By Jim Gallert
Oh Blues…Sweet Blues! Coming from a Black man’s soul. –Excerpt from “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes
The two most influential amplified guitar soloists in the 1940s were Charlie Christian and T-Bone (Aaron Thibeault) Walker. Both men shared Southwestern roots and were taught by the Oklahoma City teacher, Chuck Richardson. Christian died in 1942, aged twenty-five, but his concept was strong and his impact lasted well beyond his lifetime. He had a seemingly limitless supply of catchy riffs. His talent and laid-back, blues-soaked style brought him acclaim and elevated the guitar’s status. Walker was a gifted soloist who was comfortable playing jazz or blues. His flat, hard sound and sophisticated style exemplified 1940s blues. Walker was an exceptional showman who could play his guitar holding it behind his head – while doing splits! Blues guitarists around the country fell under Walker’s spell. He appeared frequently in Detroit, often at the legendary Flame Show Bar, a home to Detroit’s sportin’ life crowd.
Influences and Early Years
Johnnie Bassett was too young to legally gain entry into bars, but he dug T-Bone’s music from the outside. “T-Bone was my main inspiration,” Bassett said, his tone firm and decisive. “I liked his style of playin’. He could play ballads and jazz as well as blues. He was phenomenal. His style has never been duplicated.” Bassett never met Walker, but he viewed his hero from afar on several occasions. Walker’s creative energy, and his use of dynamics to create a sense of drama, also caught young Bassett’s attention. Walker’s showmanship induced Johnnie to copy T-Bone’s guitar and body gumnastics. Not content to be a mimic, he went T-Bone one better in that department: Bassett performed splits while wearing roller skates!
Lucky for him, his parents (William & Cliola) were friends with several blues stars, and they encouraged their youngest child’s interest. Johnnie Alexander Bassett was born on October 9, 1935. The Bassetts had lived in Florida in or near the small panhandle city of Marianna for generations. Marianna was the site of a lynching the year before Johnnie’s birth. Despite the racial tension, the Bassett family enjoyed a peaceful life. William owned “Bassett’s” restaurant which had a local rep for Seafood. Bassett’s was a family affair. Cliola, and Johnnie’s two sisters cooked and waited tables, while Johnnie was tasked with retrieving fish from a large ice-filled barrel. He was still kind of short, and could access the fish only by standing on his tiptoes on a bucket; he occasionally got a cold shower along with the fish. Johnnie’s dad had a side business, too. He was a manufacturer and purveyor of fine quality distilled grain spirits. “My daddy was one of the biggest bootleggers in the County,” he said. “I don’t think they tried to catch him, ’cause the deputy Sheriff was one of his best customers. He didn’t buy pint bottles, he bought jugs of the stuff!”
Despite the potentially fearsome situations Blacks were subjected to, the Bassetts enjoyed good relations with their White neighbors. Johnnie and his siblings attended a separate-but-equal school, but they experienced little of the overt racism most Black families dealt with on a daily basis. “There was very little name calling directed at us,” he claimed. Detroit was much more hostile.” Friendships were formed without regard to race. “We used to play with the deputy Sheriff’s children,” he recalled. “They’d spend the night at house.”
Johnnie’s parents hosted weekend “fish frys” at a rural property owned by his grandmother. He met and heard guitarists Tampa Red and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
Business at the family restaurant declined during World War II, and in 1944 William traveled north to Detroit in search of steady work. Detroit, the “Arsenal of Democracy,” had plenty of factory jobs available, and Bassett quickly found work. He soon sent for his family. They first lived in a rental property in Ferndale, a city across Detroit’s Northeast border, and later lived in Detroit.
