Interview: Charles Walker and the Dynamites: Can you feel it?

Island Packet – If a crucial part of music is surrounding your sound with a scene, inventing a vibe, conjuring up some sort of world into which your sound plays the key role, the Dynamites have absolutely mastered the vocabulary.

Their debut album is called “Kaboom!” and it was released on OuttaSight Records. The following words appear frequently in the band’s bio: “deep funk,” “super soul,” “blew the roof off,” “nasty grooves” and “well-greased.” Their flyers are little 8-by-10 posters with block lettering and a lot of stars, decorated with bold-font declarations like, “DO IT WITH SOUL.” Also, they’re called the Dynamites. It’s hard to look at some records and know what’s going on inside; it’s impossible to look at the Dynamites and not have a fairly solid idea what they’re up to.

“We’re not just what they call funky,” said singer Charles Walker said from his Nashville home, “It’s funk and soul, and that makes quite a difference.”

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• The Dynamites, feat. Charles Walker – Can You Feel It

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Here’s how he explains that difference: “A lot of people can play funky, but funk is different. That means you gotta put the stuff together, a lot of parts, and they’ve gotta be played right. It’s not just the groove, and that’s it.”

Walker can deliver this lesson because he’s one of a number of long-lost — and mostly previously anonymous — vintage singers who are enjoying an unlikely new life in the club and festival scenes. That’s thanks in part to the dock-of-the-bay-R&B revival brought on most visibly (and nuttily) by Amy Winehouse, but most effectively by Bettye LaVette and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings; it’s also thanks to the fact that they’re really good singers.

Walker first started singing in his native Nashville in the ’50s, and spent much of the ’60s and ’70s in New York with bands like the Sidewinders, spending his time in the soul-funk scene at the Apollo Theatre and Small’s Paradise and releasing a handful of singles for labels like Chess and Decca. But, as you may recall, the late ’70s and ’80s were not especially kind to soul and funk music. “I figured I’d fade on into the sunset like everybody else,” he said.

But a few years ago, Walker found himself quite by chance at a Nashville bar with Bill Elder — aka Leo Black — the Dynamites’ founder, arranger and producer, who was in need of a voice to power a big horn-fueled outfit he was putting together. The two met after an event at the Country Music Hall of Fame — which was working on a tribute to R&B and soul. “Bill gave me a call after, and we talked it over over a couple of beers,” Walker said, adding, “A lot of things have happened over a couple of beers.” And here he laughs in a very satisfying, dirt-road laugh.

Walker wasn’t exactly in the market for jumping on board a young new ensemble; he had been knocking around for a while, but never too seriously, and in fact often had flirted with hanging it up entirely. “I’d been at it for a long time,” he said. “I did my thing in the ’60s and ’70s, and that sort of ended in the ’70s. Disco was going on, and I wasn’t about to do that,” he laughed.

So he settled back from music, opened a business that sold contemporary art. But he never shut the door on his craft. “My wife and I would always be writing songs, things like that. I wasn’t looking. I was really waiting for the music to change a bit.”

While he waited, he relocated to Europe, where he was occasionally employed to perform in soul-revue shows, “where they have all the acts from the old days back,” he said. “And what I found was that everything I’d recorded was selling like hotcakes over there.”

So he stuck around for a few years, settling in Spain, playing in lounges and marquee shows, until returning to Nashville about a decade ago to be with his family. He still sees his old records all the time — “especially on the Internet” — but never figured on this kind of resurgence, for himself, or for his music.

“It’s the real music,” he said. “Soul and funk is really what started all this — James Brown, all those guys. It went away for a minute or two, but it’s always gonna come back. It’s too good.”

These days the band can be found frequently at festivals like Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo; in August they’ll spend two nights opening for the Dave Matthews Band in L.A. But mostly they’re on the club circuit, building their base through touring, releasing their singles on — wait for it — 45 records, building up word-of-mouth, and “living on a shoestring,” Walker laughs. “I told Bill, ‘This is like starting all over again.’” But with soul.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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