint in Seattle
in the late ‘50s, he shared the stage with a young Jimi Hendrix and
Johnny “Guitar” Watson.


Back
in Detroit, Bassett worked day jobs but never stopped playing, working
with other musicians and releasing his first solo albums en route to
becoming a local legend.


Somewhere along the line, Bassett picked up the nickname “The Gentleman.”


“I
don’t know when they started [calling me that],” Bassett said. “I guess
it’s my demeanor and my dress. I would arrive and someone would say,
‘The gentleman is here,’ and it stuck.”


With his first studio album in nine years, Bassett had no problem coming up with a title for it: “The Gentleman is Back.”


At
Blues Fest, The Gentleman will join R.J. Spangler’s Detroit Blues
Review, a crack team of Detroit rhythm & blues and jazz notables,
including vocalists Sir Mack Rice and Alberta Adams, drummer R.J.
Spangler, guitarist Paul Carey, saxophonist Keith Kamiski, bassist Mike
Marshall and keyboardist Shawn McDonald.


While
the gig is billed as an exhibition in Detroit blues, Bassett doesn’t
put much stock in region when it comes to sound. “It’s hard to put an
emphasis on one particular style and one particular place, but they do
it all the time,” Bassett said. “Chicago blues, to me, it’s just like
blues you get out of Memphis. All of it’s 12 bars, or 16 bars, just
different tempos and different styles of projecting it and enforcing
it. That’s about it.”


Even if it doesn’t flex a “Detroit” sound, the group’s familiarity with each other’s music,
either from playing with or just watching each other over the years,
should lend itself to some fun on stage. “They come in from time to
time when I’m playing down in the city now and then and sit in, so it’s
all in fun. That’s the way I keep it. When it stops being fun, I’ll
quit doing it.”


For
now, things seem to be picking up nicely. Bassett’s album is climbing
the blues charts, and he and his group recently scored roles playing
musicians in a film being shot in Detroit starring Terrence Howard
(“August Rush,” “Hustle & Flow”) called “Little Murder.” Their
first scene was filmed at Detroit’s Old Miami nightclub. Bassett is
also picking out material for the next release.


After
spending the last 50 years in the music business, Bassett admits he has
been at it “quite a while.” “And hopefully I can keep doing it for
quite a while,” he said. “I have no plans in quitting.”

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