The legend of the Wolfman

by Brian Clarey

On Sept. 30, 2005 the streets of New Orleans were dark and musty. The city was still reeling from the effects of a Category 3 hurricane and the damage sustained when much of Lake Pontchartrain emptied into the streets. US armed forces patrolled the neighborhoods to curb the looting, still proceeding in earnest, and electricity had yet to be restored to the region.

Yet the city’s residents were returning in fits and spurts, examining the wreckage of their homes, using text messages to track each other down, trying to maintain a faint spark of hope against an unstoppable tide of despair, wondering if the city they knew and loved would come back from this unprecedented disaster.

But in the section of the city known as Pigeontown, nestled between the Carrollton neighborhood and the traitorous Mississippi, bodies began to gather on Oak Street a couple hours before sundown.

Hank Staples, owner of the storied Maple Leaf Bar, and Keith Williams, a filmmaker and fourth-generation New Orleanian, fired up the Honda generators in the alley alongside the bar and the wayfarers moved from the street to the music hall as the first licks off Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s Gibson echoed down the empty expanse of Oak Street. And they danced on the well-worn floor as the news cameras panned the scene.

It was the first live show since the terrible, terrible flood in this city that, according to Emperor of the Universe Ernie K-Doe (of “Mother-in-Law” fame and also the Wolfman’s cousin), is where all music comes from. And it was much more than a simple performance.

“We wanted to be the first bar open,” said Williams, who has no financial interest in the Maple Leaf but has invested so much time, money and emotion in the place that he considers himself something of a house potentate. “We wanted to have the first live music. And who else would you have?”

The Wolfman drove in that day from Ohio, where he and his wife Barbara rode out the early stages of the disaster.

“We drove all night, like twenty-two hours,” he recalls. “We drove until we got here. We came in town, checked out the house and went down to the Leaf.”

Sweet Leaf.

“To me it was, like, special because I’ve never seen so many TV cameras in that club,” says the Wolfman. “I have never seen that many. They had more TV cameras on stage than they did musicians.”

Not everybody appreciated the media presence.

“There were so many cameras in the front of the stage that we couldn’t dance up there,” Williams says. “So I elbowed ’em out of the way. I said, ‘I’ve had enough fucking cameras and enough crap. This is about the locals. You need to back up and cool out and let us throw down.’ And we did it with an exclamation point.”

“It was just a really important night for New Orleans, too,” the Wolfman says. “Everybody realized that no matter what, Katrina won’t stop the music. I wrote a song about it that night.”

Much has been made of this first post-Katrina performance, and rightly so – it was the night the music came back, certainly a historical musical moment in this city that has seen millions of them. But Walter “Wolfman” Washington is a brother from way back, and his ties with the first city of American music run deep.

He was born there, of course, and he came up in the church. His first gigs were with the True Loving Gospel Singers and the Friendly Five Gospel Singers, but his interests soon strayed to the black music clubs in the back o’ town and he was anxious to hone his chops.

“I was nineteen,” he recalls. “I had been playing just about three years, but not professionally. I was going around trying to get a name for myself, playing little different gigs with cats for like eight dollars, twenty dollars, and then I finally got a chance to play with some cats at the Doodle Bop. I was just playing with the cats, one of them twenty-dollar gigs, and Lee happened to come in there and see me.”

That’s Lee Dorsey he’s talking about. “Ride Your Pony.” “Ya Ya.” “Get Out My Life, Woman.” “Workin’ in a Coal Mine.” That Lee Dorsey.

It was 1956, maybe 1957 – something of a heyday for New Orleans R&B, a time when Cosimo Matassa was recording guys like Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard and Dr. John in his French Quarter studio and sending it out to the world. The teenage Wolfman was overwhelmed.

“When I went out with Lee I didn’t know but three chords and one solo,” he remembers, “and that’s what I played for like three years.”

But after a time… a short time… he got good. Real good.

The Dorsey gig led to others, notably with Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, and Johnny Adams.

Jay Mazza is a New Orleans music journalist who has written the Jazz City music column for Louisiana Weekly for more than a dozen years. He’s also kept a journal documenting every live music show he’s seen in the city since the winter of 1989. (Disclosure: He’s also a personal friend).

He also wrote the bio on Wolfman’s web page.

From Mazza’s bio: “During the 1970s, Washington began a 20-year association with one of the most important vocalists to hail from Louisiana – the late, great Johnny Adams. Dubbed ‘the Tan Canary’ for his peerless vocal stylings, Adams was a mentor of sorts to Washington who developed his singing style while the two worked together at back-of-town clubs including a long stint at the famed Dorothy’s Medallion in the Mid City section of New Orleans.”

After coming off the road with Dorsey, Wolfman nestled himself firmly under the Tan Canary’s wing. Adams set him up with gigs, other musicians, club owners and bookers. He also gave him a set of gig suits, a wardrobe that was one night set afire in the street outside Dorothy’s Medallion by one of the Wolfman’s more posessive lovers.

Oh, there are stories galore about the Wolfman, and they still trade them like playing cards at the Maple Leaf over Abita beers and cigarettes.

Like the time he overslept and nearly missed his flight for a European tour, leaving in such haste he forgot his false teeth, which somebody at the Maple Leaf mailed overseas to him. He never got them, of course and they say his choppers are still floating around the continent somewhere. The one about the hotel room in Arkansas, trashed within minutes. The time Mayor Ray Nagin declared a citywide Walter “Wolfman” Washington Day and the man of honor was a no-show, having been picked up in a New Orleans Police Department sweep that morning. The Wolfman spent his honorary day in jail.

