Now 74 years old, Walter “Wolfman” Washington has been a mainstay in the New Orleans music scene since the early 1960s. He got his start backing up some of the best singers and performers in New Orleans history including Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams, and Irma Thomas. Like many African-American musicians in the South, Walter started singing in school and the church. As a teenager, he formed an acapella spirituals group in his neighborhood called the True Love and Gospel Singers. He made his first guitar from a cigar box, rubber bands, and a clothes hanger before his uncle gave him a real guitar and he started practicing. Lee Dorsey was Walter’s first big gig. In 1962, Dorsey hired the 19-year-old Walter to go on the road with him where he spent the next two and a half years. Shortly after his tour with Dorsey, he went on the road with singer Johnny Adams and also started recording with him.
After backing up many New Orleans greats, Walter put together his longtime band, The Roadmasters, who have been performing on local and national stages since their first gigs in the 1980s. Walter recorded three albums for Rounder with The Roadmasters. Their steady Saturday night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street in Carrollton entertained legions of Tulane students and rhythm and blues fans until the wee hours of Sunday mornings for over a decade.
Walter’s latest album, My Future is My Past, produced by Ben Ellman of Galactic is a different kind of record than his albums with Lee Dorsey or The Roadmasters. Walter had to take more care with these songs. He explained, “When you’re with a band, you have to really punch it out. When you’re alone, you have to pay attention to your notes and pronunciation and stuff. And then you have to put your soul into it and your feelings. Each one of the songs is a story.” The album features an impressive group of musicians, from keyboardists Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville, to a versatile and sensitive rhythm section of bassist James Singleton and drummer Stanton Moore. Walter 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. His vocals and playing are quiet, but keep up a slow burn intensity. He filters his smooth croon through his unique raw blues feel, and the result is subtle, tasteful, and powerful. His guitar playing has a searing tone but also the well-placed chords of a bebop player. It’s jazzy and improvised in such a way that you are on the edge of your seat wondering what he’ll do next. He says, “People tell me, ‘Walter, you don’t ever lose the root of what you’re coming from,” and this record proves he is as close to his roots as he has ever been.