The Wolfman epitomized New Orleans. He loved to eat, he loved to drink, and he loved to create the music that is the Big Easy: a scrumptious gumbo of raucous, horn-driven R&B, blues, funk, soul, zydeco, Cajun, and everything in between. If Washington couldn't make you smile and move your feet, and most other parts of your body as well, then you belonged in a St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 burial vault.
He was one of the last remaining remnants of the original 20th century New Orleans sound, having been influenced by legends like Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, the Meters, and the Neville Brothers, and having played with, during his long 60-year career, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and Johnny Adams.
The first time I saw him was at a club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sometime in the 1980s, where he was on a bill with an aging Jimmy Rogers, the great guitarist with the Muddy Waters band back in the 1950s. And, as distinguished as Rogers still was, it was Washington who stole the show that night with his kickass band, the Roadmasters.
Later, I caught him and the Roadmasters at their usual Saturday night haunt, the Maple Leaf Bar, in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans. After his first set, I stopped him as he was headed out to Oak Street for a smoke and told him how much I enjoyed his most recent album, Sada, that included the pretty title song that was written for his newborn daughter of the same name. Walter broke into a big toothy grin, that likely accounted for his nickname, and hugged and thanked me. Now, if you've ever been to the Maple Leaf on a Saturday night with Walter "Wolfman" Washington playing, you know the star is bound to quickly work up a prodigious sweat. In which he heartily drenched me with his bearlike embrace.
Then, in 1993 (I think), I was somehow put in charge of hiring a band for Geac's customer party at the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. Guess who I hired? Yep, and you should have seen those librarians get down!
Still later, I couldn't resist heading down to New Orleans several times in October to attend the annual Crescent City Blues & BBQ Fest. Not so much to catch the headliners, like Shemekia Copeland, Tab Benoit, Bobby Rush, Mem Shannon, and Henry Gray, among others, but to hear the Wolfman himself. Just one more time.