“Put me last on the bill,” Robert Finley says, “because the party’s going to go as high as it’s going to go when I’m playing.” From someone else’s mouth that might be braggadocio, but when Finley says it, he’s just telling the truth. Onstage, he’s infectious. It’s the whole package—his sound, his songs, his energy, his look. Hailing from Louisiana, he mixes a Memphis-to-Texas electric southern grit with Nashville-clever songs. He’s gangly and graceful with an indomitable smile that radiates beneath his black ridge-top hat. “I don’t believe in doing a lot of holding back,” Finley says, “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got.”
Finley came up singing gospel, the only kind of music his parents would allow. His palette expanded quickly, however, through hanging out with older guys and trying to meet the demands of impressing the opposite sex. At 11, he took some money his father had given him to buy shoes and bought a guitar instead. With his friends, he starting making stuff up—rhymes and melodies, “whatever it took to keep the girls around,” he says. Words have always come easily to him. “Once I get the music, the lyrics just come natural,” Finley explains. “All you’ve got to do is look around. Just about anything you’d want to write about, somebody’s going through it. It’s hard to miss. Every day is a song, really.”
As a performer, Finley cut his teeth in the Army. He joined at 17 and was stationed in Germany working on helicopters. He got a secondary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) as an entertainer and started leading his own band. They had a big repertoire, but specialized in soul and R&B—songs by Joe Simon, Tyrone Davis, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye. Both the US servicemen and the European crowds loved it. During these years, Finley honed the art of capturing and keeping an audience, “making the magic happen.”
Back in Bernice, Louisiana, Finley found that leading a band—without the strictures of the military keeping everybody on time and in place—was thankless and unsustainable. So he sharpened his solo act and played out whenever he could. He also began working as a carpenter, a profession he maintained for decades. Now legally blind, Finley can no longer build houses. He can still tear them down though, so Music Maker is working with Finley to keep the gigs coming and help connect him to new audiences. In 2016, he made a splash playing with the Music Maker Revue at the prestigious Globalfest in New York City, gaining critical praise from NPR and The New York Times.
“Here I am at my age, just now fulfilling my childhood dream,” Finley says with his warm and ever-present smile. “It’s like the song says, ‘Age Don’t Mean a Thing.’ See, you’ve got to hold to your dream; don’t ever let somebody tell you what you can’t do.” When he was younger, Finley would play 6 or 7 hours straight (10 hours straight, once) if the people wanted it. Still today, he brings a workingman’s ethic to performance; he plays hard and respects his audience. “Without the fans,” he says, “You’re nothing really. It doesn’t matter how good you are; you’ve got to be able to convince the people that you’re worth their investment.” Most nights, Finley will have you convinced before the end of the first song.