Howlin' with Walter

It feels like a Cutouts Gone Wild! kind of day

Howlin' with Walter
One of my favorite album covers ever

During my early years as a music critic, one of the most time-consuming parts of the gig entailed phoning the publicity departments of various labels and asking for stuff. This wasn't necessarily time-consuming in terms of the amount of minutes those calls took, but depending on who happened to be running the department in question, it could be extremely easy or perilously difficult to have your request fulfilled — and that could only happen after you secured the number for the department in the first place, which took its own kind of detective work if you weren't writing for an established publication. As a very young pup, I lucked into a list of phone numbers by calling a company that — if I'm remembering right — managed music libraries for film and TV, which led to a really friendly conversation that I will forever be grateful for because it produced several sheets of contacts worth their weight in gold.

Anyway, that was the late '80s and none of it really matters now. I bring it up here as a means of illustrating how different the labels could be in terms of being easy or difficult to work with. Atlantic was very friendly; Columbia, not so much. Mercury and PolyGram were easy to work with; EMI and Virgin, not so much. You get the idea. From what I remember, Columbia and Virgin were particular pains in the butt well into the early '90s. Virgin broke first, but only because I wheedled my way into their good graces by covering releases that were piped out via a couple of subsidiary imprints — first Charisma, which handled new albums from 38 Special and T'Pau in the summer, and then the short-lived blues adjunct Point Blank. If I'm recalling correctly, my Point Blank connection happened because they released a Johnny Winter record in the fall of '91, and Winter's name meant something to me because he'd recorded a duet with Bruce Willis for Willis' forgotten second album.

Look, I was 17. What do you want from me?

ANYWAY. Along with the Johnny Winter album, which I remember nothing about, Point Blank's late '91 releases also included John Lee Hooker's terrific Mr. Lucky, which I loved, and Sada, the sixth studio LP from New Orleans-based bluesman Walter "Wolfman" Washington. As a pale suburban kid raised on Billy Joel, I had no frame of reference for Washington's work, but this was one case where judging an album by its cover paid off; once I got a look at the untrammeled joy on his face, captured in a moment while he was holding the (apparently quite shy) daughter the album's named after, I knew I wanted to hear it.

I was won over from the opening strains of leadoff track "I'll Be Good," which is an easy blues roller in the very best sense of the term. Washington's warm, laid-back vocals promise a skeptical lover he'll live up to the title, with savory splashes of brass backing him up and a perfectly economical guitar solo stringing both halves of the track together. There isn't a single thing wrong with it. I was hooked.

Back in 1991, I wasn't really any kind of blues fan, and I certainly hadn't been sufficiently exposed to any of the specific variants (jump, hill country, etc.) that light me up today, so in the moment, significant chunks of Sada struck me as relatively pedestrian examples of "I got a woman"/"I lost a woman" blues that would have slotted neatly in alongside the Chicago-style type of tracks that bored me then and mostly still do today. But that was then and this was now. Over the years, I've developed a real fondness for the Wolfman's work, and it's always struck me as sad that Sada fell out of print when Point Blank went belly-up.

So there's the story of how I came to hear this album, and why I think it kind of rules. Rather than giving $30 to some reseller, you deserve to hear it for the far more reasonable price of free — and then, once you've fallen for Sada as well, go and take advantage of the Wolfman records available for streaming. He'll be good!
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