Johnnie first became aware of R&B music through broadcasts on WLAC-AM out of Gallatin, Tennessee. “Gene Nobles had a program and he played all of the latest rhythm and blues records,” he remembered. “It was sponsored by Randy’s Record Shop. We used to send away and get records, ’cause you couldn’t find them in Detroit, then. I think the first record I bought had Tiny Grimes on it. I had everything T-Bone did from that time,” Johnnie continued. “I was already playing the harmonica, and I became interested in the sound of the guitar. My sister had a guitar, and she played spirituals. She and my mom would sing them. I wasn’t supposed to touch her guitar, but when I came home from school, I used to take the guitar in the closet and work on it.” He was also encouraged to play by his neighbor, an amateur guitarist and a champion of Open D Tuning, a seldom-used tuning method, which Bassett later would adopt.
When Johnnie entered Northwestern High School in 1951, he enrolled in the music program, thinking he would play guitar. Northwestern had excellent teachers and the program produced many fine musicians who played professionally. But, like many students Bassett found that his instrument of choice had been claimed. He was guided by practical considerations in selecting a substitute. “I looked at the tuba, and thought, ‘No way!’ The smallest instrument there was the clarinet, so that’s what I chose.” Bassett studied clarinet and alto saxophone and played both in the concert and dance bands. He played guitar in the dance band as well. “My brother got me my first electric outfit while I was at Northwestern. It was a Kay guitar,” he said. Johnnie’s parents heard their son play on a gig during this time and they were suitably impressed with his talent. “They said, ‘Wow!'” Johnnie recalled, grinning.
During his final year of High School, Bassett met Joe Weaver, the pianist and (future) bandleader he would work with most often until Bassett was drafted in 1958. “I met Johnnie while he was still at Northwestern,” Joe recalled. “I didn’t know he played guitar. I heard him play one day at a house near his school. Johnnie also plays a hell of a harmonica.” Bassett and Weaver began playing together, and with drummer Calvin Andrews, they became a force on local talent shows. These shows, very popular with Black teens, were held during the summer at theaters across the city. Each band would perform one number. “The emcee would stand behind each group and hold his hand up,” Bassett recalled. “Whoever got the most applause was the winner for the night.” The prize money was substantial, and it provided another incentive for youngsters to hone their music skills. “They paid $50 ($490 in 2021 dollars) for the winner, $25 for second place, and free tickets to the theater for third place,” Johnnie remembered. Weaver and his buddies were impressed by a tenor saxophonist on one show who played a raving solo in the style of R&B wailer “Wild Bill” Moore. “That’s how we met Jesse ‘Mad Lad’ Ullmer,” Bassett recalled. Ullmer accepted their offer to join the band, and Joe Weaver and his Blue Notes began to outdistance the competition. “We played all of the amateur shows – me, Joe, Jesse, and Calvin,” Bassett recalled. “We won first prize so many times they finally hired us to back all the other groups!” There was no bassist in the group; Weaver played the bass line on an Organo.
Detroit was home to many R&B bands during the early 1950s. “Rhythm and Blues” in current Billboard parlance refers to music more genteel and polite than the turbocharged, guitar-and-saxophone-driven blues groups of the 1940s and 1950s. The music these groups created was urgent and compelling, and it packed the emotional wallop of a Mack Truck. Pianists Todd Rhodes and T.J. Fowler and trumpeter King Porter all led groups featuring blues-based horn-powered music. Many other bands featured guitars and/or piano, and they played Chicago-style blues in bars on Hastings Street, a main entertainment drag of Paradise Valley, Detroit’s Black business and culture district. The local hangout for blues guys was Joe’s Record Shop located at 3530 Hastings and owned by Joe Von Battle. Many classic Detroit blues, jazz, gospel, and doo-wop vocal records were cut in the recording studio located in the back of the store and issued on Von Battle’s labels. “It was just a big room,” Joe Weaver recalled. “He had a drum set and a little piano.” Bassett knew Von Battle’s son, Joe Jr., from high school. “He saw us at an amateur show and told his father about the band,” Bassett remembered. “Joe Sr. asked us, ‘Would you guys like to come in and rehearse? Feel free – I’m not booked or anything.’ We were there every day.” The Blue Notes were about to receive their first lesson about the record industry. “Joe was recording us,” said Johnnie. “Without us knowing about it, he had the mic up and the tape machine running. He put our name on the records, and they was sellin’, but we never got paid.”
