Walter “Wolfman” Washington & the Roadmasters
Walter “Wolfman” Washington is New Orleans’s preeminent funk master. He first appeared on the city’s music scene six decades ago as a budding guitarist, learning licks from his elders. Today he is regarded as another in the long line of singular characters and musical personalities to come out of the Crescent City, known for his unique vocal delivery and a distinctive rhythm and blues sound that has touches of sophisticated soul and jazz.
The rhythms of New Orleans funk can be traced to the city’s African American second line tradition, where Afro-Caribbean polyphonic beats were heard at jazz funerals and parades. In the 1950s, New Orleans musicians like pianist Professor Longhair and Fats Domino drummer Earl Palmer started infusing R&B with those layered rhythms. The 1960s saw the rise of funk on a national scale, with artists like James Brown treating every instrument like a drum. In New Orleans, the Meters created a local funk sound that put the second line beat front and center, intertwining it with a distinct bass groove.
For Washington, the essence of New Orleans blues and R&B is found in its African American churches. “We have a different way of expressing what we feel through our music that’s more of a spiritual understanding than just a musician playing an instrument,” he explains. “A lot of New Orleans musicians go to the limit of using their instrument to project what they feel.”
Washington grew up in the Mid-City neighborhood surrounded by music; bluesmen Guitar Slim and Lightnin’ Slim were both uncles and “Mother-In-Law” hitmaker Ernie K-Doe was a cousin. Washington started singing as a teenager in an a cappella gospel group before having a transformative experience watching a studio guitarist play at a local radio station. Returning home, he fashioned a homemade cigar box guitar with rubber band strings; it soon gave way to a real one. Fellow musician David Lastie christened Washington as “Wolfman” to describe his idiosyncratic approach to playing guitar. At 19, Washington was on the cusp of joining Fats Domino’s band when Lee Dorsey of “Workin’ in a Coal Mine” fame hired him to go on the road. It was Wolfman’s first time touring. He recalls, “Our first gig was at the Apollo Theatre in New York, and we drove straight there in a red Cadillac.”
Lengthy stints with soul legends Irma Thomas and Johnny Adams followed. In the ’80s, Washington stepped to the front with his band, the Roadmasters, and became a local institution thanks to countless festival and late-night club gigs, including a legendary regular Saturday night spot at the Maple Leaf Bar that he held down for over a decade. In 2018, at 74, he released his debut major label album, My Future Is My Past, showcasing a vocal quality Gambit hailed as “vulnerable and imperfect but present and powerful.”