All but a few of the direct links to the days when New Orleans R&B ruled the world have passed, but Walter “Wolfman” Washington still provides a window into that world on a regular basis. Washington, still vital at 75, plays frequently in New Orleans with two different groups—the long running Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters, a Wednesday night fixture at d.b.a.; and a trio with organist Joe Krown and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. at the Maple Leaf.
Washington’s discography includes numerous recordings with those bands along with his crucial work with Johnny Adams, Eddie Bo, Lee Dorsey and others. His new album recorded with a different group of musicians, My Future Is My Past, is an intimate collection of acoustic performances showcasing Washington’s sensitive, emotional baritone and plaintive falsetto. The recording, produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman and featuring a gallery of New Orleans musicians including Irma Thomas, Ivan Neville, Jon Cleary, Stanton Moore, James Singleton and David Torkanowsky, has brought Washington to the attention of a new generation of fans. I caught up with Washington next door to Tipitina’s right at the moment when Galactic was about to complete the purchase of the club and days before Washington was set to celebrate his 75th birthday with a concert at the storied venue. The affable Washington, resplendent in his trademark dark red suit and jaunty cap, carried on an eccentric and fascinating conversation full of elliptical reminiscences and philosophical observations. Washington talks like he sings, hovering through an intimate, sotto voce monologue then leaping unexpectedly into exclamations, usually accompanied by sweeping, arching hand gestures and a comic tilt of his head.
Walter’s conversational style is not linear, but it is revealing because it contains so much of his personality. You must listen closely when you speak with this gentleman. We started by talking about his family, parents Marie and Edward Washington and assorted uncles and cousins, and how the instruction he learned from them growing up in Central City directed his life. In Walter’s extended family there were many musicians including his cousin Ernie K-Doe and uncles Lightnin’ Slim and Guitar Slim.
You just had a big Thanksgiving celebration at your house.
Yes. We like to have members of the band over and some friends every Thanksgiving.
Is this a tradition that goes back to your own family history?
Yes. We had some big gatherings. There was 14 on my mama’s side. I had an adopted sister. They had me at a time when I came along they weren’t expecting to have any children. My dad was in World War II. I didn’t hear too much about it. He was in combat but he didn’t want to talk about it when he came home.
My mama she sung in the choir. We had a group called the True Love and Gospel Singers. That kind of got me interested in music. I had an uncle and a couple of cousins in that group. But I wasn’t playing guitar then.
How did you start on electric guitar?
K-Doe had bought an electric guitar and amp and he tried to learn how to play it but that didn’t work out so he gave it to me. From then on I played electric guitar. I had learned how to play chords. It just came to me natural when I picked it up and started to play. I learned by watching people. Because I knew how to sing it was easy for me to play a chord. At first I had it tuned to open chords.
Growing up in Central City you must have seen the Mardi Gras Indians.
K-Doe, he masked for a couple of years. When he decided he was gonna mask he had everybody sewing his suit. Around this time of the year he started to get his suit together. I would sit there and help him.
Was there a lot of music in your house growing up?
There was always music on the radio. WBOK… I would listen to Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King—then when I got a chance to meet them that was really good.
The first one I met on a gig was B.B. King. He had just put out ‘Three O’Clock in the Morning’ and it just so happened I was staying in the same hotel and the next time I met him I was opening up for him.
I only met Bobby once when he came to New Orleans to do a recording and his guitar player fell and broke his arm. I was with David Lastie in the Lastie Brothers. I was the only guitar player that was in the studio at that time. So I played on the record but I couldn’t get credit for it because I wasn’t in the musicians union.
Did K-Doe hook you up with a lot of gigs?
Well he knew a lot of people that I wanted to know so that’s how that happened. People would come by the house and play, talk. We lived in the same house. He stayed on one side, I stayed on the other side.
That’s how you met Lee Dorsey?
Well that was really accidental, because the bass player was getting ready to go on the road with Lee, but they needed a guitar and he asked me if I wanted to go. I told him you gotta talk to my mama, so Lee came by the house and told her I would be all right. That was my very first what you would call… experience.
Your first gig was at the Apollo in New York.
Right. Very first gig.
Was that scary?
Yeah. I wanted to prove myself. I went out there and I started playing too loud. That was an experience. I played right before Joe Tex. But that wasn’t the first time I hung out with him. I had started working at the sugar mill in Racine. On weekends we would go down to Thibodaux to see the band and sometimes I would sit in with the cats. Joe Tex came into town and he was looking for a band. But when I got the gig with Lee, that’s when I met up with him in New York.
You went out on the road with Lee for a period of time.
Two years and six months.
And you sent all the money home to mama.
At that time we were playing ballrooms. I was making $700 dollars a week. She put it in the bank and when I got home I had $43,000. It took me 12 years to spend it.
What were you doing during that time?
I just sat around the house. Irma decided she wanted to have a band and she knew I was home so she hired me. She had a band, no keyboards, but five horns. The Tornados.
