ACL Interview: Dynamites feat. Charles Walker

Nashville Northern soul combo’s epic journey

ACL Interview: Dynamites feat. Charles Walker

The Sixties run deep on Love is Only Everything, the Dynamites feat. Charles Walker’s third album. Steeped in Southern soul, the album’s delineating factor is its incorporation of dynamics more akin to Chicago and New York. Between Walker’s intuitive vocal finesse and the Dynamites’ crack arrangements, anything’s possible.

Born in Nashville in 1940, Walker grew up to the strains of 50,000-watt nighttime R&B powerhouse WLAC. After establishing himself as a singer in his hometown, Walker left for NYC in 1961. Following a stint with onetime James Brown bandleader J.C. Davis, he formed Little Charles & the Sidewinders. Their 1965 Decca single, “Talkin’ About You, Babe,” didn’t chart, but it did become a Northern Soul favorite.

We spoke with Walker and Dynamites guitarist/bandleader Bill Elder from the band’s Nashville home base about Walker’s storied history, the Dynamites’ evolution, and what it takes to keep the band moving forward. Between Walker’s golden anecdotes and Elder’s perspective, it proved a lively conversation.

In addition to their ACL Fest set today at 6:30pm (BMI stage), Walker and the Dynamites play a pair of unofficial aftershows: Friday at Hotel Vegas with Living Grateful, Brother JT, John Wesley Coleman, and ST 37; and Saturday at the Continental Club, with Roxy Roca and ACL powerhouse Vintage Trouble.

Austin Chronicle: How do you think Love is Only Everything differs from the first two albums the Dynamites recorded?

Charles Walker: With the third album, we wanted to find a little more melodic kind of thing – and more storytelling. I mean, not that there wasn’t storytelling on the first two, but we thought we’d take a different way, you know?

Bill Elder: Every group has an evolution, and the Dynamites had a pretty healthy one as well. The first record was a real funk, powerhouse kind of thing. The second one started getting more into social consciousness, almost more of a Curtis Mayfield vibe. And this one, having worked with Charles for so many years, we really wanted to play to his strengths to the highest degree.

He’s such an amazing, melodic singer and balladeer. As he said, we really focused a lot more on melodies, song structures, and stories while staying in the soul bag altogether. And of course there’s a fair share of really, really funky moments as well. They’ll always be there.

AC: The whole Northern soul thing has been going on awhile in Europe. What do you think is driving the soul revival to the degree it’s going in the United States right now?

CW: The people who like Northern soul kept it alive, and they’re still keeping it alive. Those of us who’ve gone to Europe to play, it inspires us to do more of what we know best. I don’t know how it’s affecting music over here. There seems to be a lot more of it.

BE: My approach to it is that it never really went away. I don’t necessarily buy into the revival standpoint so much as this music, which, with the way we write and perform it, had its nexus in the Sixties and early Seventies. To me, if [Marvin Gaye’s] Let’s Get It On came out today, it would be just as big a hit as it was when it originally came out. It’s just a way of making music, and as Charles said, it’s an American way of making music.

AC: Charles, do you remember the first time you ever sang in public?

CW: Oh yeah. I remember. I’d been singing in public since I was about six, but my first professional job was at about 16 or something like that. I would go sing in this club. I would do two or three numbers and then I’d have to leave out the back door because I wasn’t old enough. I’d be standing on the deck out there and when it was time for me to do my show, I’d come in and do those songs. That went on for a couple of years.

BE: Charles, you should fast-forward him to that story about how you went to the Apollo right after you got to New York.

CW: Oh yeah. I met James Brown here in Nashville. All of the top acts came through Nashville. And he said that if I ever got to New York, look him up. So I moved to New York that next year.

BE: ... on J.C. Davis’s recommendation.

CW: Yeah, J.C. Davis was a bandleader then. And I went to the back of the Apollo, just knocked on the door, and they let me in. You would always hear, “You can’t get into the Apollo. Forget about it.” But somehow or another, they heard me down there and said, “Let him in, let him in!” So I went in and I got the job with J.C. Davis and James.

BE: So he bangs on the door of the Apollo and six weeks later, he’s opening for James Brown on the road.

AC: That’s amazing!

CW: I didn’t even have enough sense to know what it was all about. I was just out there!

AC: Given that Nashville is primarily known as the hub of country music, I wanted to ask if country music played a role in you finding your voice.

CW: I don’t know that it ever played a role. We did listen to country music, of course. Mostly on the radio. There was a station called WLAC, and they played soul music and blues later on at night. And my parents had a lot of soul and blues records, so I would sit around and listen to that and practice with that. I don’t know if anybody made my kind of music that I followed, but as I got older, I started following Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson.

BE: It almost had to have an influence because of the coexistence of country music and R&B in Nashville in the Sixties. Coincidentally, that’s a big part of how we found Charles. He was asked to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the Night Train to Nashville exhibit. It was for a two-record set from Lost Highway that highlighted only the R&B era of Nashville. I thought it was wild that this was actually an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

That performance is the reason why we’re on the phone with you today. My partner Doyle Davis was curating that thing. Of course, we were totally knocked out by Charles. I was putting together a soul group, looking for the right guy to front it, and there he was.

AC: The soul music heritage of Memphis has been extensively venerated, but I know there was a lot of that going on in Nashville, too. Was there any back-and-forth during that time?

