Traditional Greek and ethnic restaurants, night clubs, coffee houses and bakeries are just some of the attractions that bring generations of Metro Detroiters and visitors to Greektown.
It is here that the summer festival season of excitement begins in Motown. This year was no exception as the 10th Annual Greektown Arts Festival was held May 19-21, 2000. It showcased the musical talent of local and national acts such as: Brothers Groove, Big Al & the Heavyweights, Larry McCray, Sun Messengers and Sir Mack Rice. However, it was Johnnie Bassett’s Detroit Blues Review that drew the largest crowd and was the picture perfect grand finale.
It’s taken the blues world 40 years to finally catch up with and recognize Bassett. Johnnie and his band were honored with numerous Handy Award nominations in 1999 and 2000. In addition, he has been the recipient of numerous Detroit Music Awards. Johnnie Bassett is no longer a stranger to anyone following today’s blues scene. However his long history in Motown may not be well known.
This Florida born, T-Bone Walker influenced guitarist has been gigging around Detroit since the 1950s. Still in high school at that time Bassett met pianist Joe Weaver and the two of them were soon backing all the vocal groups on the Fortune label and putting out their own recordings. After spending time in the army, Johnnie returned to the blues and Detroit. There he gave his life to the blues but never achieved the national recognition he deserved. All that finally changed in the early 90s. After hearing Bassett at the Montreaux Detroit Jazz Festival, drummer and blues enthusiast R.J. Spangler created the first incarnation of the Blues Insurgents. R.J. became Johnnie’s bandleader and ensured the band gigged constantly. They put out some locally distributed CDs and were eventually signed to Cannonball Records. The rest as they say is history.
Johnnie and his Blues Insurgents began their performance with an instrumental. From the very first note, Johnnie’s guitar (complete with his name on it) was steaming as much as the surrounding manholes. They then dove right into "Bassett Hound." In the song, Johnnie describes himself as a playful puppy. He is pretty accurate as the tune featured some very lively jazzy guitar and humorous lyrics. Boogie woogie pianist Al Hill ripped through his 88s making us all realize why he now is a permanent member of the band.
"Party My Blues Away" really lacked the sax of absent Insurgent Keith Kaminski. Nonetheless this lively number had most of the crowd shaking their boogie. Johnnie’s voice was gruff and sassy and his riffs twisted and turned in the finest of jazz traditions. "Cadillac Blues" followed with its lyrics that fit perfectly in the downtown Detroit setting. Throughout the set, Pat "Detroit Red" Prouty laid the foundation with his fine electric bass.
Roots music legend, Alberta Adams is one of the great hidden treasures of the blues world. She is the undisputed empress of Detroit blues. In a career that spans seven decades, Adams has sung with everybody who's anybody. She's traded songs with Big Joe Turner and LaVern Baker in their heydays, toured with the king of R&B, Louis Jordan, and with the genius of jazz, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.
Miss Adams took to the stage with her signature dog howls and the honky tonk number called "Goin Home Tomorrow." She is a dynamite performer despite her age. She excels at getting the crowd worked up and inciting the band members to reach and achieve higher musical grounds. Alberta loves singing raucously about those no good men and therefore her version of the Ma Rainy classic "He May Be Your Man" was one of the highlights of her set.
She and Johnnie interacted marvelously with each other and their matching maroon outfits made them the best dressed couple at the festival. They bantered about the size Alberta once was versus the size she is now. Johnnie said he could recall when she was more petite while Adams referred to herself as a big leg woman. She was even coerced into revealing some of her leg! Alberta was thrilled by the number of people taking pictures and poised several times mid-song.
Joe Weaver started out in the early '50s playing blues, boogie-woogie and R&B. Back then, Joe, Johnnie and their band, the Bluenotes, went on to work regular gigs around Detroit. They also started recording and had their first hit on the Deluxe label. After that, they became the house band for Fortune Records. Joe ended up backing many of the great artists from the Motown era like: the Miracles, Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
After the heyday of classic R&B ended, Joe opted for a normal job and the steady income available by working for the Ford Motor Company. Today, Joe has retired from Ford and this has allowed his music career to be put back on track. He recently returned from his first gig in Europe (the prestigious Blues Estefette in Holland). In addition, his first recording in many years is out on the Black Magic label. On the CD, Joe is joined by his old buddy Johnnie Bassett on guitar.
Joe began his portion of the Review with his most famous song, "Baby I Love You So." It was complete with 2 backing singers doo-wopping their way right out of the 50s. Weaver has an ideal R&B voice which at times is reminiscent of early Junior Wells. Joe then eased himself off the stage and sang the heartfelt lyrics of "I Found A Love" as he walked through the crowd. The whole audience was touched by his dynamic and emotional performance.
The crowd insisted on an encore and you can imagine our delight when Alberta, Joe and Sir Mack Rice joined Johnnie Bassett and the Blues Insurgents for one more swinging number. They ripped into "Say Baby Say," the title track of Alberta Adams’ sophomore release on Cannonball. This segued into "Everyday I Have Blues." Throughout the afternoon Bassett proved to be a classy gentleman by not stealing any of the limelight during the performances of his old friends. He was happy to sit back and be a member of the Blues Insurgents as the backing band for the day. Say baby say, what a show!
Johnnie, Alberta and Joe will be performing together at the following festivals this summer: Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, OR; Poconos Blues Festival in Blakesee, PA; Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, CA and the San Francisco Blues Festival.
Opening act for the Detroit Blues Review was local blues belter Thornetta Davis. She had on a bright orange neon dress which she referred to as her ‘church outfit’. She has been singing the blues around the Motor City for many years and has plenty of time to find national recognition. Her energetic set was on the verge of hard rock but her voice is equal to a choir of angels. Davis squeezed some numbers in which we have come to expect from her such as: "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On." "Feels Like Religion" was a pure scorcher which lead to a psychedelic Cream sounding encore of "U.S. Dollar Bill."
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.