After Years of Struggle, Robert Finley’s Finally ‘Got a Thing Going On’

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On the long ago day when we met, Robert Finley was sitting on a bed that belonged to a local hotel, in a room on the first floor, with his family. That “family” was four guitars, a mixing board, a microphone and an amp. He was playing his favorite, the black one. He opened a beer, but it sat alone. He’d stop to talk about different things but mostly, he just played, accompanied only by the rattling window unit.

He was thinking about the old days, long before he could imagine releasing a sophomore album produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, much less going out on tour with him. Long before he even had any guitar at all. Back when Robert Finley was simply the son of a hard-working, gospel-loving man of faith.

“My dad was, like, one of those guys, he never would sing the blues,” Finley said, “unless, he heard me tryin’ to sing it. Then he’d come over and show me chords. He’d show me how the guitar the guitar was done right.”

A smile curled up on his face. “There was this one time, I was supposed to be buying a new pair of shoes, and I had a 20 dollar bill he had given me,” Finley added. “My dad’d said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna let you go and pick out your own shoes,’ and you know, lets me go by myself. I came back with a guitar.”

Finley laughed then, shaking his head at the memory. “This guitar was $19.95, and I had a 20, so I figured that would leave me a nickel,” he said. “I figured I could buy some candy or some bubble gum. That was the first time I ever heard about tax.”

He enjoys telling stories. As the accompanying grin stole across Finley’s face, it was obvious. At that time, he was known around his north Louisiana stomping grounds as Guitar Slim, and he is indeed a thin man, with long legs poking out of his slacks and into his dress shoes. His slim fingers wrapped around the neck of the black guitar, even as he spoke.

The sun was dive bombing outside. It gave Robert Finley a ruddy complexion; the lines around his mouth and eyes grew darker. When he absent-mindedly strummed his guitar, it seemed louder then in the coming darkness. Finley’s sunny demeanor cut through all of that, though, even as “Family Feud” played silently on the hotel television.

“We didn’t get no receipt; I just wanted that guitar,” Finley added. “Well, when I got back home, my dad heard about how I had a new guitar and no shoes.” Back that guitar went. He paused then, strumming with sudden purpose. It was almost a melody.

“Daddy was mostly mad because I couldn’t play, and I had spent all my money,” Finley said, chuckling again. “Later, I started playing really well, and my dad said he would be me a new one since I getting so good on something like chords.”

Finley’s father wasn’t prepared, however, for Finley’s growing passion for music. When a friend came over with his own guitar, and the two began running through some R&B favorites, all hell broke loose. “My dad was doing a roof next door,” Finley said. “He jumped down off the roof, came over and chewed us out. He said, ‘My house ain’t no juke! You want to play the blues, go down to the juke!”

Robert Finley and his buddy did as they were told. They went to the juke and played the blues. There’s been a little of that in Robert Finley ever since. Still, his dad never bought him that new guitar. “That,” he said flatly, “was cancelled out.”

Finley began drawing neighborhood fans, even as his father continued to lobby against secular music. “Growing up, we used to play all along the crawfish ditches,” Finley said. “Sometimes, 20 kids would come down there. That would be my audience. Until my father would come and break it up, and take me home and whoop me.”

This paternal log jam didn’t break until Robert Finley incorporated some gospel into his repertoire. The experience, however, informed everything that came later. His first original was called “Yassa Daddy, Yassa Daddy, Yassa Daddy.” Finley initially rose to regional notice with a song called “Bulldog,” which had a telling lyric: “You know, I don’t mind ya going to church, ’cause going to church is alright. Yeah, you can go by yourself in the daytime, but you better take those kids with you at night.”

He continued reminiscing and playing, but mostly playing. Sometimes, he’d stop mid-song to add something to an earlier story – as if it was so important, or struck him so much, that he had to say it right then. Like his stories, these songs moved effortlessly between his childhood’s two musical poles: He sings about Jesus and jail, booze and the Bible. It was all inextricably linked.

“I used to do a gospel music hour and do commercials for the radio station,” he said. “We had ‘Brother Finley and the Gospel Sisters Gospel Hour,’ and all our sponsors, we made up commercials for them. Whatever they was selling: Jitney Jungle, Borden Fish Market. We sang a lot of fish songs for Borden’s.”

That show ended up playing a big role in his life, before he moved on. “Radio time went up, and the young girls that was singing with me, they all grew up and they was getting married and stuff, so we split up,” Finley said.

Then he looked away, focusing on the TV for a moment. “Family Feud” had given way to a televised speech by the president, still muted. Back to the story.

“That’s how I met my wife, playing on that radio show,” Finley mused. “We got married and had three children, all daughters – which one of them has been singing since she was two. She used to be the most requested on the ‘Gospel Hour.’ To me, you know, she was my daughter and all, but hey – don’t request her more than me. After me and my wife split up, the ‘Gospel Hour’ kind of faded away.”

What he was left with, Robert Finley said, was his own special blend of styles. That’s what attracted the notice of Dan Auerbach, who has called Finley “the greatest living soul singer as far as I’m concerned.” The Black Keys star co-wrote and produced Finley’s second studio album, Goin’ Platinum! They will now appear together on the 20-date “Easy Eye Sound Revue Tour,” beginning Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018 in Vancouver.

“The blues has always been a part of me,” Finley said. “I guess ’cause I always lived ’em. Blues can reach nine times out of 10 somebody in the audience, regardless of how you play it.”

Back then, Finley was still working several trades to make ends meet between gigs in places like Winnfield, Monroe and Bernice, Louisiana. He did plumbing, carpentry, electrical work. It was a simple life, but a hard one. He earned every bit of the belated acclaim he’s getting today.

“I don’t have any trouble, like if I go into a strange town, I use my guitar to get to know people,” Finley said. “A lot of times, later, I go from people I meet through my guitar to my trades. They get to know me, and I mention that I can do this work and eventually I find day work too.” It was a busy lifestyle that prepared him, in its way, for the whirlwind schedule he’s a part of today.

“The blues opens a lot of doors,” Finley added. “You know, if I sit outside or whatever and play, it seems to draw people. If I go to a park, they’ll hear me playing and say, ‘Hey, come go with us.’ I meet a lot of people, just driving around with my stuff on top of the car. People will say, ‘Hey, do you play?'”

He took up the guitar again, smiling while he strummed – even when he sang the sad lines, the real blues lines. He got another beer, saying he’d been talking so much he’d forgotten about the old one.

“I’ll just put everything on top,” Robert Finley said, picking up the story again, “and strap my guitars in their cases on the side, and I’ll just cruise around town ’til somebody stops me. And then, I’ll stop anywhere I see a crowd. It’s just like somebody in that crowd is gonna ask, ‘Hey, can you play that guitar?’ You play them a good song, and they want to hear another, like that. Before you know it, you got a thing going on.”

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Jimmy Nelson
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