‘It all starts with a groove’ An interview with Charles Walker and Bill Elder of the Dynamites
International and inter-generational, Nashville band the Dynamites, featuring veteran singer Charles Walker, delivers funk and soul originals with a bang.
Frontman Charles Walker began his singing career in Nashville in the late ’50s. The following decade, he moved to New York City and opened for soul and R&B giants including James Brown, Etta James and Jackie Wilson. Walker performed solo and also led several bands including Little Charles & the Sidewinders, a group that, despite its star quality, received little attention compared to its contemporaries.
After returning to his hometown and performing for the Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit “Night Train To Nashville,” Walker caught the ear of songwriter Bill Elder. Together they formed the Dynamites, a modern band exploring new avenues of funk and soul in front of fans across the globe. On September 20, the group will perform in St. Louis as part of KDHX’s Thursdays at the Intersection in Grand Center.
I had the pleasure of chatting with both Walker and Elder before their return to St. Louis.
Francisco Fisher: You took a hiatus from music in the ’80s and into the ’90s. Then you found out people in England were listening to the Sidewinders, and you performed there. What was that like?
Charles Walker: I was really on the verge of pulling in and giving it up…. So, when I heard about the Sidewinders’ stuff being played a lot, and Southern soul a lot too, it gave me another kind of inspiration to get back into the music again. It was quite a good feeling, I guess, just being back in it.
What were some of your other inspirations to get back into music? I read that you heard about Sharon Jones and others who were becoming popular for playing a similar kind of music.
It’s true, I heard of them. A lot of the black people like Sharon Jones and a few other groups that were doing some of the old soul stuff, funk and soul. So I decided, well, that’s what I’ve come up on, so I need to get my step back into it, too. And that’s what happened. It took me a minute or two, but it happened.
How does your experience with the Dynamites compare to your previous experience with the Sidewinders?
The Dynamites is the same kind of thing. The Sidewinders was mostly just a sped-up soul band. The Dynamites is more of a funk-and-soul band, and actually, [Bill Elder's] idea was to do the deep funk. So I saw the work come out of that, and we got [the Dynamites] just doing mostly soul now, because that’s really what’s happening. Soul music is really coming back. I don’t know if it’s going to be a main genre, but you can hear it in all kinds of music now.
Can you tell me about the new album?
We just finished it about a month ago, and it’s going to be released in Europe first. The songs are a little bit more to what I do than “Burn It Down” and “”Kaboom!”.” “”Kaboom!”" was more like me kind of fitting in and trying to work it out with that funk thing. But this new album is more of a soul album.
Is this more of a collaboration than before?
Yeah, mainly the collaboration thing is that Bill wrote almost all the songs. I wrote one song on that album and we’re doing one of the Sidewinders’ songs.
“Please Open The Door”…. We recut it and it’s more like a stage version. I do it onstage with the Dynamites anyhow. As a matter of fact, we do quite a lot of the Sidewinders’ songs in our show.
Would you like to do a live album with the Dynamites?
Yeah, I would. You can generate a whole different thing as a live performance than four walls and a booth somewhere. The live thing is definitely a lot more inspirational. You can do a lot of things. Our show with the Dynamites is put together in that way that it could be recorded live because our stuff is put together pretty well.
[To Bill Elder] You are the primary songwriter for the Dynamites. Can you talk about the process that you use?
Bill Elder: The process begins with listening and being involved with mostly ’60s and early ’70s music all the time. It’s almost all I listen to. It’s not limited to soul and R&B only, but that time period had so much amazing stuff that I don’t even think you could listen to in your whole lifetime. It all starts with that.
After that, a particular vibe or a particular tune that I just really want to get into what it was that made me respond so positively, and start from that kind of a feel. Then I just sit down and start working on beats, work on bass lines and try to squeeze a melody out if it, which in turn comes in to some lyrical content hopefully. If not, then I go the instrumental route. But it all starts with a groove.
How has the music evolved from “Kaboom!” to “Burn It Down” to the upcoming album?
When you work with people over the course of many years, you feel everybody’s strengths and weaknesses out. And, especially working as a live band, the shows bring out Charles’ real shining moments as well as everyone else in the band. The writing has definitely taken a turn more towards sweet, blue-eyed soul. It’s one of Charles’ greatest strengths, singing ballads and singing Jackie Wilson-style music.
So I would say “Kaboom!” was just getting a lot out of my system on the whole James Brown obsession that I have. “Burn It Down” was a lot more focused towards the social conscious side of soul music, but it’s a more varied album as well. This [upcoming] one goes a lot more melodic and [with] song structure, and really to build into Charles’ greatest strengths. A lot more angle on soul, but there’s plenty of funky stuff still in there.
The new album is going to be released in Europe first. Can you tell me about your European fan base and how they might differ from the fans here?
Man, I’m not real sure that there’s a difference in the fan base. The difference that I see is really more in the apparatus of the music business here and there and in Australia. Fans of the Dynamites here are no different than fans of the Dynamites there or in Australia. The state of things is just different overseas as far as what promoters are doing, what risks they are taking, what shows they are putting on.
When you live in a certain place, the music that’s being made right in your backyard isn’t necessarily as much of an interest to you as the stuff that’s being made 4,000 miles away — I call it “local-itis” –because, especially in Nashville, very few Nashville bands even play in Nashville. They go overseas or they go over to the West Coast and whatnot. The people in Europe and Australia, which are the major territories that we’ve done the vast majority of our touring in, even more so than in the U.S., are very, very receptive to what we’re doing. I think more of that is attributed though to the labels and publicists and concert promoters and venues that we work with over there.
How has your experience been playing in St. Louis?
It’s one of our favorite cities. It’s obviously a city with a tremendous amount of musical heritage. I’ve got a bunch of jazz guys in my group that have religious experiences when passing through East St. Louis. But yeah, man, it’s one of my favorite towns. We love it every time.
88.1 KDHX welcomes the Dynamites featuring Charles Walker to Thursdays at the Intersection on September 20, an event co-sponsored by Grand Center, Inc. and presented by PNC Arts Alive.