Walter “Wolfman” Washington, whose soulful voice and crisp guitar lines lit up New Orleans nightlife for 60 years, died Thursday in the driveway of a cancer shelter. He would have turned 79 on December 20.
Washington often flashed a coyote grin as he and the Roadmasters, the quintessential New Orleans bar band, delivered a sophisticated, air-tight synthesis of blues, funk, R&B, and soul.
His guitar and style were unique and widely admired. In Michael Murphy’s 2005 music documentary “Make It Funky!” , guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones bows to Washington in honor.
As a boy, Washington sang in the New Home Missionary Baptist Church choir on Jackson Street. Eventually he taught himself guitar.
After toiling away at such strenuous tasks as pouring concrete and hauling bricks, he decides to be a full-time musician. He turned professional at the age of 19, and cut his teeth with support from Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, saxophonist David Lastie Sr., and singer Johnny Adams.
He reportedly earned the nickname “Wolfman” being a young guitarist who tended to challenge other guitarists, a practice known as “wolfing”.
His 16 years in Adams’ band included an eight-year stint of legendary Saturday night gigs at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge on Orleans Street. At Dorothy’s, the show started at 3 am and ran until dawn.
“Johnny taught me a lot,” Washington recalled in 1999. “He’d say, ‘If you want to sing high notes, you have to pay attention to how you get up there. Take your time. Don’t rush yourself. Once you get the hang of getting up there, it’s easy.'”
“He played the guitar, too. He would show me how to hit notes and how to go from note to note and pay attention to why that note fit in there. He was like a father. I could talk to him about anything.”
Washington backed Adams on several Rounder Records albums before charting his own path in the 1980s with the Roadmasters. He released his first album as a bandleader, “Leader of the Pack,” for the Hep’Me label in 1981.
He graduated in Rounder on Wolf Tracks in 1986, then Out of the Dark and Wolf at the Door. He released the album “Echo” in 1991, after his first daughter.
He traveled abroad and occasionally toured locally, but New Orleans nightclubs were his bread and butter. Held by drummer Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold, bassist Jack Cruz and saxophonist Tom Fitzpatrick, the Roadmasters have been throwing a weekly Saturday night party at the Maple Leaf Bar that ends in the wee hours of Sunday morning, bringing To create all kinds of mischief. They also regularly played uptown at Benny’s Blues Bar.
In recent years, the latest edition of Roadmasters has been pulled to dba on Frenchmen Street every Wednesday. Washington also played as a trio with keyboardist Joe Croone.
After more than 10 years without a new album, Washington made a late-career comeback with 2018’s “My Future Is My Past.” It was produced by Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman and released nationally by ANTI- Records, and featured the band All-star backing consisted of drummer Stanton Moore of Galactic, jazz bassist James Singleton, and keyboardist David Torkanowsky.
They backed Washington up on a set of intimate, simple songs that showed off his warm purring voice. The album reunited him with Irma Thomas for a duet on the old Johnny Adams hit “Even Now” and earned Washington some of the best reviews of his career.
Recently, he finished another set of eight blues songs, also produced by Ellman. Washington manager Adam Shipley is currently shopping the final album for record labels.
“Over the past six or seven years, Walter has gotten the recognition he deserves,” said Shipley. “Put on some great music, and have a great life.”
In 2019 he assumed the position of irreverent king of the Krewe du Vieux parade, riding alongside his queen, longtime friend Michelle Bouchy, whom he married at Tipitina in 2021.
A heavy smoker and drinker with a colorful personal life, Washington has battled many health challenges over the years. However, being diagnosed with tonsil cancer in March came as a shock.
Even while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, he continued to perform, including at this year’s French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“Nobody can tell what he was going through,” Michelle Washington said on Friday. “He was a soldier to the end. He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him.
“He had an amazing life. He touched so many people and brought them so much joy.”
His final show on September 29 at the Bogalusa Blues Festival turned out to be his last.
In addition to his wife, the survivors included two daughters, Sada and Mamadou Washington, and a son, Brian Anderson.
Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home on Canal Street are responsible for the arrangements. Visitation on January 4 from 8 a.m. to noon, followed by funeral service at 2 p.m
A concert dedicated to helping with medical and funeral expenses is planned for January 8 in Tipitina.
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