Walter Washington was rarely in school, digging ditches and stocking shelves at a grocery store at the corner of Poydras and Galvez streets before he told his boss, "You can take this job and do whatever you want to it." He was 16 years old. "From that day on I had just been playing guitar," says Washington, now 74. Washington learned to play by watching other players' chord shapes, or by swatting at open-tuned strings with one finger pressed against the fretboards. He played with a spiritual group before he found his calling in rock 'n' roll.
Then-budding local hero and R&B star Johnny Adams got him a job playing countless long nights in the house trio at the Dew Drop Inn, where Adams also housed Washington in a small apartment above the club. Later, Washington hit the road with Lee Dorsey on the heels of "Ride Your Pony." Then he led The Tornados, the band backing Irma Thomas. When Adams needed a guitar player, he hired Washington for a gig that lasted nearly 20 years.
Earning the nickname "Wolfman" from saxophonist David Lastie (for "wolfing" around on guitar or for getting into trouble), Washington has steered his own band, The Roadmasters, for more than three decades and anchored himself as a Maple Leaf Bar staple with Joe Krown and Russell Batiste. Typically clad in bright red and topped in a flat cap and sunglasses, Washington's guitar twists velvety jazz riffs into ecstatic, treble-rich shredding, sometimes with his teeth, and often in roller coaster solos.
But his not-so-secret weapon is his voice, a sandpapered howl that cuts into his latest album My Future Is My Past, out April 20 on Anti- Records. Shedding his bands and sidemen, the album reveals Washington as a timeless soul singer melting into a suite of intimate performances.
Galactic's Ben Ellman approached Washington about producing an album for him, telling Washington, "I've got some stuff I'd like for you to hear."
"Then when he told me the musicians," Washington says with a wide smile, "I was thinking I was going to use my band. He said, 'No, I've got cats I'd like to put on the session.' I said, 'OK then.'"
Joining Washington are Jon Cleary, Stanton Moore, Ivan Neville, James Singleton, David Torkanowsky and Irma Thomas, reuniting with Washington for the stirring duet "Even Now."
"That was the first time I ever really had jitters," he says. "I got myself together, kind of cool, got me a little swig of Jack [Daniel's]. Comfortable. ... It took me a month to really get myself into understanding what's really happening. I went in there and did all the songs all over again."
Ellman challenged Washington to focus on his voice, placed front and center, vulnerable and imperfect but present and powerful.
"I'm comfortable with me and just me," Washington says. "But mostly I've been doing stuff like that when I'm home just hanging around, not recording. ... It gave me a good idea of how I sound and how I react to not having a full band. It was kind of scary. ... It was kind of weird hearing my real self."
Washington opens the album with the sound of ice rattling in the glass and a "let's go to work" before an acoustic version of "Lost Mind," introducing the mantra informing everything to follow: "Know this before you start / My soul's been torn apart."
"Everything's been happening so fast," Washington says. "I'm still trying to stay in tune with what's happening and see it through. ... I've been through a lot of things. I see where the things I've been through have paid off with what's going on now in my life."
For Washington, the album is a humbling, unexpected plunge into the spotlight, decades after a spark of inspiration from his cousin Ernie K-Doe, whose "I Cried My Last Tear" Washington turns into a church-filling prayer.
"I've always — when I first saw my cousin and the recognition he started getting — said, 'I wanna be a pillar, too,'" he says. "I wanna be someone New Orleans recognizes as a New Orleans musician."