Von Battle leased four of their tunes to Syd Nathan of King Records, who issued them on his De Luxe label. Leasing was a common practice which seldom benefitted musicians. King had a national distribution network, and, in theory, Von Battle would make more money. Unfortunately, King’s bookkeeping was suspect, and the musicians lost out. “They ripped us off, Johnnie said ruefully. We didn’t know nothin’ about the business end of the record business.” 15-40 Special sold well in the Detroit area, and the Blue Notes garnered publicity, if not cash, from their first recording adventure.
Following the release of 15-40 Special, Johnnie began to attract attention from established musicians and, in addition to his steady thing with Joe Weaver, Johnnie Bassett began working with some of Detroit’s best blues / R&B bands, including T.J. Fowler, John Lee Hooker, and Eddie Burns. Hooker needed a second guitar for a weekend job and he dropped by Joe’s Record Shop to find Bassett. “Someone on Hastings Street told him about me,” Johnnie said, “and he asked me if I would wanna play with him. I told him, ‘sure.’ I didn’t know who he was at that time. I was only eighteen. I asked him, ‘Won’t there be a problem? I’m not old enough. He said, ‘There won’t be a problem.’ We worked in a storefront bar down in Black Bottom, the Monte Carlo. The bandstand was in a little corner; all it had was an old upright piano and drums. I was a little nervous. I asked him what kind of stuff he was gonna play. He said, ‘Just blues.’ I got through the night okay and a couple of weeks later I worked with him again at the same place.”
Recognition by a local blues Star boosted Bassett’s reputation. More folks began coming out to hear the young phenom, and they were not disappointed. Johnnie Bassett and Joe Weaver created a special chemistry together. “When Johnnie and I played together, we had a force,” Weaver said. “And lots of Detroit musicians would come to see us.” The Blue Notes, as they were informally known, also attracted attention from club owners, and they landed a steady job in the Detroit district of Delray at Club Basin Street. They played weekends, and business was good every night. “If you didn’t get into the club by Eleven O’Clock, you wouldn’t get in that night,” Weaver recalled. “We had ’em lined up outside.” The secret to the band’s success was simple: “We played what they wanted to hear,” Joe said. “The funky stuff. People danced to the music. Everything that was a hit on the jukebox, we played.” Master jazz drummer Roy Brooks worked with Weaver many times as a sub, and he recalled clearly the impact of their music. “Man, those guys would throw down! Jesse was a wild tenor player, he’d walk the bar, do splits. He was a real showman. Joe was a good singer. Johnnie played great guitar. Their music was strong, very strong. The audience was mesmerized.”
Earl Williams replaced Calvin Andrews and Bob Friday came in on bass during the Club Basin Street job, bringing the Blue Notes to their fighting weight of five pieces. The Blue Notes success around town, and the ripples created from their two De Luxe releases, caught the ear of the Fortune Records owners. Fortune proved to be the longest-lived of the several small Detroit labels which popped up after WWII. Devora Brown and her husband Jack started Fortune Records in 1947. Devora was a songwriter, and owning a record label was a guaranteed way to get her songs recorded. The offices were first located in the family home on 12th Street. Their early records were cut at local studios. In 1951, the Browns moved their operation to a storefront at 11629 Linwood in which they built a small recording studio in the back room. Their business was just across from Central High School, which provided a potential audience for their records, as well as local talent. Fortune at first concentrated on the white pop and hillbilly record markets. Once the owners became aware of the wealth of Black talent in the city, they put their resources into that area. By 1954, their catalogue was heavily weighted with blues, R&B, and gospel music. Many of the records issued by Fortune featured vocal groups, or singers, which Weaver had rehearsed and then backed up in the studio. “We were the house band,” Bassett said. “Jack would call and say, ‘I got a new group I want you to rehearse,’ and we’d go down there. They would sing something, and we would sit there and listen, and they would tell us, ‘OK, put some music to that.’ No charts, no nothin’. Nobody read any music. They would sing it two or three times, and say, ‘What do you feel? What can you do? Put some music to this thing.’ Joe was very talented at things like that.” Weaver’s ability to crystallize arrangements was responsible for the sound of many records on which the Blue Notes appear. Bassett scanned a list of Doo-Wop groups and stopped at the Five Dollars. He smiled. Those guys! They liked to clown around a lot! All those guys wrote lyrics. All the other bands would come to them for lyrics. They should have been bigger. If they had the proper management, they could have been.”