Mazza’s got one:

When he was a Tulane student he and his friends would frequent Tipitina’s, one of the city’s most famous music clubs, but they would go across the street to buy drinks at the Rose Tattoo, where prices were much cheaper.

“I remember being in there one night,” he says, “and you know, it was late, it might have been three in the morning, and there was a band onstage and it was Walter. We were like, ‘Holy shit!'”

Jay and his friends delved into the world of late-night back o’ town music clubs and they soon discovered Dorothy’s Medallion.

“And so Dorothy’s was like this legendary place, this iconic black nightclub,” he continues. “We’d usually be the only white people, but it was an older, well-dressed black crowd. The strangest thng about the place was they had these shake dancers in cages, and they were these giant black women with big booties. They would shake and grind in the cages between sets. If you wanted liquor they’d sell you a half pint and they would bring you a mixer and some ice and you would sit at a table and mix your own cocktail. And it was the latest bar I had ever heard of. You would go there after four in the morning and the warm-up band would be on, and around five or five-fifteen Johnny Adams would come on and do a set and if you stayed to the end it would be daylight. I’m not talking dawn – it would be seven in the morning. It would be fully morning. We would always be the first to leave.”

Andreas Argenti was a drummer with the New Orleans funk band Smilin’ Myron in the ’80s and ’90s (disclosure: He’s my friend, too). He opened perhaps a hundred times for the Wolfman, who was by then playing with his own band, the Roadmasters.

“We shared a bill many a time,” he says, “but I never played with him very much. Not just any drummer can walk into that gig. There’s a lot of kicks and breaks and whatnot. Walter’s pretty good about cueing that stuff, but it’s hard to keep up. He’s one of New Orleans’ greats. Following him, it’s not intimidating because we never presumed to be at his level.”

The Wolfman came up as a blues guitar player, but his musical style has cured over the years, absorbing some jazz, plenty of funk, a bit of gospel and a huge dollop of soul.

“He loves to do the blues and those slow-burning ballads,” Mazza says, “but he will never end a song on the same tempo he started it.”

Mazza and his friends had a running joke at Wolfman shows, picking out couples in the crowd who tried to slow-dance to a Wolfman jam and laughing when they were unable to keep the beat.

“The music was so mercurial,” he says, “the music would change so quickly that what started as a ballad would end up this funk rave-up.”

About his style, the Wolfman will say that he really honed his chops at late-night jam sessions at another back o’ town hot spot called Off Limits with a rotating cast of New Orleans royalty.

“James Black, Smokey Johnson, Pokey Johnson, James Rivers, all these cats,” he remembers. “Ellis Marsalis, he’d be playing. All his children got their start from out there. They would come in and sit in and ‘experience the elders,’ we called it.”

He recalls Off Limits as another late-night party.

“Bands started at least about ten,” he says. “And we would come over after the gigs and pay there sometime. They wouldn’t leave out there ’til twelve. I mean in the day. It was like a jam session, musicians just get to playing, forget about what time it is, next thing you know it’s twelve in the day.”

And that’s when he started learning what he calls “the professional chords,” the subtleties of jazz, the art of unobtrusive rhythm guitar and knowing what not to play.

“I started really listening at what I was doing,” he says, “and basically the timing of how I’d sing and what I’d play, and when I realized I could combine the two, it made me realize a style of playing.”

One of his signature moves is this thing where he hums along harmonically with his guitar solos. It has been ripped off by some of the best guitar players in the business.

“[U2’s] The Edge, I know he’s used some of my stuff,” Wolfman says. “I’ve heard a lot of cats play riffs I’ve made. Cats come up and say, ‘How you did that?’ and I would show ’em. You know, some of my licks I got from BB [King].”

But it’s likely you’ve heard of these guys, and equally likely you have never heard of Walter “Wolfman” Washington.

“This guy is woefully unrecorded,” Mazza says. “He’s never put out a live record. That is absurd. He’s never been treated right in the music business. He hasn’t had a contract since Rounder, and that was in the nineties. There’s a gross disservice to the whole world that he’s not really known outside of our little orbit [in New Orleans] and a very small number of aficionados around the world.”

But the Wolfman shrugs it off.

“I’m more known overseas,” he admits. “Mostly Germany, Switzerland, Italy. You know. It’s more a theater type thing. They enjoying the music, but they sit down. You got to make ’em get up and dance. But they’ll clap they ass off.”

The Wolfman makes his return to Greensboro on Thursday night at the Empire Room in Greensboro, a far cry from the clubs of his past.

The show is a production of All Access Event Management in conjunction with the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society. And it’s gonna be a hot one.

“All Access is absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to present a Big Easy blues legend of the Wolfman’s caliber in Greensboro,” says Walt Reis, marketing and development manager for All Access. “His grit, his honesty and his power are nothing short of amazing, and the folks who come out will be completely floored by his commitment.”

Hank Staples, owner of the Maple Leaf down in New Orleans, echoes the sentiment.

“He’s got that classic New Orleans sound,” he says, “and he’s been part of the scene for… well, he goes all the way back to Johnny Adams. It’s amazing to think that his career now is like forty-five years old. He’s a wonderful guitar player, but he also has that deep, rich vocal. If you ever heard the Beatles do “I Got a Woman” and then hear Walter do it, you wonder why the Beatles ever did that song.”

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