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Detroit music legend Johnnie Bassett passes away

for Journal Register Newspapers

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The Gentleman is not with us any longer.

Johnnie Bassett, the blues and jazz guitarist known as The Gentleman and who became one of Detroit's most treasured and accomplished musician passed away last Saturday night, Aug. 4, at St. John's Hospital in Grosse Pointe Farms after battling cancer. He was 76.

With his tasteful and restrained style, Bassett's connection with his audiences, both around Detroit and elsewhere, was simple. "I just love to play," he would explain. "People come out and enjoy it and the guys I'm playing with are enjoying it and having fun with it. As long as that's happening, I'll keep doing it."

Detroit musician Chris Codish, who co-produced Bassett's last two albums -- 2009's "The Gentleman is Back" and this year's "I Can Make That Happen," both for Harper Woods-based Sly Dog Records -- remembered Bassett as "such a great blues player. He's refined. He plays with a certain elegance and style, and he's just a real smooth guy."

Bassett was born in Marianna, Fla., where his father was a traveling alcohol bootlegger and got hooked on music via fish fries his grandmother would throw there, where blues masters such as Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, Tampa Red, B.B. King, Lonnie Johnson and others performed. He started playing guitar as a teenager, after his family moved to Detroit. "slamming around" on an old arched-top instrument his sister owned and getting informal front-porch lessons from a neighbor. "I'd work in it for three, four hours at a time," Bassett recalled. When he got his first electric guitar as a gift from an older brother, "I just fell in love with it. That was the start."

Bassett did a stint in the army, stationed in Seattle and living there for a time, where he met a young Jimi Hendrix. Returning to Detroit, Bassett also worked as a cab dispatcher and on an auto factory line, but music was his primary passion and occupation. He played with Uncle Jessie White before forming the Bluenotes with keyboardist Joe Weaver, which led to gigs with John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Eddie Burns and a tenure as the house band for Detroit's Fortune Records label. Bassett and company also spent a bit of time at Chess Records in Chicago and played on the first sessions by the Miracles, which produced the single "Got a Job."

"It was fun, just fun -- that's all we were having," Bassett said. "They didn't ever pay us. They sent out and got some lunch meat and some crackers and some pop, fed us some lunch, and we went right to playing."

Bassett, an avid Mason, recorded five of his own albums over the course of his career and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Blues Society in 1994. "The Gentleman is Back" was named Outstanding National Small/Independent Label Recording at the 2010 Detroit Music Awards, where Bassett was also named Outstanding Blues R&B Instrumentalist and Outstanding Blues/R&B Artist.

Bassett is survived by his wife, Deborah, daughter Benita Litt, stepdaughters Lynn Tolbert and Cortney Campball, stepson Kennith Pringle. brothers William Bassett and Jimmy Studard and sister Louise Lawson.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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