It came out pretty good. Except that we had to go out of town every week in a station wagon. The last gig I played with Irma was in Tampa, Florida opening up for Wilson Pickett. We stayed at an army base. Wilson stayed at a hotel. There were a bunch of girls at the gig and we said we’re gonna bring them back with us. When the gig was over all of them followed us. They even left me behind, they had to come back and get me.
After that time with Irma I just sat around until David gave me a call, then I went with them. I started out with Lee, then I went with Irma, then the Lasties.
After that I started working with David. We were playing mostly Dixieland funk. I did Ray Charles stuff and blues and they did Dixieland. At that point I learned a lot more about playing. I learned a lot of chords. I learned a lot more about phrasing. I learned more about what it really means to play a chord. How to think on that chord as a word instead of a chord. It’s not as simple as it sounds. You have to understand the message that the title was giving. If you understand the title, it’s easy to understand the chord changes. I learned a lot of that from the keyboard player Ed Frank. When I started playing with David, he would pull me on the side and say ‘You got to play this chord like this…’ I was interested in playing, so I would be out at the club in my neighborhood Off Limits, until 3 o’clock in the morning, that’s where all the musicians would come after their gigs. Sometimes they would have four or five drummers, three or four guitar players, beaucoup horn players, one or two organ players. It was fun.
And you played at the Dew Drop?
That was one of the gigs that I got from Johnny Adams.
Johnny used to come by the house when we had the spiritual group. Later Johnny was working at the Dew Drop and I told him I was looking for a job. So he got me a job at the Dew Drop. I lived upstairs.
You went on to work for Johnny for two decades, including the famous gig at the late night club Dorothy’s Medallion, with the go-go dancers dancing in cages. How did you get that job?
She [Dorothy] didn’t have no band when I first started. It was so funny because I had played with Johnny there and she said ‘How would you like to be the house band? I’ll work with you. You can stay here.’ So I was living there. It was wild. There wasn’t much room to dance. You could hardly see who was dancing. It was dark. All they had was candle lights on the tables. She had these black lights on the girls in the cages. Everything was dark. We played until the sun came up.
Does the music take on a special quality when you play in a club like that?
It’s more of an intimate thing. The way we was set up we was right by the men’s bathroom in the corner. There were tables right in front of us. They didn’t have much room to dance. Dorothy had some apartments across the street. I was staying there because I was playing in the club.
You made several records for Rounder with producer Scott Billington when you were with Johnny. Then you started making your own records for Rounder.
When I was with Irma I had a chance to record some songs for Senator Jones but I had never recorded an album so I had a lot of material that I did. We made Wolf Tracks. That came out pretty good.
How did you get the Roadmasters together?
I was playing with a vocalist, Timothea, and she wanted to get a band together. I already had a drummer, Wilbert Arnold, so we needed a bass player and that’s when I met Jack Cruz and we’ve been together ever since.
You also play with Joe Krown and Russell Batiste in a classic organ trio.
I got into that trio thing playing at the Dew Drop and at some of the churches I sang at.
Even though your music is about fun and partying to a large extent there’s a deeply spiritual element to it.
That’s from coming up in the church. I understood there was a supreme being. I went to church but after a while they stopped talking about God and they got into all this ‘What Sally did to John’ stuff [that night I dreamed Walter wrote a song called ‘Mustang Salome’]. I wasn’t interested in that stuff. I was just interested in God, in the spirit. It just make you feel good.
Music is central to almost all religions. You’ve tapped into something there. And now, this far into your career, you’ve made an acoustic record that concentrates on your singing. It’s a whole new direction for you.
It made me feel very strong in my projection. I didn’t listen to it until it was finished and then I said ‘Oh Lord this is really great!’ There are a lot of songs I used to do on it. The sound of the record is really good. Better than my other records.
The record kind of brings you full circle. There’s a song you sing with Irma Thomas, “Even Now,” written by Johnny Adams, and a song you used to do with Johnny, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind.” And then there’s a song by K-Doe, “I Cried My Last Tear.”
I’ve been wanting to do one of K-Doe’s songs for a long time but I just couldn’t find the right one. But I have a couple of other ones that I would like to do.
Looking back at your life and having K-Doe be such a part of it what do you think about him?
I realized … he always was my favorite cousin. He was my favorite. He was the one who told me that whenever you go to the Apollo then you got your career. Wherever you go you have that. Mostly he would talk to me about how to live. When he bought that first Cadillac it was something. When you buy a Cadillac in those days you had to be making some money or have some prestige or something. He hired me one time to play with him. He had a group called the Matadors. His guitarist went into the service and I played with him for like three or four months.
So here you are at 75 with an amazing career behind you and one still ahead of you.
Looking back at all these years now it has come to the point where I see where I’m going and how I have to get there but I’m just gonna take it slow now. I came in on the tail end of the time when most of the great musicians were out there. I paid attention to a lot of the elders. To me this is one of the glory times. I’ve been wanting every day to become a pillar of New Orleans music. And it seems to have gotten to that point. Always try. Even now I’m not giving up I’m just trying to make it better. I got a lot to be thankful for. I’m looking forward to being the King of Krewe du Vieux. I don’t know if they gonna make me wear a crown instead of my cap.