Interview with Charles Walker and Leo Black of The Dynamites

by Lauren Sherritt

US funk masters The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker are in Australia delivering their unrelenting barrage of stripped-down, rhythmic R&B, funk and swinging soul!

Lauren Sherritt chats with singer Charles Walker and guitarist Leo Black and delves deeper into the soul of the band.

LS: You’ve been to Australia before, you played here last year?

Charles: Yeah we were there last year. This will be our third time.

Leo: Our first time was last April, then we came over for New Year and here we come again.

LS: And is Australia a country you like to tour in?

Charles: Oh yeah, very much so. We have a great time there and people really enjoy the music. It makes for a great tour.

LS: Tell me about putting together The Dynamites. Charles, were you looking for a new band to work with?

Charles: Well, I wasn’t really looking for anything. But I was out there doing some shows in Nashville with the Country Music Hall of Fame over a couple of nights, and I guess Leo and his partner heard about me and he got in touch with me and we had a sit down over a couple of beers and well…

Leo: And now we’re all here.

LS: Doing business over a couple of beers, sounds like you fit in well in Australia as well.

Charles: Well yeah, you can get anything done over a couple of beers! (laughs)

LS: Leo, what was it like the first time you heard Charles. Had you seen him play before you met up with him?

Leo: No I hadn’t. Like Charles was telling you my partner Doyle who was a DJ at the time and working in a record store knew I was putting together this kind of ‘soul review’ thing that was really just more a tribute than anything else. Then he told me about Charles and just gave me this piece of paper with Charles’s number on it…I still have it actually! And he just said, “Call this guy”. So I called him and then we met up and he bought some cds of his earlier stuff. You know, I don’t think I knew what I was walking into and I’m sure he didn’t know too, but I think both of us that first time we met each other kind of perked our ears up and decided it was worth giving something a go.

I was just talking to someone actually about the first time I heard Charles sing, and it was a cool question to answer because I had to think back about it. When I decided to do this I spent about eight weeks putting tunes together, most of which were covers; really old, obscure, deep soul numbers. Then I set up some rehearsals in a rehearsal space here in Nashville and Charles came in, wearing his warm up jacket and glasses. I had only met him that one time before, and when he opened his mouth and sang I just remember being totally floored, and at that moment I knew my life was about to change.

LS: It definitely seems like you’ve hit it off with Charles and with the band, and that things are going well.

Leo: Yeah, we really work great together and over the years we’ve both recognised each other’s strong points and we really try to concentrate on those and putting together a great soul show. For me, who’s someone who is just a total soul junkie addict, I pretty much pinch myself every time we’re on the stage because I’m working with a true soul veteran…I don’t think Charles pinches himself working with me!

LS: Charles, how did you feel the first time you heard Leo and the Dynamites playing? How did it feel to be invited to be part of that band?

Charles: Well, I thought Leo was doing something damn good. At that stage Leo was doing covers, old covers really, and you could tell that Leo really felt the music and that it was going to be a worthwhile thing.

Leo: And among those covers, too, were a lot of Charles’s earlier tunes from this amazing group he was a part of that he actually started called The Sidewinders, so we immediately had a really great repertoire with the guy who had originally done it in the first place.

LS: Charles, when you were younger you were part of a huge music scene playing The Apollo and also playing Smalls Paradise, what was that like?

Charles: It was a great experience. For me, back in the day, it was a job, it was a gig, so I didn’t really know. You don’t pay much attention to what scene will look like when you’re looking back on it. It was a place where all of the top entertainers came, so you were always surrounded by all of the top worldwide entertainers. That was quite an experience and it’s something I’ll always treasure.

LS: Is there anyone that you met at that time that stands out as being really influential or really inspirational?

Charles: Oh a lot of people, I mean Sammy Davis Junior used to come down, Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Leo: He talks a lot about King Curtis being really influential.

LS: It sounds amazing, did you think at that time that you would be still playing and touring the world in 2011?

