Walter “Wolfman” Washington and The Roadmasters

Friday, Nov 4, 2022
at 7:00pm
  On Sale to Members Only

Like many African-American musicians in the South, Walter “Wolfman” Washington started singing in school and the church. He had just hit double-digits when he formed an a cappella spiritual group in his neighborhood called the True Love and Gospel Singers. One Sunday, they went on a local radio gospel show and Washington noticed the guitar player in the studio. “I just sat there and watched him,” he said. “He was playing with all his fingers.”

When Washington got home, he made his own guitar from a cigar box, rubber bands and a clothes hanger. One of his uncles gave him a real guitar and he started practicing. His father took him to see a musician he knew across the river from his native New Orleans and the two played Washington’s first gig in Gretna, Louisiana. Now 74, Washington has been a mainstay of the New Orleans music scene since the early 1960s. He cut his teeth backing up some of the best singers and performers in New Orleans, including Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams and Irma Thomas. Dorsey, a New Orleans singer with a few big hits, hired the 19-year-old Washington to go on the road with him. It was 1962 and he spent the next 2 ½ years touring. “The furthest I’d ever been from home was Mississippi or Baton Rouge,” he said. “Our first gig was the Apollo Theatre in New York. We drove straight there in a red Cadillac. It was great.”

He also went on the road with Johnny Adams and backed him up in a gig that became infamous at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge on Orleans Avenue in Mid City. “It started at 3 a.m. with shake dancers and ended at daylight,” Washington recalled. “The place would pack up until daylight.”

In the 1980s, Washington formed his own band, The Roadmasters, and toured with local and national stages for the next 30 years. He backed Adams on many of his albums and with The Roadmasters recorded four albums, Wolf Tracks, Out of the Dark, Wolf at the Door and Funk is in the House. They also had set gigs, like their Saturday night standing job at the Maple Leaf Bar in Carrollton, where they entertained Tulane University students and R & B fans for over a decade.

All that experience didn’t prepare him for his album, My Future is my Past. “I’m used to playing with another person,” he said. “To do something like that by myself, I was kind of nervous. Oh, man, it was really a thing. I had never done something like that. I had to really discipline myself where I couldn’t really underplay and really overplay, so I had to stay in the middle, which was a trick for me. I was amazed at my own self how it turned out.”

Along for the ride with Washington were keyboardists Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville, bassist James Singleton and drummer Stanton Moore. For the modest Washington, it was a thrill. “To have all those cats in there at one time and they are playing behind me,” he said. “That was one of the most thrilling things for me. While we were doing the album and what has become of it, that’s even better. That’s what happens when you have certain musicians that are qualified to do that.”

Washington uses his voice to embody both those traditions and twists the traditions so it’s been refined into a smoother sound. He embodies both ends of the African-American vocal tradition: the impassioned cries of a James Brown and the urbane lines of a Nat King Cole. He uses his voice to embody both those traditions, and then twists the traditions so he’s doing both at the same time. He filters his smooth croon through his unique raw blues feel, and the result is subtle, tasteful and powerful. His guitar playing has the searing tone but also the well-placed chords of a bebop player. That’s all here. But it’s jazzy and improvised and in the moment in such a way that you are on the edge of your seat, wondering what he’ll do next. It’s exciting to the listener and it’s exciting to Washington. “People tell me, ‘Walter, you don’t ever lose the root of what you’re coming from,’” he said.

He won’t. His roots define who he is, and who he is, is something very special.