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September 2012

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Walter "Wolfman" Washington
Wolf at the Door
Rounder Records

Walter Wolfman Washington

I first heard Walter “Wolfman” Washington at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival around 1987. It was my first trip to the Crescent City and to Jazz Fest, so, boy, were my eyes opened. That was a lot of music and culture to take in at one time, but Washington made an impression on me with his piercing guitar tone and his incredible soul-drenched whisper-to-a-scream vocals. It didn’t hurt a bit that he had one of the funkiest bands around at the time either, the Roadmasters.

By 1991, Washington had released three fine albums of blues and New Orleans soul and R&B, including two releases for Rounder Records and one for the local Maison de Soul label. However, when Wolf at the Door, his third release for Rounder hit the racks, the bar was raised considerably. Where his previous releases for Rounder had their moments, Wolf at the Door seemed to fire on all cylinders throughout.

Vocally, Washington sounded fantastic. Influenced by New Orleans R&B legend Johnny Adams (in whose band Washington played for 14 years), his singing had an almost Ray Charles quality to it at times, especially on the mournful opener, the Dr. John/Doc Pomus classic, “Hello Stranger.” On the ballads, like “Don’t Say Goodbye” and the lovely “Doesn’t Really Matter,” he oozed passion and vulnerability. On the more upbeat numbers, like the gospellish “Is It Something You Got/I Had It All The Time,” or the funky “Heatin’ It Up,” he really showed his versatility.

As always, Washington’s guitar work was exquisite, whether on the bluesy “At Night In The City,” the lite jazz instrumental, “Peepin’ (which owes a considerable debt to George Benson), and even his stinging fills on “Hello Stranger” (one of the high points of an already impressive Washington catalog).

Of course, the Roadmasters provided excellent backing. By this time, the group’s core (drummer Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold, bassist Jack Cruz, saxphonist Tom Fitzpatrick) had backed Washington for over five years, and each was more than comfortable providing the basic ingredients of any great New Orleans band, soul, blues, jazz, and funk. Most would continue to play with Washington for the better part of the next two decades. Producer Scott Billington called the group “an extension of the fingers in his hand.” The band worked hard to make this recording as close to perfect as possible, even doing over 100 takes of “Hello Stranger.”

1991 proved to be a busy year for Washington and the Roadmasters. Later in the year, the band signed with Pointblank Records, a London subsidiary of Virgin Records, and released the albums, Sada, a solid album which had more of a soul/R&B feel than Wolf at the Door.

Several years later, after a couple of misfires releasing his follow-up album (Blue Moon Risin’, subsequently released in 1999), Washington returned to Rounder (on its Bullseye Blues subsidiary) and released Funk Is In The House in 1998. While he’s recorded sporadically since then, Washington has continued to tour and is a mainstay on the Crescent City music scene. If you’re unfamiliar with the talents of this great artist, Wolf at the Door is a great place to get started.

--- Graham Clarke
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