Still Strummin’

Johnnie Bassett happily sings the blues on his new label
Photograph by Cybelle Codish

His outstanding new CD is titled The Gentleman Is Back, but given fabled Detroit bluesman Johnnie Bassett’s constant performance schedule — impressive at age 73 — and frequent appearances on the podium at The Detroit Music Awards, did he really go anywhere? “It wasn’t because I went away,” Bassett explains. “It was because of the recording industry not having me in the loop. That’s why I say I’m back. I’m back on wax.”

Bassett’s reference to vinyl albums underscores the fact that it’s been nearly 10 years since his last release. His original label, Cannonball Records, folded, and Chris Codish, his longtime collaborator, co-producer of Gentleman and leader of The Brothers Groove, believes the music industry’s prolonged economic freefall made companies balk at signing a senior citizen as a “new” artist.

“We sent it to all the major blues labels, and they all liked it,” Codish says of the CD, three years in the making. “But everyone was reluctant to add another act, even one as great as Johnnie, and he’s really one of the last guys of his generation that’s still playing and has his stuff together.”

The blues lifted in April 2008, when Bassett premiered at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms, owned by Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records CEO Gretchen Valade. The set featured a heartrending version of Hoagy Carmichael’s standard “Georgia on My Mind,” which is included on the album. Afterward, Bassett approached Valade and asked if she enjoyed the show.

“Do you have a record label?” Valade asked.

“No, ma’am,” he replied.

“Well, you do now.”

Bassett, a self-taught guitarist who played on the first recordings by Smokey Robinson, says, “I didn’t go in there to audition. But I got a three-record deal with these people. And the more I hear this record, the more I like it.”

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