Detroit, during the 1950s, was fertile ground for jazz, too. The West End Hotel, located near Club Basin Street, was for a time, the after hours spot for jazz musicians and their supporters. Bassett and Weaver spent many nights at the West End, listening to and occasionally sitting in with Detroit’s jazz stars. “I used to hang out at the West End with Paul Chambers and Kenny Burrell,” said Johnnie. “I love jazz, I listen to it all the time, but I never was a jazz musician. I always played what I felt,” he continued. “I would sit in, take a solo, and play what I knew. I was in a learning stage, man. I was a rock ‘n roll guitar player.” He and Burrell talked shop about guitars. Kenny was so impressed with Bassett’s new Gibson ES-175 that, after playing it one night, he ordered the same model. “He had to wait for his,” Johnnie chuckled. “I bought mine off the showroom floor!” He and Kenny admire Oscar Moore, a brilliant guitarist frequently heard with pianist/vocalist Charles Brown.
Johnnie’s comment about being a rock and roll guitarist highlights a cultural shift which erupted during the 1950’s. “The blues had a baby and called it rock and roll” is a simplified way to describe what happened. Blues music was in a sense diluted by the move away from its roots, but the movement also brought wider acclaim and increased recognition of its cultural impact. The popularity of the saxophone in blues music declined as young, mainly white, aspiring blues musicians took up the guitar. Unlike reed instruments, he guitar is a polyphonic instrument. It can take the place of a piano. Many blues and rock bands now share common instrumentation of drums, bass, and two guitars. There is often little difference in technique or volume, but, when playin’ the blues, feeling is everything! The Blue Notes developed to a level suitable for higher-class venues such as the Frolic Show Bar. The Frolic was located on John R Street, across the street from the Flame Show Bar. The Blue Notes shared the bill with blues queen Dinah Washington. Opening night, Dinah was in a jam. “Her band got stranded,” Johnnie recalled. “She came into our dressing room and said, ‘The show must go on, or I won’t get paid.’ So, we rehearsed about six tunes with her and did it! It was great!”
The Blue Notes were in the studio frequently, and some of the records came out under their name, including one release on Jaguar which was likely among the Von Battle material. They branched out, playing the Chitlin’ Circuit. This informal tour route included the Howard Theater in Washington, D. C., the Apollo Theater in N.Y.C., and the Paradise Theater in Detroit, and clubs in the Midwest and South. Bassett, by now aware of the slippery nature of the music business, kept track of the band’s financial deals. “He kept us focused,” bassist Robert Allen recalled. “Johnnie took care of business.” By the time Allen joined the band, around 1957, Bassett had a distinct sound and style on his guitar. “Back then, everybody was trying to sound like B.B. King. He didn’t sound like B.B. King, or T-Bone Walker. Johnnie had a different kind of style. He was a R&B guitarist.” Bassett always kept his ears open, listening for different sounds and songs. He cites Johnny Cash and Roy Clark “for their ability to write about everyday living, things that really happened. That’s what music is all about.” Johnnie has written many songs. He and Joe Weaver co-wrote J.B. Boogie and Loose Caboose which were waxed for Fortune.
Bassett’s tuning method, as mentioned earlier, is uncommon. Earlier blues musicians were often self-taught, and they tuned using their voice. The Vestapol method restricts options in terms of available keys, but gives a fuller sound. A guitar tuned using this method sounds strange to schooled musicians who tune their instrument conventionally. Robert Allen and Kenny Burrell thought Johnnie’s instrument “sounded funny,” and Burrell asked to re-tune Bassett’s guitar before playing it.
