New Orleans native (and staunchly loyal resident) Walter “Wolfman” Washington is coming to Mattie Kelly Cultural Arts Village in Destin Thursday, June 7. The legendary blues guitarist appears as part of the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation’s Concerts in the Village series.
Washington took some time from his busy schedule for a phone interview with Beachcomber. The soft-spoken Washington talked of his past, present and future—and his new ANTI- Records release, My Future is My Past.
Washington got his musical start in a neighborhood spiritual group in New Orleans, The True Love and Gospel Singers. The group visited a local radio station, where young Walter watched a guitar player and was fascinated with his finger work. Washington decided to take up the instrument (“No one else in the group wanted to play guitar,” he says), and crafted a homemade guitar with cigar box, rubber bands and clothes hanger.
Washington’s family included several musicians—uncles Guitar Slim and Lightnin’ Slim, and cousin Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-in-Law”). Another cousin, who’d purchased a Gibson electric and decided against playing, gave his guitar to Washington. An uncle helped him tune it (“so I could play with all my fingers”), and his education began at age 17. “I just watched cats, how they played.”
Washington also played with Johnny Adams on stage and in the studio, as well as Irma Thomas and the Taste of New Orleans Band.
Washington kept at it, reading keyboard players’ books, watching more players, and making ends meet with construction work—digging ditches and pouring concrete (“I had to get up too early”), hauling bricks, and stocking shelves at a grocery store, where he would occasionally practice in the stock room.
He moved on to area gigs and sitting in with other musicians at New Orleans venues like Club Topaz. Singer Lee Dorsey (“Working in a Coal Mine”) saw Washington and offered him work on the road. Washington’s mother was initially against it, but Dorsey talked to her and she gave permission. Dorsey took him to the famous Apollo Theatre in New York.
He wanted his own band, and formed a solid group called The Roadmasters, which has been going strong since the 1980s. His reputation as a live and a studio musician grew, but there was one thing he hadn’t yet done, which was a solo album. Galactic producer Ben Ellman approached him about just such an endeavor, and Washington took the plunge.
“It was definitely different,” he says, and “it was a treat.” Part of the attraction lay in the personnel—Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville on keyboards, James Singleton on bass, and Stanton Moore on drums. The result, My Future is My Past, was released this month, and has been getting top reviews.
The 10-track playlist focuses squarely on Washington, showcasing his formidable musical and vocal skills, in an up-close and very personal way. The program includes American Songbook classics like “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “Lost Mind,” and “Save Your Love for Me,” and blues. The result is simple and elegant, the kind of performance quality it takes a lifetime to attain.
Washington has a busy summer ahead of him. His website schedule has him in Tallahassee, St. Petersburg, New Orleans, Texas, overseas to Spain, then back for a tour of New York and New England, and out west. He will also be touring along with Trombone Shorty, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Galactic in a “Voodoo Threauxdown” celebrating New Orleans’ 300th anniversary. “They’ll play theirs, I’ll do mine,” he says.
As much traveling as he does, Washington is committed to living in New Orleans. “I wouldn’t live nowhere else.” One of biggest draws is the food—“it’s different from anywhere else.” His mother attempted to teach him to cook, but “I always burned it up.” Nowadays the only dish he’ll venture to make is red beans and rice.
In addition to performing and recording, Washington takes time to teach, including what he calls “the philosophy of musicianship.” He advises student players: “Cats, once you decide to play…ask a person who really knows how. It’s hard to teach yourself. I learned the hard way.” He also stresses getting to know everything you can about the instrument you’ve chosen.
“You gotta understand what you have to do and why. You’re not up there by yourself.”