Charles: You mean now? Of course I did! (laughs) I didn’t know I was going to be around that long!

LS: Charles, obviously the music industry has changed a lot since you were first playing in the sixties. Has the change in the way music is recorded and then produced changed how you work?

Charles: Sure, it’s changed, but we record music now pretty much the same way we did it back in the old days. It’s very much of a soul music, funk kind of sound and it’s sort of like a pure thing when it comes down to putting the music together. We do this stuff now the same way we did when we used to record on tape, we try to use as much of the old style as we can. Sometimes you have to get away from it, but most of the time the recording is done on tape.

LS: And I suppose good music is still going to be good music.

Leo: And there’s so many things that go into that, I was just speaking to someone else about this as well. When you listen to all those great recordings from the sixties and seventies, the ‘golden era of soul’, it’s not necessarily just honing in on exactly what equipment they used, but the fact that they didn’t have the modern technology of computers and copy and paste. It made the whole act have to sit in that room, play the music altogether, play it through without screwing up and all work together towards putting the vibe in there. And to me, that’s still very much a viable and human way to record.

I don’t understand records that are just computer programmed things that are just one part after another…I’m not down on it, I know it speaks to a whole lot of people, but the reason I started playing music and making music was to elicit the emotions that a group of people coming together and providing a foundation for a great front man or front woman could do.

LS: And it shows in your record, the energy that your group has together. People are saying that your live act is remarkable for it’s energy. Charles, not to be ageist, but do you find it’s your experience allows you to garner that much energy performing, or are there rituals you need to do to build yourself up?

Charles: Yep, there’s one ritual! I have to have a shot of whiskey! (laughs) No, I don’t really have any rituals that I need to go through to get up on stage, it’s just a natural thing for me.

Leo: The guy just gets up there and does it every night. We see it every night, and believe me, we’ve played rooms that we didn’t really want to play and played audiences that we didn’t really want to play to, but Charles just gets up there every night as if it was a sacred thing that he was born to do. Even if there was nobody in there, he just brings it every time. It’s an example to us, and hopefully to everybody who’s there.

LS: To wrap up, Charles do you have one highlight that stands out from your extensive career?

Charles: One highlight? Well, I don’t know if I can just call on one highlight, there’s been a lot of them! I guess it would be a combined highlight of my involvement with some of those acts. You know, James Brown, Etta James, Aretha Franklin… all those acts just make a combined thing.

LS: Leo, for you career, which is almost in the opposite stage to Charles, you’re still starting and moving forwards, do you have a highlight?

Leo: That first time Charles and I worked together, I very quickly realised I was going to be getting out of the producer’s chair and onto the stage with a true soul great and that was a big highlight. Another one I’ll never forget, we played for 40 000 people at the Montreal Jazz Fest, pretty early on into our history and also had a very similar experience in Sydney on the first night this past trip. And I guess my combined highlight is just being able to travel with this band around the world like we do, it’s a truly amazing thing.

2011 Australian Tour Dates:
Friday 18th November: The Hi Fi Bar: Australian World Music Expo (AWME), Melbourne VIC-
w/ Public Opinion Afro Orchestra, Kylie Auldist, Bobby Alu + DJs; Manchild, Chris Gill and Vince Peach

Saturday 19th November: The Basement, Sydney NSW
w/ Boom Band Krewe & DJ Mr Chad

Sunday 20th November: The Basement, Sydney NSW
w/ Superheavyweights & DJ Hot Grits

Wednesday 23rd November: The Railway Club, Darwin NT-

Thursday 24th November: The Zoo, Brisbane QLD
w/ Cheap Fakes

Friday 25th November: Mullumbimby Music Festival, Mullumbimby NSW

Saturday 26th & Sunday 27th November: Queenscliff Music Festival, Queenscliff VIC

The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker have two albums released in Australia BURN IT DOWN & KABOOM! Both released by Top Shelf & Distributed via MGM.