Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington: A music scene howls back to life

From Down Beat, August 2005

Ask any of the people who came back to New Orleans in the first weeks after the storm and they’ll tell you that one of the most sobering things about the city during that time was the silence. No noise in the streets, no streetcars rumbling by, no kids practicing their instruments at the streetcar stops, no music bubbling out from Little People’s Place or Vaughn’s or Tip’s or the Leaf. The city was in darkness … and then along came Walter.

“My first thought was coming back home all along, but Hank called and said come mo’ faster,” says Washington, remembering when Hank Staples, the owner of the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street brought him back from Ohio to play the first live show in town.

Staples’ friend and neighbor, Keith “Fish” Williams brought in a P.A. and generators to power the stage. The bar itself still was dark and hot, but the lights from all the TV crews that had heard about the show lit the place up, while bags of ice cooled the beer down.

The band called itself the MRE’s, or “Meals Ready to Eat,” after the FEMA-distributed food most of the crowd in the bar had been living off for weeks. “I was amazed at how many people were there,” Washington says, laughing. “I didn’t realize so many people had heard and were in town to enjoy it. There were more young people, and more strangers and people that normally don’t come out. It was amazing to see the crowd.”

The crowd thought it was amazing to see live music, even though National Guardsmen shut down the show around the time that the party’s usually just getting started at the Leaf. Washington’s gospel-saturated funky blues has become an important staple of the city’s musical landscape, earning him a holiday in his honor (April 30th is officially Walter “Wolfman” Washington Day in New Orleans) and a dedicated fan base, many of whom have been listening to him evolve as a player since his days with Lee Dorsey.

“We called Walter because he epitomizes New Orleans. When you think of the Leaf,” says Williams, whose brother was married on the bar’s patio, “you think of Walter.” Born in New Orleans in 1943, Washington grew up in the city’s Garden District, developing an early addiction to funk and blues by listening to artists like Johnny Taylor, B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland. His cousin, Ernie K. Doe bought an electric guitar and an amp that Washington used to teach himself how to play. He traded information with friends were learning along with him, and kept in mind some of K. Doe’s advice—“the only way you get better is to be the best you can be.” Eventually his hard work paid off and he landed a spot on the road with Lee Dorsey that last for almost three years. When he returned, he played with Irma Thomas through much of the ‘60s before aligning himself with Johnny Adams.

“Johnny was one of my mentors,” Washington acknowledges. “He showed me how to control my voice. Some people can’t sing falsetto. It takes a certain way of controlling your vocal chords to make a high note and he was one of the cats who showed me how.” Wolfman’s vocal range and his sporadic howls on early tunes like “Can I Change My Mind” and “Thinking For Yourself” are descendents from his days with Adams.

Today, in addition to touring with his band the Roadmasters, he holds down so many regular nights around New Orleans that he’s lucky if he gets two days off. Over Jazz Fest, he played every night for almost two weeks, including Walter Wolfman Washington Day, which was named in his honor three years ago by the mayor.

In apparent deference to the fact that life has changed drastically in New Orleans, Washington’s music has changed since the storm as well. “My new material coming out, is different that what I have been doing,” he says. “The new variety is more positive. Instead of dreamin’ it’ll be more about what’s really happening today.” He’s written a few new songs about the Katrina experience, including one he says is “about the crescent city lights and how beautiful they are.”

As a native New Orleanian and a friend and neighbor or so many of his fans, Washington’s music is as honest and raw. “He has been a fixture in New Orleans and he was one of the first to come back,” says Irma Thomas. “He’s becoming one of our music legends. And like most good blues players, he lives his work.”

Washington remains optimistic about what the future holds for his town, and says that as long as the communities stay together, the city has potential to improve itself and even its music, a philosophy many musicians don’t adhere to.

“I think you’ll see better musicians coming out of New Orleans now, because you have a lot of young musicians that have come back that want to be good about what they do,” he says. “They’re asking questions and they have the opportunity to play clubs they couldn’t play before Katrina. You’re gonna have musicians who got more interest in music than just for the money. You gotta love playing the music. That‘s the only way to have any kind of future.”

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