When we began discussing possible covers for our 1991 year-end issue, the choice quickly became obvious. Only one act managed to release not one, but two strong albums of decidedly Big Easy music this year, while at the same time receiving very little coverage—Walter “Wolfman” Washington and his band, the Roadmasters (additionally, we figured they’d be good sports about being photographed in Santa hats). A closer look at Walter and company seemed appropriate.
And year’s end finds Washington and his Roadmasters extremely optimistic about their collective future, with good reason. The band’s first-ever tour of Japan is scheduled for March, offering a much-desired break from the now-routine European circuit (the group has toured Europe ten times in three years, the result of the Continent’s ongoing romance with all musical things New Orleans). More importantly, the group believes its next album, tentatively set for a February release, represents a culmination of the strides made with the last two. A recent screening of unfinished versions of the new material revealed it to be, quite simply, stunning. Expect the band to preview some of this material when it performs at the Maple Leaf every Saturday night in December.
Although an enthusiastic crowd has braved the chilly November night to fill the Maple Leaf for this, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters’ homecoming show after six weeks in Europe, all is not well.
Back in town less than a week, Washington and the band members have yet to settle into their domestic routines. A disagreement with their Swiss management company concerning the next, nearly completed album remains unresolved. The Roadmasters’ current keyboard player was unable to fly down from New York, so a major component of the live sound is missing.
However, these annoyances pale in comparison to the most ominous emotional hurdle facing the musicians this night: that morning, drummer Wilbert Arnold buried his mother.
“I just don’t feel like playing,” he intones shortly before the start of the show. “I’m not doing anything fancy tonight. I’m just going to play the songs.”
That he plays at all is taking showbiz’s supreme tenet—The Show Must Go On—to the -nth degree, to say nothing of the raw courage required to put aside his grief and face two hundred people bent on whooping it up.
During the days preceding the show, his bandmates had said nothing about canceling the gig. Had Arnold requested a cancellation, his wishes would have been honored. But Washington had faced the same dilemma in April: he received word of his mother’s passing shortly after arriving in Europe for a three-month tour. Many tears were shed, but Walter stayed in Europe and the band didn’t miss a date.
Normally, the only protection Arnold, the “Junkyard Dog,” needs during a gig is the red plastic chain that encircles his drum kit. A slack in the chain lets him know the cymbal behind his left shoulder is too close; if he were to chop at it, he could easily split his hand on the cymbal’s edge.
Tonight, though, a broader circle surrounded and protected him. Arnold’s bandmates, displaying the commitment, unity and brotherhood that makes the band more like a family, came together to pull him through.
“The best thing was for him to be with us,” bassist Jack Cruz said later. “That’s how this group is.”
Throughout the early part of the show, Walter hovered near the drum kit, with his back to the audience, maintaining eye contact with, and passing along unspoken encouragement to, Arnold, his partner of 24 years. Cruz, whose mother has all but adopted both Walter and Arnold, slipped subtle changes into the arrangements: just enough to make Arnold concentrate on the matter at hand, thereby steering his mind away from the events of the day.
Eventually, Arnold is not just playing: he’s attacking. In turn, Washington and the others loosen up, and the night builds to a funky climax, the audience howling for more. Once again, the band has come up against a gut check, and prevailed.
Such is the stuff of which real bands are made.
Huddled with an interviewer in a dim corner of the Maple Leaf’s rear courtyard before the show, nursing a drink to ward off the cold, Walter had, in spite of the negatives, made a prophetic statement: “It’s gonna be good tonight.”
After hundreds of shows with the core of his band—Arnold, Cruz, and saxophonist Tom Fitzpatrick have been together for six years, and trumpeter Larry Carter is coming up on 18 months—Walter “Wolfman” Washington is fairly astute at anticipating stellar shows—and there are many. The Roadmasters may well be the epitome of a New Orleans band, on all levels. Musically, they incorporate the city’s three cornerstones—blues, jazz and funk. An easy-going bunch, all of the players have paid their dues, from the nightmarish gigs on Bourbon Street to positions alongside some of the city’s greats from the past. Now the band is ready to assume its role as one of the greats.
The key is to work with the same guys year in and year out, developing unity of vision and the ability to react on stage without thinking. Washington has assembled such a group.
“He’s a real inspirational band leader,” says Scott Billington, who produced Washington’s three Rounder Records albums. “He’s inspired the band in a way that’s paid off. The band is an extension of the fingers in his hand. ”
”I’m open with all my bandmembers, whether you a newcomer or an oldcomer,” says Washington. “I have to be that open cause my music is very personal when I’m on the stage. I have certain movements, I have certain looks, and if I can’t use that, men somebody’s wrong, or I’m wrong.
