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Bluesman's career is in overdrive at nearly 65

by Sean Clancy | February 12, 2019 at 1:48 a.m.

It took awhile, but 64-year-old Robert Finley finally got discovered.

The former carpenter and part-time performer was playing in the street at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena-West Helena when he caught the attention of Tim Duffy of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit that gives support to older musicians.

Robert Finley

Opening act: Kiko Pryor

8 p.m. Wednesday, Griffin Restaurant, 101 E. Locust St., El Dorado

Admission: $15

(870) 444-3008

That run-in resulted in Age Don't Mean a Thing, the bluesy 2016 album written by Finley and released on Big Legal Mess Records.

Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach saw a video of a Finley street performance and invited the Louisiana native to write and sing with him on Murder Ballads, the score for a graphic novel of the same name.

Auerbach and Finley were soon back in the studio, recording Finley's latest album, Goin' Platinum, which was released in late 2017 on Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound label.

Finley will play tracks from that record, along with songs from Age Don't Mean a Thing and some selected covers during a show celebrating his 65th birthday Wednesday at Griffin Restaurant in El Dorado.

"When you've been doing something all your life, it's really about being in the right place at the right time," Finley says from his home in Bernice, La., just south of the Arkansas line. "You can be good, or better than good, and still not be seen by the right people. ... I was in the right place at the right time."

Speaking about Finley around the release of Goin' Platinum, Auerbach had high praise: "I realized very quickly Robert's capable of doing so much more than old blues songs. He could do a wide range of things very easily. He's a blues guitar player, but when he puts his guitar down, you could set him in front of an orchestra and he would sing just as good as Ray Charles on the first take. He has that magnetic hugeness about his voice and just knows where to put it in the pocket, always."

Finley started playing music when he was just 10 years old. It was gospel mostly, as his father, a sharecropper and a church deacon, frowned on the blues.

"We weren't allowed to play the blues in the house, not even on the radio," he says. "My dad was totally against the blues, although we were living the blues. We were sharecroppers. To this day, I don't think we ever got our share."

Finley joined the Army and was trained as a helicopter technician, but was also part of the Army band. After leaving the service, he became a carpenter and music was a side hustle.

"I always had my own quartets," he says. "There was Brother Finley and the Gospel Sisters. We had a gospel show that came on KMAR radio every Sunday morning at 10 o'clock."

He also performed with the Gospel Brothers.

He says, "I was always performing gospel things, but there was never really any serious R&B or blues."

Failing eyesight forced him to stop his carpentry work, but being recognized at the King Biscuit Festival and getting Auerbach's attention set fire to his music career.

"I hadn't heard of him until I actually met him in person, and then I was introduced to a lot of the things he had done," Finley says of Ohio-born Auerbach, who founded the blues-influenced duo the Black Keys in 1996 with drummer Patrick Carney

It was a case of game recognizing game.

"I could appreciate him because he knew the struggle," Finley says. "He went up and down the road in an old raggedy station wagon trying to get from gig to gig with the Black Keys. We clicked, and we both love what we do. It was a magical thing."

Auerbach took Finley to his Tennessee studio and surrounded him with an all-star team of studio heavy hitters, including drummer Gene Chrisman (Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield) and keyboard player Bobby Woods (J.J. Cale, Bobby Womack). Horns were provided by members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and legendary guitarist Duane Eddy was also part of the sessions.

The songs were tracks written by Auerbach and John Prine, Nick Lowe, Pat McLaughlin and others.

"I was the new kid on the block," Finley says. "All these guys were pretty much on every record that came out during my childhood."

The result is a slab of Southern soul that succeeds in sounding timeless and fresh and is linked by spirited playing and Finley's mighty voice.

On tracks like "If You Forget My Love," "You Don't Have to do Right" Finley is spry and almost poppy, while "Three Jumpers" is more swampy and haunting. "Get It While You Can" has a Black Keys vibe aided by spicy backing vocals and horns and Finley shines beautifully with a surprising, tender falsetto on the lush ballad "Holy Wine."

The record is reminiscent of Don't Give Up on Me, the 2002 Solomon Burke album that featured the legendary soul singer on songs by Tom Waits, Dan Penn, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and others.

Wednesday's show will feature Finley with local players from area churches. There will also be family involved, which seems appropriate since it's his birthday.

He says, "My oldest daughter from my first marriage, Christy Johnson, sings backup with me. I've got kids and grandkids that are very musically inclined, so I'm trying to open a bridge to where they can do bigger and better things."

Besides playing gigs, Finley is working on new music.

"I've been writing and Dan's been writing," he says. "He's doing a new thing with the Black Keys and we're running out of time for a spring release, but we plan on having a new album this year. I don't want to make a promise we can't keep, but we will be out with something. If it's not a full album, then a single or a video."

At an age when people are looking at retirement, Finley's last few years have been quite a rush.

"It's been like going from elementary school to high school to college and then on with your career," he says. "I'm grateful to everybody that has played a part and for everything that is happening. I'm living my childhood dream."

Robert Finley

Style on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: Bluesman's career is in overdrive at nearly 65


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