Johnnie Bassett, blues singer and guitarist, dies at 76


Johnnie Bassett, a blues singer and guitarist with an urbane, jazzy style and whose studio work included the early recordings of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, died Aug. 4 at a hospital in Detroit. He was 76. (Ricardo Thomas/The Detroit News)
August 9, 2012

Johnnie Bassett, a blues singer and guitarist with an urbane, jazzy style and whose studio work included the early recordings of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, died Aug. 4 at a hospital in Detroit. He was 76.

His death from liver cancer was confirmed by his publicist Matt Lee.

Mr. Bassett’s brand of swing and jump blues with a small horn section often contrasted with the rock-flavored guitar work of other headliners at blues festivals.

Growing up near Detroit, he began playing guitar in his early teens and started a jump blues band with singer and pianist Joe Weaver while in high school. The group, the Blue Notes, performed at talent shows sponsored by local promoter Frank Brown in Detroit’s black community.

When the band won too many contests, Brown barred them from the competition. However, he paid them to accompany other contestants, including future soul star Little Willie John.

With Weaver as singer, the band recorded in 1953 for the local JVB and Fortune record labels. For Fortune, the band served as a session unit behind such prominent doo-wop performers as Andre Williams and the Five Dollars, the Royal Jokers and Nathaniel Mayer.

Mr. Bassett’s shimmering chord work can be heard on the classic doo-wop ballad “The Wind” (1954) by Nolan Strong and the Diablos. He later played on early recordings by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Outside the studio, the Blue Notes backed up touring singers Dinah Washington and LaVern Baker when they performed at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit.

After Army service, Mr. Bassett returned to Detroit in 1965 and spent several years as a sideman and occasionally a featured singer in blues and jazz bands. In 1991, he formed a jump blues band, the Blues Insurgents, with drummer R.J. Spangler, keyboardist Bill Heid and saxophonist Scott Petersen.

The Blues Insurgents released several albums including “Cadillac Blues” (1998), co-produced in Memphis by former Al Green arranger, Willie Mitchell.

Johnnie Alexander Bassett was born Oct. 9, 1935, in Marianna, Fla., where his father was a bootlegger and restaurateur. The family moved to the Detroit area in the mid-1940s.

Survivors include his wife, Deborah Campbell of Oak Park, Mich.; a daughter; and three stepchildren; a brother; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Mr. Bassett thought of his music as positive and driving — qualities he said were sometimes missing from contemporary blues.

“I like jump-type stuff because it gives you energy,” Mr. Bassett told the Detroit Free Press in 2009. “There’s enough draggy blues to be found, if you’re so inclined. But when you put a little jump into it, people come alive. They need upbeat music to help take them to a better place. ”

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