Walter Wolfman Washington and The Roadmasters

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Walter “Wolfman” Washington cut his teeth backing up some of the best singers and performers in New Orleans before putting together his long time band The Roadmasters who have been burning down and burning up local and national stages since the 1980s.  His guitar style combines both rhythm and blues, blues, New Orleans funk, and modern jazz.  His singing is emotional and heartfelt.  His guitar work is intricate, intimate, and full.  There is a little Bobby Blue Bland, a little Kenny Burrell, a little George Benson, a little church, and a lot of New Orleans charm and experience in a Walter Wolfman Washington performance.

Washington started singing in school and the church and in his early teens he formed an acapella spirituals group in his neighborhood called the True Love And Gospel Singers.  One Sunday they went on the local gospel show to sing, and Washington noticed the guitar player who was playing behind them.  “I just sat there and watched him,” Washington recalls, “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. When one of his uncles saw this, he gave Walter a real guitar.

“I had lots of uncles who played guitar.  Guitar Slim and Lightnin’ Slim were my uncles.  And Ernie K-Doe was his cousin.  “One of the reasons I got interested in music was because of my cousin Ernie K-Doe,” laughs Washington, “He was out there playing music and bringing home money and taking care of my auntie.”

Washington continued playing with different musicians around New Orleans.  Another of Washington’s uncles sang with the Zion Harmonizers, and he would invite many of the gospel singers over for Sunday breakfast.  One of those singers was Johnny Adams who befriended Washington.  When Washington decided that he wanted to play music and not go to school in his later high school years, Adams pledged to Washington’s mother that he would take care of Walter.

Adams got Walter a room in the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street in Central City for 7 dollars per week.  The Dew Drop Inn was a nightclub, hotel, barbershop, and restaurant.  Every African-American musician in New Orleans and others passing through came and played and hung out there.  Washington played with the house band where he met bassist Richard Dixon who told Lee Dorsey about Washington who hired the 19-year-old Washington to go on the road with him.  “The furthest I’d ever been from home was Mississippi or Baton Rouge,” chuckled Washington, “Our first gig was at the Apollo Theatre in New York, and we drove straight there in a red Cadillac.” 

After two and a half years on the road with Dorsey, Walter came home to help singer Irma Thomas start her own band.  The band worked the Southern chitlin’ circuit for two years.  He then moved on to splitting time between bands with saxophonist David Lastie and another with the Tick Tocks.  Lastie gave Washington the nickname “Wolfman” due to his lack of front teeth and the fact that, as Walter remembers, “I would challenge anyone onstage.  No matter who or what or what style they would play, I would challenge them.  David used to say, ‘You sure know how to wolf them.’”

After 5 years of those two bands, Johnny Adams asked Walter to be his personal guitar player.  Wolfman had also started playing with his long time onstage foil drummer Wilbur “The Junk Yard Dog” Arnold.   Wolfman also started recording with Adams.

He formed his current band, the Roadmasters, in the mid-1980s.   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 for over a decade.  Such gigs led to several tours of Europe where his style and smoothness have made him one of the more popular acts on the European circuit.

The Roadmasters at the Maple Leaf on Saturdays has moved to DBA on Frenchmen Street on Wednesdays, but he still holds court there on Sunday nights with Joe Krown on organ and Russell Batiste on drums.  These gigs have a wide-ranging repertoire, all with the voice of Walter Wolfman Washington that often freezes listeners in their tracks. 

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