Photo by Ronald Eggleston
2012 awardee, Oak Park (Oakland County), Blues guitar and vocals
Blues guitarist and vocalist Johnnie Bassett was born in Florida in 1935. He grew up surrounded by music, hearing church gospel music and listening to his father’s large collection of blues recordings. His family would hold big, all-day fish fries where touring bluesmen played, including Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson. In his early teens, Johnnie’s family moved to Detroit and it was then that he realized these bluesmen were nationally known, prominent musicians and not just his father’s friends. He began playing guitar as a teen, obtaining lessons from a neighbor. His older brother bought him a used electric guitar and small amplifier and Johnnie was on his way to a life-long career in music.
Back to top of page
He met Uncle Jessie White in Joe’s Record Shop in Detroit, and soon after formed an R&B group called the Blue Notes with fellow teen Joe Weaver. After winning local talent contests and cutting a few singles, they began backing up musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Mr. Bo, and Eddie Burns in local blues clubs. The Blue Notes became the house band at Detroit’s Fortune Records and from 1953 to 1956 they appeared on 46 recordings.
During his long music career in Detroit he added singing to his repertoire. He played at the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival in the early 1990s and recorded several recordings, including “I Gave My Life to the Blues” (1996). His style has been called “pre-Motown” and has polished, blending influences of blues, swing and jazz. Johnnie is known for enunciating every syllable of every word. He writes sometimes-funny stories of life and love, and includes numerous references to Detroit’s automotive industry. In 1994 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Blues Society. For his outstanding musicianship and lifelong dedication to the blues in Detroit, he is honored with a 2012 Michigan Heritage Award.