Walter "Wolfman" Washington's 75th Birthday Celebration at Tipitina's; Photo by Greg Miles

Walter “Wolfman” Washington talks back

“It was definitely different—I’ve never done nothin’ like that before,” declares Walter “Wolfman” Washington in regards to his new album, My Future Is My Past. Folks who know Washington as a blues, R&B and funk guitarist and vocalist most often heard fronting his long-standing band, the Roadmasters, will undoubtedly agree with his assessment. Even singing and playing in a more intimate ensemble with organist Joe Krown’s Trio featuring drummer Russell Batiste, Wolfman isn’t amidst the wide-open space he’s provided here.

The album’s first cut, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind,” stands as an immediate tipoff that Washington is headed in a less-than-usual direction, as it finds him alone with his guitar. Few, if any, can remember Wolfman playing solo. “I did try to work some gigs by myself [in the early years] but it really didn’t seem right. I don’t think I was ready for it.”

The musicians making up the rhythm section, who mostly change from tune to tune, include those coming primarily out of the jazz scene, like pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton, and those connected to it, such as drummer Stanton Moore and percussionist Mike Dillon. Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville also step in on piano and on organ. The sizes of the groups also vary, moving from the opening solo to trios and quartets.

Guest vocalist Irma Thomas, of course, shares the stylistic era for which Washington is renowned. Teamed vocally, they wonderfully deliver David Egan’s “Even Now,” which was recorded by Washington’s musical colleague, the late Johnny Adams.

Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a blues and funk man, has always boasted a certain sophistication both as a vocalist and guitarist. That quality is accentuated on the quietude of My Future Is My Past. Here’s Wolfman’s take on the project.

You’ve been quoted as saying that at first you were intimidated about doing an album like this.

Yeah, I was. Sometimes it really takes time for you to work into something like this. It’s kind of difficult trying play by yourself and sing too. And then working with cats like those who are on this CD. I never did pay attention to what I could do. It really was amazing when they decided to play on this. It really was. I was really grateful. I’d been thinking sometimes, these days, about another vein that I would like to play in. For me, and my band, it’s like another step up, forward.

Who came up with the concept for the album?

My manager, [Adam Shipley]. He’s the one who suggested it. He said, ‘I have a recording session for you.’ And I said, ‘What?’ [And he said] Ben Ellman [of Galactic] is going to be the producer. So I just went into the studio and did what they wanted me to do. And that’s what came up.

So did Ben choose the musicians? How about the material?

Uh huh. I only chose a couple of songs, the rest of them were chosen by Ben. I just had to learn some of them—that’s the thing. For ‘What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,’ I knew the words and I knew the melody so it was kind of easy for me to sing that song and not play. It was kind of weird without my guitar. That was really different. I enjoyed doing the whole CD. With things like that, you take your time. I was doing two songs a day until I could get it right.

I did [Jimmy Hughes’] ‘Steal Away’ in a way that I don’t think anybody ever thought it would be done. I used to do ‘Steal Away’ slow but then James [Singleton] suggested I do it like that. When they told me I could set the tempo for it, I didn’t think they would let that part stand. I did that part with just me and my guitar and then all of a sudden the rest of the cats just broke in on it. I said, ‘Whoa, whoa,’ and we had to start all over again.

I thought about it when we were in the studio. We didn’t even rehearse those songs. They knew some of the songs and the music parts and I knew some of the music parts so whatever needed to be changed, we did it right there in the studio.

The other one [I chose] was ‘Are You the Lady’—I wrote that myself. That’s been in my mind for four or five years before I ever thought about recording it again. I said, ‘Why don’t you try that and see how it sounds?’ It worked out pretty good. I didn’t think it would sound as good as it did. I can tell you I was pretty nervous about the whole thing.

So were you able to listen to the way some of the tunes were originally done?

Yeah, I listened to the originals. I took them home and studied them and studied them until I got it to the point where I could know how to phrase them. The way the originals went, I didn’t really appreciate it because it seemed to me it was kind of difficult. So I just did them the way I felt I should sing them.

Which songs are you talking about?

Like the one I did with Irma [‘Even Now’]. I had never heard Johnny—Johnny Adams—do it and it was like wow. I’ve heard people do it but I never heard it with somebody else [a vocal duet]. Ben suggested we get Irma to do the other part.

