American Routes Shortcuts: Walter "Wolfman" Washington

Nov 20, 2020

Walter Washington
Credit American Routes

Walter Washington, or the Wolfman as many call him was born and raised in New Orleans’ Garden District. He sang in a church choir with cousin Ernie K-Doe. His uncle was in a spiritual group the Friendly Five and gave Wolf his first guitar. Prior to his solo career in the 60s, Walter Washington had backed Johnny Adams and Lee Dorsey and was in Irma Thomas’ first touring band, the Tornados. Before getting into the past though, I asked how the Wolfman got his name.

Walter “Wolfman” Washington: Well that came from when I started playing music. Just beginning to learn how to play a guitar. I was playing it with one finger. I was learning how to pick notes, but then the chord, because playing with one finger you have your guitar tuned to a straight chord, and I was learning how to utilize those different notes within the chords. And David Lastie gave me the nickname “Wolf” because he said, “You know all of these chords but you don’t know how to use them so all you’re doing is just wolfing.”

Nick Spitzer: And you still today have that fluid style of picking out notes in your leads, as well as all of your great funk bar chords and solos.

WWW: I haven’t lost it. That was something that helped me when I learned how to play with all my fingers. It meant that I had a different style from guitar players that plays out here today. I was supposed to play guitar behind Fats after Papoose died but I went on the road with Lee Dorsey at that time.

NS: What was he like? We know from the bio he worked in a body shop, he was a boxer, he sang all those songs that had the schoolyard rhymes in them, “Ya Ya” and others.

WWW: Lee was the kindest man I have ever known. He was like a preacher, but he would talk to you in a way where you couldn’t help but laugh, and he was the first person to bring me to the Apollo Theater, my very first professional gig.

WWW: I played mostly shows–Leo Nocentelli played all of his songs–

NS: Studio recordings.

WWW: He did all of that. I only played like two songs for two years and six months, and that was “Ride Your Pony” and “Ya Ya.” And King Curtis’s guitar player stopped the band in the middle of my solo and said, “Hey, you’re playing too loud!” I said, “Who me?” He said, “You! You’re playing too loud!” And that was the most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had.

NS: Yeah I think learning to back people up well is a real art.

WWW: I’ve always thought about music as having a conversation. And I have to say, David taught me how to play, he introduced me to different cats that knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to play.

NS: Growing up in New Orleans, there’s so many amazing clubs here over the years, I know you played the Dew Drop. What was the Dew Drop like in its heyday for you?

WWW: Johnny Adams, he got me a job playing at the Dew Drop. I had just quit school. I didn’t know but four chords, but I knew how the rhythm played. At the Dew Drop I met a lot of cats, Bobby “Blue” Bland, BB King, Big Joe Turner, Esquerita, all these people. I think that was probably the only club that we had a mixed crowd, even before they had integration.

NS: Everything’s cool.

WWW: Everything was cool. They don’t have no clubs like the Dew Drop in New Orleans no more.

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