Walter "Wolfman" Washington was the youngest in the crew. "I was the new kid on the block," he says. It was the first real guitar gig for the teenager and high school dropout: playing in the house band at the venerable New Orleans music institution the Dew Drop Inn.
Washington, born in 1943, taught himself to play guitar and lived in an apartment near the club. ("It wasn't but a room," he says, "but I had my own room.") Today, his resume reads like a brief history of New Orleans music: singing in the church choir with Ernie K-Doe, learning guitar with a spiritual group, logging countless hours at the Dew Drop Inn and going on the road with Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas and David Lastie and A Taste of New Orleans — not to mention anchoring and elevating his blues-funk Roadmasters and performing alongside Joe Krown and Russell Batiste Jr. at weekly gigs at the Maple Leaf.
On Dec. 20, Washington celebrates his 70th birthday at the Maple Leaf, where admirers like Anders Osborne, Stanton Moore and Ivan Neville will join him.
Lastie gave Washington his nickname. When he first picked up guitar, Washington was just "wolfin'" — he wasn't playing "real" chords. Instead he used an open tuning approach with all the strings tuned to a chord, and he hammered one finger on the fretboard. When he was 16, he joined a spiritual group and volunteered to play guitar, despite his crude start.
"In the group, nobody wanted to play guitar," he says. "I decided, 'Well, I'll try it.' I knew how to sing."
The group performed on a radio program where other spiritual groups lined up inside the studio. "They had this guitar player playing behind these other groups, playing with all his fingers," he says. "I sat there and watched him for at least an hour and a half — just watching his fingers, the way they go, how he played. When I came home and was trying to play like that, it just wasn't sounding like that.
"I tuned that thing and started playing, using that same fingering like I saw that dude was doing. Those chords started playing so pretty. That got me started and really interested in playing guitar."
Washington's gigs at the Dew Drop and at Off Limits on Dumaine Street sometimes lasted until early morning or later.
"It got to a point where all I had was a night life," he says. "We'd start playing, then all these musicians would come after work — (Off Limits) was one of the headquarters. That was their last stop. They'd come in and start jamming. Sometimes we wouldn't leave there until 6, 7 o'clock, sometimes 12 o'clock (noon) in the day. The club stayed open 24-7. Cats would come in and jam any time of day."
In the mid 1960s, Washington backed Dorsey for two years following the hits "Ride Your Pony" and "Working in the Coal Mine," and Johnny Adams — who got Washington his Dew Drop gig (and the apartment) — hired Washington as his sideman, a gig that lasted for nearly 20 years.
Washington also scored his first international tour with Lastie's A Taste of New Orleans. Washington recently returned from a two-week tour in Europe, where he visited many places he hadn't been to in decades. "The people still remember," he says.
Washington remembers his first show on a European tour in Holland, where he got so high after visiting a "coffeeshop" that he stopped a solo on "Every Day I Have the Blues," wandered off and had to crawl back to the stage on his hands and knees. Lastie called him onstage: "Get 'em, Wolf!" The next morning, Lou Rawls and other luminaries were in the hotel lobby waiting to meet "Wolf."
Washington's wild style — big suits, a flat cap and a wide, wolfish grin — signal his unleashed guitar acrobatics, which growl with the blues and bounce and glide warmly as if in the hands of a jazz guitarist. As a bandleader, first with the psychedelic-named Solar System and currently (since the '80s) with the Roadmasters, he channels his style into a funk monster, sometimes playing with his teeth, a move he borrowed from Jimi Hendrix. Then there's his voice, which rings out soulful rhythm-and-blues — Adams helped him bring out his howl.
"Johnny Adams was the one who really helped me with my voice, showing me how to utilize my voice where I can sing and have freedom," Washington says. "He showed me how to sing in different keys and utilize as wide a range as I can. He'd come and get me every day, and we'd go by his house, he'd show me how to play guitar, show me different chords, different phrases.
"A lot of cats don't play the blues anymore," Washington says. "What I've done is combine blues and funk into a way that I know: my style of music."