From the musicians' biographies to their collective sound, you’d be hard pressed to find a more quintessentially New Orleans band than Walter "Wolfman" Washington & the Roadmasters.
With his crisp guitar, warm purr of a voice and a sly, sunny grin more Cheshire cat than wolf, Washington has steered the Roadmasters' smooth synthesis of funk, soul, and rhythm and blues for three decades. They'll celebrate their 30th anniversary Friday, April 21, at Tipitina’s, with Soul Project opening the show at 10 p.m. Tickets are $15.
At 73, Washington has logged 55 years in local clubs. He turned pro at 19 but wasn’t fully “ordained” into the music community until two years later, when other musicians “recognized who I was,” he recalled recently.
The Wolfman cut his teeth with New Orleans R&B greats Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, saxophonist David Lastie Sr. and crooner Johnny Adams. Washington worked a steady Saturday night gig with Adams at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge on Orleans Avenue that started at 3 a.m. He also backed Adams on several Rounder Records releases before setting his own course with the Roadmasters.
They’ve released albums and gigged steadily ever since, but their leader has always considered the Roadmasters a work in progress.
“After I left Johnny, it took me almost 2½ decades to really find the right cats that wanted to play with me and wanted to understand my music,” he said. “On top of that, when you find cats that want to do this, you have to give them an initiation of understanding, so they understand what they’re getting into. If they don’t, at least they have a chance to duck out. I have a strict college.”
Early enrollees included drummer Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold. “He was the first person that really dedicated himself to me,” Washington said. “He stayed two blocks from me. He promised, ‘If you let me play with you, I will be the drummer that you want.’”
Arnold, who died in 2008 and famously draped his drum kit in red plastic chains, helped define the Roadmasters, and vice versa.
“I brought him through some changes,” Washington said. “I had this cat picking up concrete blocks and stuff. He asked me one day, ‘Man, why you got me doing all this stuff?’ I said, ‘That’s because I like my music fast. I don’t want to be lagging on tempo and time.’ He told me, ‘Bruh, if that’s what you want, no problem.’”
Founding bassist Jack Cruz also fully committed early on. “I went by Jack’s house one day, and we sat down and played for a couple hours. He told me, ‘If you give me one year, I’ll be with you for the rest of my life.’ He’s been with me for 30 years. We have been through at least five different bands before we got the Roadmasters completed together.”
Saxophonist Tom Fitzpatrick showed up one night when Washington, Arnold and Cruz were playing Uptown at the infamous Benny’s Blues Bar and asked to sit in. Fitzpatrick was soon anointed a Roadmaster.
The current roster also includes drummer Wayne Maureau, keyboardist Steve Detroy and trumpeter Antonio Gambrell.
“That comes under the heading of finding cats that understand what you’re saying but are also compatible with your sign,” said Washington, a Sagittarius. “I get along with everybody except the ones that don’t get along with me.”
Being a Roadmaster “is a real celebration of understanding. Cats have been through my college of knowledge of music. The way I explain it to them is, ‘That instrument becomes a part of your body and your mind, of your understanding of what you’re trying to say. You just can’t say it with words — you’ve got to say the words through your music.’
“That’s a beautiful thing, when you’re having a conversation on the bandstand. You pick a subject, and you discuss that subject. You explain what these words mean to you. That’s the way a conversation works — being able to have a connection without stepping on anybody’s toes or disrespecting what anybody is trying to say.”
Sometimes, he’ll “do something unorthodox. I try to test them and see how they’re paying attention. That’s part of being the Wolfman — you never know what’s under my sleeves.”
Over the years, some Roadmasters pulled off the road after getting married or having kids. Others, like original keyboardist Jon Cleary, left to launch bands of their own.
“Some I wish I could have kept, but all I would have been doing was holding them back from what they wanted to do,” Washington said. “I didn’t want to do that.”
Most former members, with the exception of Cleary, are expected to take part in Friday’s anniversary celebration at Tipitina’s.
“They’ll all be recognized,” Washington said. “They’ll be able to say that they came from the Walter ‘Wolfman’ college of music.”