Walter “Wolfman” Washington, whose soulful voice, crisp guitar lines and toothy smile lit up New Orleans nightlife for 60 years, died Thursday at Passages Hospice of cancer. He had turned 79 on Dec. 20.
The sharp-dressed Washington often flashed a wolfish grin as he and his Roadmasters, the quintessential New Orleans bar band, delivered a sophisticated, air-tight synthesis of blues, funk, R&B and soul. He punctuated songs with his trademark howl of him.
His guitar tone and style were uniquely his own and widely admired. In director Michael Murphy’s 2005 New Orleans music documentary “Make It Funky!,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards bows down to Washington in tribute.
As a boy, Washington sang in the choir of the New Home Missionary Baptist Church on Jackson Avenue. He eventually taught himself guitar.
After toiling at such backbreaking tasks as pouring concrete and hauling bricks, he resolved to be a fulltime musician. He turned pro at 19, cutting his teeth by backing Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, saxophonist David Lastie Sr. and crooner Johnny “The Tan Canary” Adams, who became a mentor and close friend.
He reportedly earned his “Wolfman” nickname as a young guitarist prone to challenging other guitarists, a practice known as “wolfing.”
His 16 years in Adams’ band included an eight-year stretch of legendary Saturday night gigs at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge on Orleans Avenue. At Dorothy’s, the show started at 3 am and went until dawn.
“Johnny taught me a whole lot,” Washington recalled in 1999. “He’d say, ‘If you want to sing high notes, you’ve got to pay attention to how you go up there. Take your time. Don’t rush yourself. Once you get used to going up there, it will come easy.’
“He played guitar, too. He’d show me how to hit notes and how to run from one note to another and pay attention to why that note fits there. He was like a dad. I could talk to him about anything.”
Washington backed Adams on several Rounder Records albums before setting his own course in the 1980s with the Roadmasters. He released his first album from him as a bandleader, “Leader of the Pack,” for the Hep’Me label in 1981.
He graduated to Rounder for 1986’s “Wolf Tracks” and the subsequent “Out of the Dark” and “Wolf at the Door.” The 1991 album “Sada” was named for his first daughter.
He traveled abroad and occasionally toured domestically, but New Orleans nightclubs were his bread and butter. For more than a decade, the Roadmasters, anchored by drummer Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold, bassist Jack Cruz and saxophonist Tom Fitzpatrick, held down a weekly Saturday night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar that ended in the wee hours of Sunday morning, engendering all manner of mischief. They also played regularly Uptown at Benny’s Blues Bar.
He was one of the first musicians to play in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina via generator-powered shows at the Maple Leaf.
In recent years, the latest incarnation of the Roadmasters pulled into dba on Frenchmen Street each Wednesday. Washington also played in a trio with keyboardist Joe Krown.
After more than 10 years without a new album, Washington made a late-career comeback with 2018’s “My Future Is My Past.” Produced by Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman and released nationally by ANTI-Records, it featured an all-star backing band consisting of drummer Stanton Moore of Galactic and jazz bassist James Singleton and keyboardist David Torkanowsky.
The intimate, understated arrangements showcased Washington’s warm purr of a voice. The album reunited him with Irma Thomas for a duet on the old Johnny Adams song “Even Now” and earned Washington some of the best reviews of his career from him.
More recently, he finished another batch of eight blues-tinged songs, also produced by Ellman. Washington’s manager, Adam Shipley, is currently shopping the finished album for record labels.
“For the last six or seven years, Walter got the recognition he deserved,” Shipley said. “He put out some great music, and had a great life.”
In 2019, he reigned as the king of the irreverent Krewe du Vieux parade, riding alongside his queen, longtime girlfriend Michelle Bushey, whom he married at Tipitina’s in 2021.
A dedicated smoker and drinker with a colorful personal life, Washington battled back from numerous health challenges over the years. Still, his March diagnosis of tonsil cancer came as a shock.
Even as he used chemotherapy and radiation, he continued to perform, including at this year’s French Quarter Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“Nobody could tell what he was going through,” Michelle Washington said Friday. “He was a trooper to the end. He didn’t want people feeling sorry for him.
“He led an amazing life. He touched a lot of people and brought them a lot of joy.”
The Sept. 29 performance at the Bogalusa Blues Festival turned out to be his last.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters, Sada and Mamadou Washington, and a son, Brian Anderson.
Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home on Canal Street is in charge of arrangements. Visitation is Jan. 4 from 8 am to noon, to be followed by a funeral service at 2 pm
A benefit concert to help with medical and funeral expenses is planned for Jan. 8 at Tipitina’s.