Walter “Wolfman” Washington plays the blues in that unique New Orleans style, blending funk, soul and jazz in that steamy brew synonymous with the Crescent City.
In 1989 I drove across the USA on what turned out to be a wild goose chase.
The plan was to follow a fleet of four London buses which had been shipped over to America and were going to be driven in convoy from the East Coast to the West Coast, and then shipped on to a new life in Hawaii.
It sounded like great fun – and a great picture story for a magazine – so I flew to New York, picked up my friend Ben Buchanan to take the photos and share the driving, picked up a car and headed down to Norfolk, Virginia, for the start of the bus journey.
We could (and should) have driven there via Philly, Baltimore and D.C. Instead we took a detour to see the famous Boardwalk at Atlantic City and very nearly missed the last Cape May-Lewes ferry of the day, which would have meant missing the buses when they set off the next morning.
When we arrived in Norfolk, my friend Robert Thomas, who owns a string of pubs in and around Hackney (including my local, The Shakespeare) with a sideline in exporting double deckers to America, was in a state of agitation on the eve of the big trip.
While I was somewhere over the Atlantic, the hotelier who had ordered four London double deckers for his Honolulu hotel, had dropped in unexpectedly – by helicopter – at Robert’s garage, where they were being serviced and converted to US specifications, to check on his goods before the 3,000-mile road trip to California.
He was disappointed to find that those iconic London double decker buses he had bought were bright red. And, despite red generally being viewed as their USP, he insisted that they be painted blue instead, because that was the colour of the livery at his fancy hotel in Hawaii. In short, the trip was off – for at least a few more weeks.
That left me and Ben with a car to deliver to California (we had hired it from a “driveaway” agency where the car came free, so long as it was deliverered unscathed and on time to its destination), and nine days to do it in.
So we set off on our road trip without the buses, determined to make the most of our time before delivering our spanking new BMW 7-series (33 miles on the clock when we collected it in Manhattan) to its owner somewhere near San Diego.
We raced through the Bible Belt to Nashville and Memphis and then, after our fill of Elvis and honkytonk bars, we headed south to New Orleans, where Ben’s sister Alice Buchanan was studying at Tulane University. I loved it there.
It’s still my favourite city, with its tropical heat, its anything-goes attitude and its melting pot of ethnic influences, which works its way into the music – a steamy brew of funk and blues, jazz and soul, Cajun and zydeco and all points in between. It’s everywhere.
Our favourite place to find it was an open-all-hours joint called Benny’s Bar, deep in the 13th Ward, a place where people would probably have told us not to go, especially after dark. So we did.
There was only one street light on the block, beneath which a man in a hat was selling his wares to the needy, and behind which was a tumbledown shack with roaches on walls dripping with condensation and a single ceiling fan to stir the humidity.
Unlike almost everywhere else in the South, New Orleans feels genuinely racially mixed, the Big Easy’s inhabitants united in their love of food and drink and music and, as they say there: “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
Inside the dimly lit Benny’s Bar the throng of dark-skinned locals was joined by a handful of the more adventurous white students, attracted no doubt by cold Dixie beer for a dollar a bottle.
It was paradise. Especially when, on Tuesday nights, there was live music by a fellow called Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington (on account of his fang-like lower teeth), whose band played the blues like I’d never heard before, with that characteristic N’awlins swing that makes you instantly want to shake, rattle and roll.
In between sets someone would pass around a hat and people would drop a few dollar bills in there for the musicians and I chatted to Walter who I’d never heard of back then, and who’s still far from a household name some 30 years later, about how he had been playing since he joined Lee Dorsey’s band when he was still in his teens.
When you hear music like that in its natural habitat there’s nothing better. And there’s nowhere better to do that than NOLA, which is still my favourite city in America – and maybe the world. And I’ve just found out that Benny’s literally fell to pieces at the turn of the century, which is a tragedy – though I’m sure the good times continue to roll.