“I love my group. I don’t want nobody to hurt my group. When you get to this stage, it’s like having something golden, because the cats understand one another, and put up with one another.”
Within that unit, each member has assumed various responsibilities. Business details are not Washington’s forte; consequently, Tom Fitzpatrick is generally the band’s point man for business dealings. His wife holds down the fort when the group is on the road.
Cruz has become Walter’s main songwriting partner; much of the forthcoming album sprang from informal jams between the two men in front of Cruz’s daughter’s Fisher-Price tape recorder. As a young musician, Cruz spent a year under the influence of the late James Booker, the much-hailed Piano Prince of New Orleans. He credits this stint with giving him a feel for what music should be. “It taught me a lot about the blues, and about playing your feelings,” he says. “It taught me about the passion of music.” (It also taught him to be on his toes. “Booker wouldn’t call songs out during gigs…he’d just start playing.”)
Working with Booker was tricky, but as any of the Roadmasters will tell you, dealing with the Wolfman is tough at times, too. Pre-midnight, removed from the nightclub atmosphere, Washington is reserved, quiet, even vaguely Rastafarian in his speech, capping off statements with a solemn “my friend” (as in “let me tell you this, my friend”). As befitting a Wolfman, the metamorphosis occurs post-midnight, or soon after he enters a club, whichever comes first. His pronouncements become grander, responses more elliptical, and he’s considerably more animated; during trips through the bar, he can always find time for the ladies.
He is a philosopher of the streets, a label he wears proudly (lyrics for the next record are largely culled from his observations).
“I don’t philosophize about things I read, because that’s only telling them what they can read,” he reasons. “When you can tell a person about self-experience, about something nobody else has written about and only you know about, they can understand that. It’s more important to them and to you.”
His music, he believes, is inextricably bound to the spiritual world. His background is Baptist, but he’s not from the go-to-church-every-Sunday-morning school of Christianity (though he will occasionally sermonize to his bandmates).
“I am a very spiritual person. I believe that what God has given me is a gift. And this gift is extended all the days that I’m supposed to carry this gift. Once I forget about this gift, my days are numbered.”
This attitude might produce snickers from those aware of Washington’s reputation as a ladies’ man, a reputation that seems in part to have contributed to the break-up of his marriage (It should be noted that Walter did not write the lyrics to “I’ll Be Good,” from Sada.). How does the philosopher reconcile his heavenly gaze with the pursuit of earthly pleasures?
“In the same token [as the music], it’s a gift. I’m a shy person. Any lady friend that I involve myself with, I involve myself with, ’cause I don’t believe in using no woman,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I have the opportunity to be the type of person I want to be, and also enjoy doing something that pleases me. I love all women. There’s a few that can understand, and a few that can’t.
(The sly—wolfish?—grin abounds during this part of the conversation.)
“It’s understanding the intimacy of what God wanted us all to do, ‘Love ye one another.’ Don’t stroke your ego because you can do that, but stroke your ego because God wanted you to have a good time with the time that He gave you.”
Washington has no formal musical training (“Sometimes I wish I did,” he admits. “I’ve heard some runs I’d like to know how to do”). He rarely listens to jazz, and he is not a blues scholar or a collector of recordings; his record collection is actually quite meager.
But, as producer Billington wrote in Wolf at the Door‘s liner notes, Washington has “a jazz player’s ears, a blues player’s attack and a gospel player’s soul.”
Walter learned by doing. During his days as a sideman, he backed Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe (Walter’s cousin), Irma Thomas, B.B. King, and, most significantly, vocalist extraordinaire Johnny Adams (during his 14-year association with Adams, he worked on several of Adams’ Rounder albums, which eventually lead to his own contract with the label).
Shades of B.B. King are evident in his mannerisms and approach. In mid-solo, he’ll often grin at his cherry-red Gibson’s neck, as if engaging an old friend in pleasant conversation. Vocally, he’s equally comfortable with bursts of James Brown-speak, openhearted, soul-drenched ballads and delicate falsettos.
He credits an unlikely source for many of his more flamboyant stage moves: Jimi Hendrix, the brilliant rock guitarist known nearly as much for setting his instrument on fire as playing it.
“When I first started to try and make some money playing, that’s when I really took after his style of music, and it was kicks,” Washington recalls.
It was also painful. Washington decided to put the fang-like incisors that inspired his nickname (they’ve since been replaced with bridgework) to good use by playing his guitar with them, a la Hendrix. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the technical secrets needed to make the stunt pain-free.
