They don't make music like they used. Except, of course, when they do, as in the case of furious funkmeisters the Dynamites. The Nashville band recreates the classic sound inaugurated by soul's godfather James Brown, achieving this estimable feat with the help of 70-year-old soul singer Charles Walker, who used to open for Brown at the Apollo more than four decades ago.
Walker was singing in Nashville in the late '60s when he met Brown, who suggested Walker look him up if he was ever in New York, and that's just what he did. He ended up fronting Brown's backing band, the JC Davis Band. He had his own group called the Sidewinders, too. But soul's power faded, and by the '80s, Walker had gotten out of music. He was operating a couple of art galleries in the Hamptons when, in the early '90s, he was invited to perform in England and discovered his old releases with the Sidewinders enjoyed great popularity.
"So I put two and two together, and I thought I should get back into the music business because that's what I always wanted to do anyways," Walker says.
Walker eventually returned to Nashville, where he hooked up with Bill Elder, a producer with an abiding love for funk. Though he'd long wanted to start his own band, Elder didn't think it was feasible until he witnessed Gabriel Roth's band, the Dap-Kings, and their frontwoman Sharon Jones. Elder assembled a crack batch of Nashville players but lacked a singer until he heard about Walker's performance at a Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit on Nashville's contributions to soul.
"It was just a chemistry thing immediately with me and Charles," says Elder. "We were both kind of unknowingly searching for each other."
They released their hard-charging debut Kaboom! in 2007 and followed with the even more eclectic Burn It Down. Not only did Burn It Down cover a wider breadth of soul, it revisited the social consciousness that has slowly drained away from the genre. From the economic lament "Somebody's Got It Better" to the supple uplifting swing of "Do the Right Thing" and its revolutionary title track, it was a strong collection.
"That comes from me and Charles working together over the first couple years and seeing where our strengths are," says Elder. "I wanted to start having more of a variety than just the super heavy-hitting funk stuff. I kind of got that out of my system. We actually just started working on a new record, and you'll hear even more variety on that one."
A former New Orleans native, Elder not only has respect for those classic soul sounds, but the very manner in which they were recorded. Everything's captured live and analog to tape. Their recordings complement their old-school sound with a vintage feel.
"You have to do a whole take [and] everybody has to do it right," he says. "A song can't breathe like that."
Walker brings the experience and feel for the style few can replicate. It adds a vibrancy and spirit to the Dynamites' sound. For their next release, they're working on a song with another suddenly-resurgent blues/soul artist, Bettye LaVette. It turns out LaVette shared a residency with Walker in the '70s at famous Harlem hotspot Small's Paradise, a time referenced in the song's lyric, "Our paradise was small, but it was yours and mine."
"We're kind of kindred spirits, and I think she could use another little thing in her music and I could use some in mine," Walker says.
You don't need to teach old dogs new tricks. Sometimes the old ones are just fine.