The Army Years
Johnnie Bassett was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958, age twenty-three, and served two years. He was stationed near Seattle, Washington and he spent his free time playing music in Seattle night clubs. The pay scale for musicians was so favorable that Bassett’s income from playing exceeded his Army wage.
Johnnie cycled between Detroit and Seattle after his discharge in 1960 and finally settled in Seattle in 1962. He put his Northwestern High School training to good use. “I played alto sax, bongos and conga drum, vibes and guitar in the Overton Berry Ensemble,” he said. “I played guitar in the Gil Ray combo. I was also working with a trio – guitar, organ, and drums. I was working six nights a week.” Seattle was a jazz town and it had few noteworthy blues guitarists when Bassett was there. “The one guitarist that was a showman didn’t know that much. Just a blues man. I could play ballads, and I had over two hundred songs in my repertoire. Not just blues, but country and western, jazz, everything.”
During his Seattle stay, he had a close experience with a young guitarist who was on the verge of a major impact with rock and roll. “My organ trio had a steady club gig and we was also booked into an after hours spot which had jam sessions and topless dancing. “I’d been noticing this kid, he’d come in and just sit and watch. One night, he wanted to play. I said, ‘I don’t have any problem with that, come on.’ Well, he got up and played something he’d written, and it was…strange, strange, strange! Strange stuff!” Johnnie chuckled at the memory. “I asked him, ‘Where did you hear this stuff?’ And he said, ‘It just comes out of my head. I wanted to see if I could play it with a group.’ Everybody was looking at him real funny. It was hard to follow him. ‘Cause it wasn’t blues and it wasn’t jazz. It was rock, blues, and jazz, combined.” At the end of the set, Jimi Hendrix introduced himself to Johnnie and quizzed him about playing the blues which, Hendrix felt, would add a needed dimension to his own playing. “He said, ‘I got all this music, but it don’t sound right. I’m missing something. How do you play the blues?’ I told him, It’s not how you play the blues, it’s what you play and how you feel it. He asked about phrasing, and I told him, ‘you could copy what I do, but it won’t be you.'” Hendrix went away and returned a few weeks later. “Next time he sat in, he’d re-phrased some of the stuff he played, and it sounded very different. The last time I ever saw him was about a month after that. He brought some of his own music in, and he showed my organ player on her organ how he wanted it played. He wanted me to hear what he’d accomplished. He brought his amplifier and we both played. He was putting more blues into his playing. Jimi wasn’t into chord structure, he liked to riff. He could really play. He got everybody’s attention when he started singin’.” Bassett lost touch with Hendrix, and when a few years later he heard a Hendrix record, he couldn’t believe it was the same guy. “He had developed the stuff he played the first time I heard him. He had some ideas…that nobody had ever heard of. That was what he felt…But, there was some blues in there, too.”
Bassett quit Seattle in 1965, ironically for the same reason he chose to stay: Plenty of work. “I needed a vacation,” he says. “My family was back in Detroit, so I came back.” Johnnie put together a trio which first included Detroit’s B-3 legend, Ben Baber, and, later, Clarence Price. “The organ trio thing was popular because of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Bill Doggett. Everybody wanted to hear Honky Tonk.” They worked a series of lounges around Detroit. Bassett also worked at Phelp’s Lounge, on Oakland Avenue, in Detroit’s North End. “We’d back up different acts every week,” drummer George Davidson remembers. “A lot of Motown groups came through Phelp’s Lounge.” Bassett added yet another instrument to his musical arsenal while working with his organ trio. He started to sing professionally. “I never thought about singing,” He said. “I was too frightened. Joe Weaver and I used to harmonize on some things, but that wasn’t very good. I used to learn stuff by B.B. King, Arthur Prysock, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and and sing ’em around the house. Anyway, one night at the club I sang Happy Birthday and the owner said, ‘why don’t you sing something else?’ So I started to sing.” Bassett’s voice is gritty and sounds world-weary. His singing is as expressive and soulful as his guitar work.
