Walter Washington's producer speaks on the blues legend's posthumous album
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
We could spend the next hour listing famous musicians from New Orleans, but the list of the city's musicians more beloved than Walter "Wolfman" Washington is much, much shorter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WALTER WASHINGTON: (Singing) Keep it up, down in the (inaudible), lay her down (ph).
MCCAMMON: Washington's mixture of blues, funk and jazz delighted locals for six decades. He started out as a backing musician, appeared regularly at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, then returned to New Orleans, where he ended up making several records with his own band, The Roadmasters. Washington died last year at the age of 79, but he did not leave the city and the fans he loved empty-handed. His album, "Feel So At Home," which he began before the pandemic and finished shortly before his death, is out now.
Ben Ellman is also a fixture in the New Orleans music scene. He's a saxophonist for the band Galactic and the producer of the new album, and he joins me now. Welcome, Ben.
BEN ELLMAN: Thank you for having me.
MCCAMMON: So you've lived in the New Orleans area, I guess, since the late 1980s. How did you first hear about Walter - or Wolfman, as he was called - Washington, and how did you end up meeting him?
ELLMAN: Well, being a young musician just showing up in New Orleans, I had heard he was the guy to check out. And I first saw Walter at a club in New Orleans called the Maple Leaf, and he held down a weekly gig on Saturdays there for many years. I remember walking in and seeing Walter taking a solo on his guitar with his teeth for the first time I was there. And then he let out this falsetto howl with so much emotions. It just gave me goosebumps. And then during the set break, I was at the bar, and Walter came up next to me and ordered a drink. And I told him how wonderful it was, and he spent the whole break talking to me, a total stranger, about music in New Orleans. And I think I showed up every Saturday, like many musicians, for the next couple years.
MCCAMMON: That led to a collaboration or a friendship, as well, I guess, that included his final album - what would be his final album, "Feel So at Home," which he started working on before the pandemic. This album is - it's a little bit different - isn't it? - from some of his earlier albums.
ELLMAN: Yeah, the idea from these albums were that we would go into the studio and make a record that really focused on his singing. He spent six decades being in a band that really was a party band, and they provided the party. So we wanted to make a record that would be a little more stripped down and mostly be for people to sit down and listen to with a really relaxed quality.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL SO AT HOME HERE")
WASHINGTON: (Singing) I feel so at home. I feel so at home. I feel so at home, feel so at home...
ELLMAN: You know, before we started these records, some of the records we sat down and listened to were, like, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, Nat King Cole, "Ray Charles With Strings" and albums that had a real quiet but lush sound. So he just loved those sort of vocal albums, and he never really got a chance to make something like that.
MCCAMMON: Can I ask what your favorite track is on this album?
ELLMAN: Probably "Lovely Day." I just think his vocals are really incredible on that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVELY DAY")
WASHINGTON: (Singing) These happy hours that I spent with you. It's been a lovely day that I spent with you.
MCCAMMON: Yeah. You know, Ben, I really liked that one, too. I just thought it was - it has such a - almost an innocence and a sweetness about it.
ELLMAN: You know, there's kind of a funny story about that one. We recorded that sort of towards the end of the process, and he was struggling a little bit with his vocals. And I remember hearing a story about how Marvin Gaye recorded vocals laying down on a couch with a microphone suspended over him to sort of get an intimate feeling. So instead of having Walter confined to a vocal booth, we decided to put him on the couch in the control room, turn off the lights and just - and create that relaxed atmosphere. And I think it's one of the best vocals we got, and I think it was a real effortless performance, too.
MCCAMMON: You know, there's another track I really liked on this album - "I've Been Wrong For So Long." It has a different vibe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN WRONG FOR SO LONG")
WASHINGTON: (Singing) Now I know, yes, I know, baby, I know, that I been wrong for so long...
MCCAMMON: What was he trying to do there?
ELLMAN: Well, honestly, "I've Been Wrong For So Long" - I think that was one of the tunes that was a little more up-tempo on the record, and I think that's a little more like maybe some of his earlier songs. And I think he always was a guy who brought the party, and I think his music was always up-tempo R&B. And for a lot of this record, it was - he was placed in a jazz trio context with mic sort of brushes and stand-up bass. I think that was just a little bit of his time to, like, belt it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN WRONG FOR SO LONG")
WASHINGTON: (Singing) Oh, sound out your feeling. It's truly, truly revealing, in memory of love, I'm telling mine (ph) all about love. I've been wrong, oh, yeah, for so doggone long...
MCCAMMON: You know, this would turn out to be his last album. Were you aware that he was sick or how sick he was?
ELLMAN: We knew that he got sick towards the end of making this record, so we definitely had to get in the studio and finish some things up. And he was having some problems singing in the end, but he played until the very end of his life. And he was playing shows, and he was out there performing like he has been for a long time.
MCCAMMON: I have to ask, Ben, what does it feel like to have this album coming out, and he's not around to hear it?
ELLMAN: Well, I think it's a beautiful thing that he left the world, and he did get to hear it before he passed. We had a listening session at his house in the very end. And he couldn't really speak, but we would play him songs, and he would give us a thumbs-up and smile. And I think he was proud of it because I think it just really showed a different side of his musicality. And it was a part of music that he really loved, and he loved vocal singers. And being in that setting, I think, was something that he was really proud of.
(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER "WOLFMAN" WASHINGTON SONG, "ALONG ABOUT MIDNIGHT")
MCCAMMON: Ben Ellman, musician and producer of Walter "Wolfman" Washington's posthumous album, "Feel So At Home." Thanks so much for talking with us.
ELLMAN: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER "WOLFMAN" WASHINGTON SONG, "ALONG ABOUT MIDNIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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