Robert Finley: the army and R&B veteran finding fame half a century late

After playing in army bands while in the US army, the Louisiana singer gave up on music. Now, with the help of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the 63-year-old is finally ready for stardom

If the Vietnam war had not come to an end, Robert Finley might not have released this year’s best classic R&B album.

Finley, from rural Louisiana, joined the US army aged 19 in 1974. His father had been killed in a car crash a couple of years before, and he needed to help support his mother and get himself an education. “They say when you grew up as a sharecropper you have to pick cotton when cotton need picking and chop cotton when cotton need chopping and you go to school in between, so we really only got to go to school three months out of a year,” he says. He trained in aircraft weapons maintenance, but by the time he was deployed, the war was winding down and he added another specialism to his army duties – entertainment.

“My first duty station was in Germersheim, Germany, and the first day I was there I met the leader of a band that had just lost its guitar player,” he says. “I was just playing my guitar in the recreation centre, and this guy heard me and asked if I would play with them. He said: ‘We’ll play what you were playing. You just play and we’ll follow you.’”

For the next couple of years, Finley learned his trade as guitar player and bandleader, playing social events in US bases in Europe: “Some songs I wrote myself, and I played stuff that was popular in the States – even if it was old there, it might be new in Europe. A lot of James Brown stuff, BB King, Temptations, Staples Singers. If somebody in the band knew the song, we used it.”

In 1976, though, he was busted from acting sergeant down to private following a fight. “Here’s the deal. I grew up in a church and in a home where they said: ‘Turn the other cheek, and forgive.’ Then I go into the military and they train me to fight. This is against everything I grew up doing. But I’m trained to fight. I’m a fighting machine.” He left the army. Now, he was sure, he could put his musical skills and discipline to work and make it as a musician.

Robert Finley with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
Robert Finley with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Photograph: Alysse Gafkjen

The problem wasn’t his music. It was everybody else. “In the military, everyone was going to be where they was supposed to be,” he says. “But in the real world, if they show up, they show up, if they don’t, they don’t. And ain’t nothing you can do about it. It’s a nervous wreck to be wondering if your guitar player is going to show, if your drummer is going to turn up, and I wasn’t used to that stress.”

And so his musical career wound down. He went back to his hometown of Winnsboro, singing gospel and working as a carpenter. And then, a few years back, his eyesight started failing. Unable to take on carpentry jobs, he started playing music. Someone from Music Maker Relief Foundation spotted him busking, which led to a low-key debut album, Age Don’t Mean a Thing, last year. And then, finally, the big break came, when a friend of Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach sent him a clip of Finley playing. Auerbach was convinced this unknown guy was “one of the best singers ever” and approached him about working on a soundtrack to a graphic novel, Murder Ballads. He then signed him to his Easy Eye imprint, pairing him with the cream of southern soul and R&B session musicians for this year’s brilliant Goin’ Platinum!, a record that sounds as if it could have come from any year between 1964 and today, and has made him a minor sensation at the age of 63.

Not that Finley was blown away at first. For a start, he had never heard of the Black Keys. “When Dan walked in I didn’t know who he was,” he says. “I lived in a town with a population of 1,600. I was way outside the box. But I went because they said it was a great opportunity to work with some rock stars and do some music. And it wasn’t costing me anything upfront.”

“It was unusual how easy it was,” Auerbach says. “He took to it like a fish to water and he impressed everyone – and these were lifelong studio musicians. They were giddy at working with such a great singer. It just clicked.”

Auerbach wrote the songs for Finley, giving him 10 numbers that suited his gravelly, rasping voice to the ground. “He was like: ‘This is the story, tell it your way.’ I always wanted to be an actor anyway, so all I had to do was become that person. There was a lot of things I had given up on that came alive, and when I heard the music I loved the music. It was the grace of God that brought us together.” The experienced studio professionals fretted they were working Finley too hard, tiring him out. But no. “I was just tired of waiting for this opportunity.”

These days, Finley lives in Bernice, Louisiana – he’s now become the seventh person on Wikipedia’s list of notable locals. Does that mean he’s not the town celebrity? “As long as I can get up in the morning and put a seven-and-a-quarter-inch hat on my head, that means my head didn’t swell up overnight.” He chuckles. “Maybe the girls are smiling a little longer, but other than that everything’s the same.” All he wants now is to win some Grammys, just like his friend Dan. And who’s to say he won’t get a fairytale ending – another one?

Goin’ Platinum! is released on 8 December on Nonesuch


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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