Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington, New Orleans Musical Luminary, Dies at 79
Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a New Orleans guitarist and singer who played his mix of funk, blues, soul and jazz in the city’s clubs for six decades, died on Dec. 22 in a hospice in New Orleans. He was 79.
The cause was tonsil cancer, said his manager, Adam Shipley.
A quintessential local luminary, Mr. Washington held down long-running weekly residencies at clubs including the Maple Leaf and d.b.a, where he recorded a live album with his band, the Roadmasters, that was released in 2013. He was also a member of a durable trio, with the keyboardist Joe Krown and the drummer Russell Batiste Jr., that released “Live at the Maple Leaf” in 2008.
Between New Orleans gigs, Mr. Washington toured clubs, particularly around the South, and worked an international circuit of blues clubs and festivals.
Mr. Washington’s guitar playing was lean, light-fingered and harmonically rich, conveying a relaxed authority as it teased and jabbed. His voice could convey flirtatiousness, amusement, heartache or wily agility, and his syncopated phrasing was as close to jazz as to traditional blues, leaping easily into falsetto or letting loose a vulpine howl.
Edward Joseph Washington Jr., who later began calling himself Walter, was born in New Orleans on Dec. 20, 1943. His father was a baker; his mother, Marie Williams, cleaned houses.
He sang in his church choir and taught himself guitar to accompany the spirituals of the True Love and Gospel Singers, a neighborhood group. “I was born to play the guitar,” he told Offbeat magazine in 2018.
He made his first guitar out of a cigar box, a clothes hanger and rubber bands, before an uncle gave him an acoustic guitar. According to “Music Inside Out,” a program on the New Orleans radio station WWNO, he called himself Walter after being nicknamed War-War because he kept getting into fights with other children; he got his “Wolfman” moniker as an ambitious young guitarist who challenged better-known players onstage, a tactic known as wolfing.
Mr. Washington became a full-time musician in his teens, backing up leading New Orleans R&B singers including Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe, who was his first cousin and, he told Offbeat, gave him his first electric guitar.
He joined the singer Lee Dorsey’s band in 1962 and spent the next two years touring with him. From the 1960s into the ’80s, he played guitar onstage and in the studio behind the singer Johnny Adams, who encouraged Mr. Washington to return to singing, strengthening his voice and extending it into falsetto.
In 1986, Mr. Washington formed the Roadmasters and released his first nationally distributed album, “Wolf Tracks,” on the Rounder label. Jon Cleary, the Roadmasters’ first keyboardist, wrote on Facebook that with Mr. Washington’s band, “A new musical vocabulary opened up for me” that was “an unusual hybrid of soul, funk and jazz.”
Mr. Washington’s sets drew on his own songs and on a deep repertoire of current and vintage R&B and standards. One of his most popular songs was his funky remake of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “You Can Stay but the Noise Must Go.”
Through the next three decades of constant touring, Mr. Washington recorded with the Roadmasters for labels including Rounder, Bullseye Blues, Virgin/Point Blank, Zoho and Anti-. His 1999 album, “Blue Moon Risin’,” featured horn players who had worked with James Brown.
Mr. Washington married Michelle Bushey in 2021, onstage at the New Orleans club Tipitina’s. She survives him. His survivors also include his oldest daughter, Sada Washington, whom his 1991 album, “Sada,” was named after; another daughter, Mamadou Washington; and his son, Brian Anderson.
In 2018, a decade after his last studio album, Mr. Washington made a stripped-down, more intimate album, “My Future Is My Past,” produced by Ben Ellman of the New Orleans band Galactic, on which he set aside the horn section and sometimes switched from electric to acoustic guitar. One song, “Even Now,” was a duet with Irma Thomas, with whom Mr. Washington had worked four decades earlier. Mr. Washington had recently completed another studio album with Mr. Ellman as producer; it is awaiting a label deal for release.
During months of cancer treatment in 2022, Mr. Washington continued to perform, including a set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he had appeared regularly. His last show was at the Bogalusa Blues and Heritage Festival in September.
“Ever since I was a little bitty boy,” he said in a 2015 video interview for the online channel Mr. Porter, “I’ve always wanted to be a pillar of New Orleans and the music. Once you become yourself and understand why you wants to be a musician, you’re going to be recognized mostly at home.”