“I’m used to playing with another person. To do something like that by myself, I was kind of nervous,” said Walter “Wolfman” Washington, sitting in a chair in his living room and talking about his new record My Future Is My Past, produced by Ben Ellman of Galactic. He smiles and continues, “Oh man, it was really a thing. I had never done something like that. I had to really discipline myself where I couldn’t really underplay and really overplay, so I had to stay really in the middle which was a trick for me. I was amazed at my own self at how it turned out.”
Now 74 years old, Walter “Wolfman” Washington has been a mainstay in the New Orleans music scene since the early 1960s. He cut his teeth backing up some of the best singers and performers in New Orleans history including Lee Dorsey, Johnny Adams, and Irma Thomas before putting together his long time band The Roadmasters, who have been burning down and burning up local and national stages since their first gigs in the 1980s. This new record confirms what fans have known for years: Walter “Wolfman Washington has soul to go along with that fire.
Like many African-American musicians in the South, Washington started singing in school and the church. He had just hit double digits when 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 on WBOK to sing, and Washington noticed the guitar player in the studio 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. One of his uncles saw this and gave him a real guitar, and Washington started practicing. His dad supported his music, and took him to see a musician he knew across the river from New Orleans, and those two played his first gig in Gretna, Louisiana. Even though his parents were not musicians, “I had lots of uncles who played guitar. Guitar Slim and Lightnin’ Slim were my uncles. And Ernie K-Doe – the renowned New Orleans performer and singer of international hit “Mother in Law” – was his cousin.
Washington continued playing with different musicians around New Orleans – including Irma Thomas, who sings the great slow burner “Even Now” on My Future is My Past. Lee Dorsey was Washington’s first big gig. Dorsey was a New Orleans singer with a couple big hits, “Ride Your Pony” and “Working in a Coal Mine” under his belt. Dorsey hired the 19 year old Washington to go on the road with him where he spent the next two and a half years. It was 1962. “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. It was great.”
My Future is My Past is a different kind of record than his playing with Lee Dorsey or The Roadmasters. Washington 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. You can actually picture things like that happening. I had to fix my mind into each of the situations in the song.”