Bassett broke up his trio around 1989 and started playing in cabarets with various big bands. He joined Chicago Pete and the Detroiters, led by his old friend from his Joe Weaver days. “Johnnie’s a hell of a musician,” Pete stated. “He fit the band perfectly.” The band comprised four horns and rhythm. “I like working in a big band,” Bassett said. “But, I get a deeper feel with a small group. You can say more on your instrument, and have it heard, as opposed to the distraction of a larger group.” Drummer R.J. Spangler heard Bassett play with Ben Baber at the 1992 Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival, and he decided Johnnie was someone he wanted to work with. “I really liked his tone,” said Spangler. “It reminded me of T-Bone Walker.” Spangler, a blues activist with a keen sense of Detroit’s music history, set about organizing an appropriate setting for Bassett. First came the Heid-Bassett Blues Insurgents, with Bill Heid on organ and vocals, Scott Petersen on reeds, Bassett and Spangler. Johnnie Bassett and the Blues Insurgents followed in 1994, with Chris Codish replacing Bill Heid. The final iteration features Codish, Spangler, Bassett and tenor saxist Keith Kaminski.
Bassett’s friend from T.J. Fowler’s band, Dezi McCullers, then playing tenor sax rather than trumpet, occasionally jobbed with the band. Work was plentiful the last years of Bassett’s life. Johnnie believed the blues was gaining a foothold among young Black children. “They understand a little more of it because of the ‘rap music’ thing, he said.
Long Gone are the days when playing music could provide a comfortable living -even for a gifted musician. Bassett’s parents instilled in him a strong work ethic. Johnnie’s first day job was at a sheet metal concern. He was around twenty. It was the same place his dad settled at after he came North in 1944, and from which he retired. “I got a day job when I came back to Detroit in ’65,” said Johnnie. “Most musicians back then worked during the day and played only on weekends. I work for a community Medical service now,” he continued. “We’re dealing with mental patients. Four days a week. I drive a van for non-emergency transport. I’ve worked for them for eighteen months. I don’t know how much longer I can do it, my band’s playin’ so much. Very stressful,” scratching his chin and yawning. “I don’t write stuff anymore,” he continues. “Don’t have the time, really. I got some good stuff I thought about doin’ with the guys, but we can never get enough time, ’cause these guys work all the time. That’s all they do is music.” Bassett leaned back in his recliner and stretched. A dreamy look surfaced in his eyes, the kind of look a man gets when he’s thinking of hitting the jackpot. “After all this time, I might get a shot at goin’ over, and making a couple good bucks on it.” He grinned and said, “It sure beats the hell out of going to work everyday!”
Johnnie Bassett has persevered for forty years, playing his music, struggling to make ends meet, working day jobs. Recalling his early days, he said, “It was more hectic for musicians back then. We played blues and we went through periods when we didn’t get paid for a gig, stuff like that. It was tough.” He recently quit his day job, a sign of confidence in his present band. They had a recently released album which garnered airplay and favorable reviews, and a gig in Holland in 1996. “It’s been a long struggle,” Johnnie said, and through it all he never lost touch with his roots, always played what he felt. Ask him how he developed his style, and he’ll tell you the same thing he told a young Jimi Hendrix. “I can’t explain that. What you hear is what I feel. Technique you can explain, but you can’t explain feelings. No two people have the same feelings about a certain song. It’s like a fingerprint.” Joe Weaver added, “As long as I been playin’, there ain’t but one guitarist who can’t be duplicated. The man got somethin’ all his own. And, that man is Johnnie Bassett.”
Johnnie went on to have twenty-two years of success with his Blues Insurgents, at home and abroad. He recorded for several labels. His final recordings were made for Sly Dog records. Johnnie Bassett died of Cancer on August 4, 2012.
An abridged version of this feature appeared in Detroit Blues, Summer 1996.
Special thanks to R.J. Spangler