“It took a lot of practice. When you in tune with your body, there’s a lot of things you can do. It took me almost a year before I could learn to pick even one string. I kept shocking myself…we didn’t know about no ground switch.”
Eventually, he overcame this difficulty and got down to the business of making serious music.
Scott Billington has produced many of the albums released by Rounder Records, the Cambridge, Massachusetts label dedicated to preserving indigenous American music. He was an early patron of Washington’s. Washington was in Johnny Adams’ band when Billington first heard him. It was Billington who eventually convinced the reluctant Walter to take a shot at leading his own band and making a record.
“It just took a while,” says Billington. “I’d say, ‘Walter, when do you want to make this record? I’m ready.’ He just needed to find his feet, in terms of finding his material.”
Walter is more direct in his assessment of Billington’s nurturing. “He gave me a chance to develop because I was scared, and gave me a chance to get my courage up.”
Walter’s Rounder debut, Wolf Tracks, finally came out in 1986, followed in 1988 by Out of the Dark, the first to feature Arnold, Cruz and Fitzpatrick as the Roadmasters.
By the time Wolf At The Door was recorded at New Orleans’ Ultrasonic Studios last fall, the producer and musicians had achieved such a level of trust and mutual understanding that they were willing to go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of what they wanted.
Billington estimates that they did over 100 takes of “Hello Stranger,” the introspective, melancholy Dr. John/Doc Pomus composition that initiates the record, in search of the perfect reading. “We both knew what was (possible)…we’d heard it in rehearsals. Maybe it became an obsession. We finally got that take. And we both decided that it was worth it.”
But even before this album was released, John Wooler of London-based PointBlank Records (a blues subsidiary of the giant Virgin Records) indicated he wanted Washington in his stable of artists. In effect, the band’s management bought out the last album on the Rounder contract, and signed with PointBlank late last year.
As a result, Washington and the Roadmasters found themselves back in the studio almost immediately after completing Wolf At the Door. By this time, Craig Wroten had replaced David Ellington on keyboards; Wroten composed much of the material on what became the brassy Sada album, with his wife Lizette contributing lyrics. Sada was recorded quickly; all the rhythm tracks were laid down in three days.
Washington’s daughter Sada, the youngest of his five children, gave the album its name, and appears with her dad on the cover. She is the apple of his eye. Curiously, the lyrics to the album’s title track, a most personal song, were not written by Washington, but by Lizette Wroten.
“I was going through so much at the time,” Washington says. “My mama was sick, and I was going through the changes of getting a divorce. And I was trying to build my group to a more better understanding—personally, intimately—with each of the cats. I just couldn’t put the words together.”
One of the Sada photos was taken at dawn on a mountaintop in the Swiss Alps. Walter and his guitar were transported, via cable car, to the designated peak for the photo shoot, providing the musician with ample opportunity to test his theories about the divine origins of his abilities.
“I had never been on no cable car like that—the wire was no bigger than that,” he recalls, indicating the circumference of a quarter. “I played my guitar the wholllle way up, and the wholllle way back. That was the only way I could keep my sanity.”
That sobering trip up the mountain was nearly a year ago; since then, in spite of everything, or probably because of it, what may be the band’s best—and certainly its most personal—album has been written and recorded.
“He Will See Us Through,” a bluesy gospel number, fulfills Walter’s wish to bring his religious faith to a song. “Stop and Think” offers social commentary. The slinky rhythms of “Keep Using Me” cover the wolfish side of the band. The seven-minute workout on Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears” hypnotizes like the first part of a jazz funeral. Tom Fitzpatrick’s sax solo brings the swing of “You’re Fine, You’re Mine” home. Larry Carter garnishes his trumpet with a bit of flute. Throughout, Brian Mitchell, who replaced Wroten earlier this year, spices up the band’s sound even more with plenty of Hammond B-3 and grand piano.
All that remains is to finalize vocals (after either convincing the band’s manager to have the work done locally, or flying Walter back to Europe), approve horn overdubs added by the JB (James Brown) Horns, and mix the whole thing.
Carter, Fitzpatrick, Arnold, Cruz and Washington know they are on the verge of an excellent record. They’ve hooked it, and are confident they can reel it in the rest of the way.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done in the last three years,” Washington says. “I have opened up enough on all three albums to let the people know that I’m coming from myself, even though other people were writing for me.
“Now I’m summing up everything they—the people that really cared about me—understood. I’m summing that up. I’m able now.”