There’s a wolf at the door
Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington brings his deeply funky New Orleans blues to that other river city
Don’t tell me the Wolfman and his loyal band, the Roadmasters, haven’t got a sense of panache to accompany their massively formidable New Orleans rhythm and blues chops. Their new “collector’s limited edition” CD is titled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: Live In New York.
This blood-brother group, together for 15 years, is legendary for its joyous, turn-on-a-dime grooves; its punchy horn lines; and the emotional depths it plumbs in show-stopping ballads. Any music lover who has made the pilgrimage to the Crescent City would have been directed to Washington’s home club, the Maple Leaf, to be properly soaked to the bone in deep funk and then raised up and blessed by his multi-octave gospel swoops. In a city so rich with pantheon musicians, Washington has carved out a longstanding fan base of locals and tourists—rare anywhere, particularly across decades. So, even though the new album’s title (only available off the bandstand and on Washington’s Web site, www.walterwashington.com) really refers to “the brutal snowstorm that buried Manhattan” during the band’s holiday engagement, according to bassist Jack Cruz, it also describes the band’s take-no-prisoners drive and enduring believability.
Early on, Washington took advantage of his hometown’s exquisite heritage and would hang out with his cousin, Ernie K-Doe—a.k.a. “the Emperor of the World” or “the Greatest Boy-Child Ever Conceived at Charity Hospital”—as well as Harold Battiste, Alvin “Red” Tyler and the Lastie Brothers. The evolution of Washington’s stuttering guitar and funky-sophisticated syncopation began with his neighborhood life here, influential to him as much as coveted records by Bobby “Blue” Bland and Wes Montgomery.
As a teen in the mid-1960s, Washington joined up with Lee Dorsey, the infectiously charming singer who trotted to national fame on “Ride Your Pony” (that’s Wolfman on guitar), “Working in a Coal Mine” and the original version of “Yes We Can (Can).” That gig was lucrative enough after three years for Washington to get off the road, buy a house and begin a two-year in-town stint with another native icon, Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans. Thomas taught a sense of the good life to her band. “She had a place down there at the lakefront, across from a golf course,” Washington recalled. “She’d wake us up at 9 o’clock every morning, and she’d pick everybody up. We’d shoot golf for about an hour. And for the rest of the day, we’d be sitting there practicing, until 4 o’clock in the evening before the show that night.”
But the critical vocal tutelage came under one of the greatest American soul and R&B singers: Johnny Adams. Washington and his band backed Adams, dubbed “the Tan Canary,” for more than 15 years before setting out on their own with Rounder Records in 1986.
“We both came from the church,” said Washington. “But Johnny taught me the secret of getting up high. I can’t really explain it, but it’s a way you can control your vocal chords. It’s the tightness of how you feel to make a certain high note. It don’t just come. There’s a secret he told me. He said, ‘Cornbread and milk helps strengthen your vocal chords.’ See, I smoke some, and Johnny did, too, but it takes all that raw edge off your vocal chords, clears ’em up. For three years, I worked on it. And finally, I hit that one note. He said, ‘Aha! Now pay attention to how you did it.’ And I did. Then, he showed me how to take that note and vary it. Now, I don’t even think about how I do it. I just do it.”
Joining the Wolfman and the Roadmasters—bassist Jack Cruz, drummer Wilbert “Junk Yard Dog” Arnold, tenor and alto saxophonist Tom Fitzpatrick, trombonist Dave “Bonecrusher” Woodard and trumpeter Antonio Gambrell—at Sunday’s show will be San Francisco’s Joe Louis Walker and the Boss Talkers plus Sacramento’s Jackie Greene Band, which has been laying down some jazzbo organ-trio funk recently that may make Washington grin.