NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans music legend Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a cornerstone of the city's musical nightlife for decades, has died of cancer, just days after turning 79.
Washington died Dec. 22 at Passages Hospice, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported.
Funeral services are scheduled for Jan. 4. at 2 p.m. at Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home. A benefit concert to help with medical and funeral expenses is planned for Jan. 8 at the Tipitina’s music venue.
Washington and his band, the Roadmasters, mixed blues, R&B, funk and soul, punctuating songs with his trademark howl, the newspaper reported. In director Michael Murphy’s 2005 New Orleans music documentary “Make It Funky!,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards bows down to Washington in tribute to his guitar style and tone, the newspaper reported.
Washington started his career backing New Orleans musical legends Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and Johnny Adams, who ultimately became a mentor and close friend.
“Johnny taught me a whole lot,” Washington recalled in 1999. “He’d say, ‘If you want to sing high notes, you’ve got to pay attention to how you go up there. Take your time. Don’t rush yourself. Once you get used to going up there, it will come easy.’ He played guitar, too. He’d show me how to hit notes and how to run from one note to another and pay attention to why that note fits there. He was like a dad. I could talk to him about anything.”
Washington backed Adams on several Rounder Records albums before releasing his first album with the Roadmasters, “Leader of the Pack,” for the Hep’Me label in 1981. He moved to Rounder for 1986’s “Wolf Tracks” and the subsequent “Out of the Dark” and “Wolf at the Door.” The 1991 album “Sada” was named for his first daughter.
He traveled abroad and occasionally toured domestically, but New Orleans' nightclubs were his heart and soul. He was one of the first musicians to play in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina via generator-powered shows at the Maple Leaf.
After more than 10 years without a new album, Washington made a comeback with 2018’s “My Future Is My Past.” The album reunited him with Thomas for a duet on the old Adams song “Even Now” and earned Washington some of the best reviews of his career.
More recently, he finished another batch of eight blues-tinged songs, produced by Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman. Washington’s manager, Adam Shipley, is currently shopping the finished album to record labels, the newspaper reported.
“For the last six or seven years, Walter got the recognition he deserved,” Shipley said. “He put out some great music, and had a great life.”
A dedicated smoker and drinker with a colorful personal life, Washington battled back from numerous health challenges over the years. Still, his March diagnosis of tonsil cancer was surprising.
Even as he underwent chemotherapy and radiation, he continued to perform, including at this year’s French Quarter Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“Nobody could tell what he was going through,” his wife, Michelle Washington said. “He was a trooper to the end. He didn’t want people feeling sorry for him. He led an amazing life. He touched a lot of people and brought them a lot of joy.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters, Sada and Mamadou Washington, and a son, Brian Anderson.