The Virginia General Assembly never picked a winner in the State Song Contest it launched nine years ago, but for Virginians of a certain age it was no contest anyway. For them, "Sweet Virginia Breeze," by Richmond natives Steve Bassett and Robbin Thompson, has been the unofficial state song for nearly thirty years.
"Robbin and I had met down in The Fan," Bassett told me recently, "a couple of singer-songwriters in the same area. We decided to do a free concert together in Shaeffer Court at VCU. We were rehearsing for that, and I got there a little early. He was sitting on his front porch with his guitar, strumming it, singing, ‘sweet Virginia breeze, sweet Vir-gin-ia breeze.’ I said, ‘Come on, man, let’s go inside and play with it.’ In 20 minutes, we had written the song."
They premiered it two days later at the VCU show.
"The crowd went nuts the first time we ever played it. We made an album together, and we sold more of that album in Virginia than anyone else did in Virginia that year."
It’s a safe bet that Bassett will sing "Sweet Virginia Breeze" Wednesday night in his solo concert at The Circle in Portsmouth. But he’s got a lot of other things up his sleeve too. His life has been filled with fascinating adventures in music.
"I took piano lessons when I was twelve," he remembered, "but I didn’t take ‘em for long because I showed up having not practiced; instead of reading music, I was just sort of playing through it by ear. The teacher told my mom she couldn’t teach me any more. So I, with some paper route money, bought a little AceTone organ. I played that in little bands during junior high and high school playing stuff like ’96 Tears’ and ‘Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,’ stuff that had signature organ parts in it.
"Richmond was pretty much soul city, so at all the fraternity parties at University of Richmond and University of Virginia, the bands that were the biggest were the ones that played the hard blues, soul music—James Brown, Otis Redding, Johnny Taylor. There were several bands around Richmond that had a B-3 organ with ‘em. My little organ—my dad made some blocks that I could set it up higher on; my mom made a little skirt that went all the way around it to hide the legs and the blocks—it kinda looked like I had a big organ, but it wasn’t."
After graduating from Douglas Freeman High School, Bassett spent six weeks in college before hitting the music trail.
"Somewhere around 1970," he said, "I was working as the stage manager of a rock concert down in Myrtle Beach and an act came in called Teegarden and Van Winkle. They were from Tulsa but they had moved to Detroit and were being managed by the same people that managed Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The two pieces were drums and Hammond organ. I was knocked out by the band, heard that they were losing one of their roadies, and got in the van with them that night and went to Detroit. I was their roadie for a year and every night I watched Skip Van Winkle kicking this Hammond B-3 organ like nobody I’d ever seen—kicking the pedals, chucking with his left hand, playing solos with his right hand and singing at the same time.
"After about a year they split up and the drummer went with Bob Seger. The organ player put together an eight-piece soul band. I stayed up there and sang with that band. He was pretty much my B-3 mentor. When I came home to Richmond after that, I bought a Hammond B-3 organ."
Bassett’s closest brush with the big time came when he was signed by legendary producer and record executive John Hammond in 1980.
"There was a fellow who had some ownership in a studio in Richmond," he explained. "Bruce Springsteen used to use Richmond as his second home, and his band Steel Mill was popular here. This fellow had ended up with some recordings of Bruce. He made it his business to get in touch with John Hammond to make these recordings available.
"One time I went to New York and he arranged for me to meet Mr. Hammond. So I went over to his office, sat down at his piano and he said, ‘Play me a few songs.’ And I did. I played some songs I’d written.
"His comment to me when I got done was he’d never heard a white man sing like that. He took me under his wing and became my uncle for a while. He signed me immediately to a record label that he had established called John Hammond Records, but somehow that label didn’t come together so he took me to Columbia and had them sign me. They signed me not because they thought I was doing anything that they could sell; they signed me because I was with John Hammond.
"It was at a time when Saturday Night Fever had just sold trillions. The business was changing, and the whole concept of taking an artist through a couple or three records to create a market for them was all over. It was ‘play me something that we can sell a million of right out of the box.’ And they didn’t hear that in what I did, so it was a short lived relationship with Columbia.
"You gotta really want the big time to get it. I was told by the head of the promotion department that all I had to do was pad his back pocket and we could do about anything we wanted. And I chose not.
"In the big league, airplay and product placement in stores is pretty much bought and sold."
Still, Steve Bassett got to live out the dream of many musicians, to become friends with people like Hammond and Jerry Wexler, who coproduced his album; Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and more. Best of all, he’s made his living playing music. He laughed when I asked if he’d ever had a "real job."
"My sarcastic response to that is usually, ‘Yeh, for about 43 years now!’ It seems real to me.
"I love making records, I’ve made eighteen now, but my passion and my talent is really as an entertainer and performer. The chance that I’ve had all these years, to sing for people live, is what I was all about in the beginning."
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.