CW: Well, I suppose so, but I really didn’t know too much about the Memphis scene.

BE: Yeah, but you left for New York when?

CW: I left in 1961. But there was a lot of music here in Nashville. People like Faye Adams, Big Maybelle, Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown. Because around here, all the people used to skate to those records. The women artists probably outdid the men.

BE: They do call I-40 between Nashville and Memphis “Music Highway.” Even now, our organ player is from Memphis.

CW: You get the feeling you’re in a special place. It’s kind of like the first time I went to a blues festival and traveled down Highway 61. A lot of history has traveled down that road. It was the same thing I felt one time when we did a show at the Ryman here in Nashville.

I remember when I was a kid I’d go up there and walk around. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be singing in the Ryman. I went out onstage by myself and just stood there and looked around. You do get a strange feeling.

So country music really was an influence on us, and soul music influenced country, because you can hear it on those old country singers.

BE: Well, Ray Charles did two big-selling country records.

CW: Ray changed the face of...

BE: ... everything! There’s nothing he didn’t change the face of.

AC: Charles, can you tell me about the first time you met Bettye LaVette when you were getting going in New York?

CW: Oh yeah. I remember Bettye because we were singing at the same club: Small’s Paradise in Harlem. She was in a little group with Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford. At that time, I had already put my group together, the Sidewinders. We were singing on alternate nights, so Bettye was already around. We were good friends. We’re still good friends, but we don’t see each other that much. Just here and there on the road. It was at one of those shows where we talked about working on this record.

AC: So how did that duet for “Yours and Mine” come together?

BE: We went ahead and cut the track and brought the master to her while we were playing a show together in Virginia. Coincidentally, our tents were right next to each other. So I thought, alright, this is the moment where it’s gotta happen. I drank enough wine to get the nerve up, went in there, and we worked it out. It was really a great experience. She went in there and cut the whole thing in one take. I’m super, super proud of that track. It was really written for those two.

One of the lines in there is, “Our paradise was small.” Of course that’s about Small’s Paradise. So take a good, close listen to that and you can really hear both of their stories, which kind of unfolded parallel to each other.

AC: Charles, I read you owned an art gallery in New York for many years. How did that interest develop?

CW: Pure accident. I just happened to need something to do. I was kind of singing around out in the Hamptons and a guy who owned a club said, “Look, man. You can’t make a living singing out here. There ain’t enough clubs. I got a building down here. Go down and take a look at it. Maybe you can find something to do.” So my wife and I went down to look at it. We knew so many artists, so we thought we would open up a gallery. We didn’t expect anything out of it, but it turned out to be quite a project. I really didn’t know a damn thing about art. I learned about it, though!

AC: So were you out of music at that time?

CW: I was still doing music. I was writing songs and we would ship them off to different companies and every once in a while, I’d do a show. I guess I kind of kept my foot in it. During the time I was out of music, I wasn’t really out of music. I was just taking a breather, because I think at the time I needed one. It was during the Seventies; during the disco era. I just didn’t really feel like I fit in that era, so I just kind of backed out for a little while and started writing songs.

AC: A lot of soul artists put out disco records, though. And some had more success than others.

CW: I have nothing against disco myself. I tried it for a couple of months, I guess...

BE: I want to hear that!

CW: ... but it didn’t work. People saw right through it.

BE: But then the Northern soul thing started happening.

CW: Yeah, there were people in Europe who heard my first records with the Sidewinders. And they wanted me to come over and do them. So I went over. I was in Blackpool, England, and I was singing along to the record. It was very weird because I don’t ever sing a song the same way. I think the first time I recorded those songs, I sang them 200 different ways. The press came out and made a big deal. They were telling me about how some of my records were selling for a lot of money.

So it sort of opened my eyes. I had to get back into it and get this thing going again. I was over there in Europe for awhile, doing this and that. I did about six or seven blues/soul type of albums before I met Bill.

AC: Given that you’ve spent some time on the road, what’s the best advice you would give a touring musician – particularly someone who has to sing every night – about staying healthy on the road?

CW: That’s a funny question. I don’t know. Drink a lot of beer!

BE: C’mon, man! Give him a real answer! This guy puts us all to shame on the road. He does it every single night when everyone else is getting the hacks. He’s made of different stuff.

CW: I just think if you’re into something and you really believe in it, it’s not a big deal for me. Sometimes I look like I’m about ready to pass out, but I get up and do the show. I really work hard onstage.

BE: On a practical level, Charles really paces himself when we’re on the road. He rests a lot when we’re going from point A to point B. That’s a part of what he was just saying. If you’re born to do this, that’s the responsibility. You take it seriously and you take care of yourself in between gigs.

CW: It sort of energizes you to keep going. I play golf when I go out. And if I just hit one good shot, it energizes me to go out the next time. It’s the same with music. If you feel good about what you do onstage, it makes you want to go back. It makes you want to get back to that stage. That’s the way it is. You just have to believe in what you’re doing and really have a conviction and keep going forward with it.

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Dynamites feat. Charles Walker, WLAC, J.C. Davis, James Brown, Little Charles & the Sidewinders, Bill Elder, ACL Fest, Living Grateful, Brother JT, John Wesley Coleman, ST 37, Roxy Roca, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Doyle Davis, Ray Charles, Bettye LaVette

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