Johnnie Bassett, a blues eminence and a connection for today’s Detroit musicians to the era of Fortune and early Motown, has died at age 76. The singer-guitarist-front man died Saturday night at St. John Hospital in Grosse Pointe, losing a battle with cancer that had hospitalized him about three weeks earlier.
“It sounds trite, but we won’t see any more like him,” said publicist Matt Lee, who had known and worked with Johnnie for years.
Bassett had recently released his second CD for Sly Dog, I Can Make That Happen. And while no one harbored notions that it would make him a late-life star, it was the kind of polished contemporary blues record that would likely have given his substantial career another boost on the scene beyond Detroit, while reminding the hometowners of another great talent in their midst.
Until illness sidelined him, he’d been playing a weekly spot at Northern Lights Lounge, and he made the rounds of spots like Cliff Bell’s and the Dirty Dog, which is owned by jazz patron Gretchen Valade, a major Bassett booster. (Sly Dog is the blues arm of Mack Avenue Records.)
Bassett was a low-key, steady presence, a sideman going back to Fortune and early Motown sessions in 1950s, who stepped out front in a big way during the 1990s following a Detroit jazz festival gig with drummer R.J. Spangler. That led led to the formation of the group the Blues Insurgents and a long-running residency at Greektown's Music Menu, not to mention records and touring. Never flashy, Bassett brought to the stage more smolder than flame, but you couldn’t miss the intensity of the smolder. He wanted to bring you into the music, not to bowl you over.
“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,” he told MT’s Brett Callwood for the City Slang column back in June.
He’s been featured in a number of MT articles over the years, including these, which get at his import: