Although he’s not quite a household name, Charles “Wigg” Walker, who plays The Altamont Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 12, is one of the few original soul greats still performing today. Cut from the same cloth as R&B legends such as James Brown and Jackie Wilson, Walker is the consummate showman, adept at shifting from tender crooning to a primal grunt or howl as the song calls for it. Over a lengthy professional career that dates to 1959, Walker has shared the stage with Brown, Wilson, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Little Willie John, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, among others. He’s recorded for famed labels like Decca and Chess, spent time as a staff writer for Motown, and, for much of the 1980s, Walker performed and recorded in England and Spain.
Walker returned to Nashville in 1993, eager to take advantage of the thriving blues and R&B scene blossoming in the city, and he’s maintained a steady diet of club dates and recording ever since.
“Around Nashville, there was always a lot of music going on,” he says. “For me, at the time when I was starting out, I thought you couldn’t get past a certain point [here]. But Nashville has changed quite a bit.”
Even though Walker still believes that you had to be in a city like Chicago or New York to make it as a soul singer in the 1960s, he also credits the early start he got in the Music City for paving his way forward.
“I started singing at a pretty young age even in the clubs — I was 14, 15 years old,” he says. “And I learned a lot playing around Nashville. All of the big acts came to the club I was performing at — James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Aretha Franklin — all of them came and performed there. So I learned a lot. Nothing prepares you like being out there in it.”
That early groundwork also gave him an entry point into the music world when he first arrived in Harlem, where he lived with his aunt just around the corner from the Apollo Theater.
“I got hired with James [Brown] when I first got to New York. I was very lucky,” he says. “He had seen me around Nashville and told me if I ever got to New York to look him up.”
Walker first sang with Brown and later signed as the lead singer of the J.C. Davis Band but ultimately spent most of his time recording and performing with his own group, Little Charles and the Sidewinders, which stayed active through most of the 1960s and ’70s.
It was when his records began getting reissued in the U.K. in the 1980s, though, that Walker began to realize the staying power of his music.
“I was invited over to England for a listening thing for one of my records,” he says. “I got over there and, man, a couple of guys said, ‘I’ve never really heard of you as Charles Walker. Have you ever gone by another name?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I used to go by Little Charles and the Sidewinders.’ And bells just went off! In England and Europe, they are so crazy about American music, particularly the older music, like soul and blues. And they know all about it — everything you did! After I stayed over there for a while, I realized that the music is still very much alive.”
Now, after years playing with big R&B orchestras, including his own Nashville-based group, The Dynamites, Walker has begun performing with a smaller, more intimate backing band in what he calls a soul-jazz style.
“I’m really enjoying it. There’s a lot more freedom with the music, and I’m very much involved in writing the music,” he says. “I’m enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would.”
The arrangement has the effect of putting Walker’s natural charisma even more center stage, giving his performances a raconteurlike quality as he dives into both originals and soul classics. Although he’s taken what he calls sabbaticals from music in the past, Walker, who turns 76 in July, shows no signs of stopping now — he’s got a new album on its way this summer.
In a time when the soul revival sound of groups like St. Paul & the Broken Bones or late-career renaissances from Charles Bradley or Sharon Jones harken back to the ghosts of the 1960s and ’70s, it’s a glorious thing to have a living, breathing progenitor of that music still kicking out the jams.
WHO: Charles “Wigg” Walker
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St. thealtamont.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 12, at 8 p.m. $17 advance/$22 at the door/$30 VIP