I know you worked with Irma early in your career. What was it like to do a duet with her?

I never have recorded with Irma. It was strange. I’ve only played behind Irma, I never did sing anything with her. Actually I started her first band—the very first band she ever had. Usually she had pick-up bands. The group was called the Tornados. I was afraid she wasn’t going to sing the song with me. She surprised me when she did. I said, ‘Wow, look at this.’ I mean the whole CD is surprising to me.

Which part—singing or playing guitar—was the most intimidating or challenging to do without your band?

It was more difficult to sing mostly because I was born to play the guitar. Thanks to Johnny Adams for helping me to understand how to sing and play at the same time. For years I never did that. I just mostly played guitar. So Johnny took the time with me to develop my way of doing it. Like he told me to basically try to sing and play along with yourself and practice more. The CD was one of the challenges that brought it out.

How did you get started playing guitar?

Some neighborhood cats sang spirituals and nobody wanted to play guitar and my uncle, Uncle B, suggested that I try to play. He gave me my first acoustic guitar. I started to play with one finger—I didn’t tune it regular. We were invited to WBOK to sing on the program and they had this guitar player and he was playing with all of his fingers. I just watched him for a couple of hours. I went home and tried to do it and it just didn’t sound right because I didn’t have my guitar tuned right. So my Uncle B showed me how to tune it to 440 [Standard A 440]. That really tripped me out when I played that first chord. From then on I was a guitar freak.

My Future Is My Past couldn’t exactly be considered a jazz album, though it’s leaning in that direction.

It really is. I got into jazz when I got with the Lastie Brothers [around the 1960s] because most of their songs were jazz songs, more like Dixieland stuff. So it really got me used to playing jazz stuff. It was fun playing with the cats too. A lot of guitar players who came from where I did, they really didn’t get the hang of it. There is a certain way you have to play to be able to play jazz. You can’t play it like you play funk or rock ’n’ roll. It’s a whole different way of playing. I did ‘What a Diff’rence a Day Makes’ [with the Lasties], but I didn’t sing. So all I did was play—I didn’t do too much singing until later on. About five years after being with them, I realized how to do it [sing and play guitar]. And now it just comes naturally. In a way I like playing jazz but mostly I like playing funk.

Ernie K-Doe was your first cousin. What things did you pick up from him?

After I learned how to play blues and funk, he hired me to play with his group. I played with him for two years—I was about 21. I didn’t have to sing or anything, I just played my guitar. He gave me his guitar and amp. Watching him perform was something else. They did flips and I said, ‘I’m not going to do no flips.’ I learned a lot from him—stage presence, how to dress. I didn’t really know how to handle myself until I got with David [Lastie] and them.

You’re renowned for looking sharp on stage.

I got that from Johnny [Adams]. David and them told me that is the best way to do it. They all said, if you want to be a professional, you have to dress like a professional. Then it just rubbed off on me. I can’t go on stage without dressing up. David and them told me when you’re playing in a professional atmosphere and people look at you in blue jeans and a T-shirt they’re going to look at you as just an average guitar player—and maybe not even that. A lot of young cats today don’t think about it. It makes people appreciate your music better when you’re dressed like a professional.

How did you become so deeply associated with the blues? Did it have something to do with working with a group called the All Fools Band?

That was the band that I got together with when I came off the road with Lee Dorsey. It was called the AFBs. We were riding down the highway—we didn’t have a name for the band at that time—and one the cats looked up at a sign and it said AFB. ‘Let’s call the band that.’ But we had to figure out what it meant. So we came up with the All Fools Band. We played nothin’ but blues at that time. That’s how I got named as a blues artist. I stayed with that band for like six years. That’s when I started forming my own band after that.

What did playing with the great vocalist Lee Dorsey contribute to your career?

Lee gave me my first idea of how it would feel being on a big stage and playing in front of a lot of people. My very first gig was at the Apollo Theater. I said, ‘Wow.’ From then on, I just wanted to be up under the lights. With Lee, I played two songs for two years and six months. I traveled all over the United States playing two songs, ‘Ride Your Pony’ and ‘Working in the Coal Mine.’ My cousin told me, ‘Once you play the Apollo Theater, you’ll play music for the rest of your life.’ I see that’s the truth.

FQFIQ: Friday, April 13, Abita Beer Stage, 5:30p