Walter “Wolfman” Washington didn’t think he had it in him.
When Galactic saxophonist and record producer Ben Ellman suggested making a stripped-down, intimate album focused on Washington’s voice, the Wolfman wasn’t sure. He’s the singer in his funk/blues band the Roadmasters, but his guitar is his calling card.
“It was one of those things,” Washington recalled recently. “Ben said, ‘What would you think about doing a CD with an acoustic sound, with just a rhythm section, and maybe a few songs you do by yourself with a guitar?’ Oh, wait a minute. I never thought nothing like that before.”
Turns out, he should have. Unlike anything else in the Wolfman's catalog, “My Future Is My Past” shows off his warm purr of a voice to great effect, especially on a duet with Irma Thomas. Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s modern jazz trio, featuring keyboardist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton, accompanies Washington on much of the record. Other guests include keyboardists Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville and percussionist Mike Dillon.
Set for national release via ANTI- Records on April 20, "My Future Is My Past" will be available in New Orleans for a hometown record release party at Snug Harbor on Saturday. Washington will play sets at 8 and 10 p.m., backed by Moore, Torkanowsky and Singleton. Tickets are $25.
As a boy, Washington sang in the choir of the New Home Missionary Baptist Church on Jackson Avenue. He eventually taught himself guitar to accompany his neighborhood spiritual group. He turned pro at 19, cutting his teeth with Irma Thomas and other New Orleans R&B greats, including Lee Dorsey, saxophonist David Lastie Sr. and crooner Johnny Adams. Washington worked a legendary 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 albums before setting his own course with the Roadmasters.
The Roadmasters celebrated their 30th anniversary last year, and they're still going strong. They play most Wednesdays at d.b.a. But for “My Future Is My Past,” Ellman wanted to frame Washington with an entirely different setting. That included accompanying himself on acoustic guitar in the studio.
“I do stuff like that at home, when I’m trying to get a song together,” Washington said. “I’m not used to putting it on record.”
Neither was he used to recording with Moore, Singleton and Torkanowsky. “When I walked in the studio and saw all them cats that I admire … I’m a blues and funk man. I’m not into too much jazz and music like that. But I thought, ‘This is gonna be a treat.’ ”
They jammed in what amounted to a get-to-know-you session. “After a while, it started getting nicer,” Washington said.
One day in the studio, Washington spontaneously started playing “Steal Away,” a song that is part of the Roadmasters repertoire, as the other musicians tuned up. By the second verse, the others had jumped in. Ellman rolled tape, capturing the moment.
“It was just so sweet, how everybody understood where I was going with the song, and just created it right there,” Washington said.
He wrote a song called “She’s Everything to Me.” Otherwise, Ellman brought in most of the material for the project, including the Johnny Adams ballad “Even Now.” Despite having backed Adams for years, Washington was unfamiliar with “Even Now.” And he was thrilled when Ellman offered to get Irma Thomas to sing it with him.
“I said, ‘If you can work that, I’d be glad to do it,’ ” Washington said. “I had never done a duet with Irma since I’ve been knowing her. I’ve always played behind her. It was a surprise to me that she agreed to do this.”
Long a local hero, Washington and his team hope “My Future Is My Past” gives him the national acclaim he deserves. To that end, he’ll hit the road in August with Trombone Shorty, Galactic and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as part of the New Orleans-themed Voodoo Threauxdown tour.
He’s about halfway finished with the next Roadmasters record. But for now, he’s basking in the attention that “My Future Is My Past” has already brought him.
“Brother Ben, I’m grateful to him for doing this for me,” Washington said. “Every time I listen to it, I hear something a little bit different. You can tell when you’ve done something to the point where you feel very, very proud about it. And I do.”