Robert Finley was discovered by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and is now experiencing his commercial breakthrough at the age of 64. I met the charismatic artist in London.
It’s not the most common thing in the world, experiencing commercial success as a new recording artist at the age of 64. For American gentleman Robert Finley however, that’s exactly what’s happening these days. The artist grew up on a corn farm and spent his whole adult life working as a carpenter until being declared legally blind in 2015. So far, this sounds like a life like any other — but then the story takes a totally different turn.
While playing on a street corner in a southern state in America, Finley was approached by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organisation which cares for vulnerable artists. They helped him record and release his debut album Age Don’t Mean A Thing, which led The Black Keys’ founder Dan Auerbach to discover him. He immediately signed Robert to his own label Easy Eye Sound, and one year later, Robert is having his big commercial breakthrough with the album Goin’ Platinum - an album which was highly praised long before its release. With a voice that blows you away and music that instantly sends you to a hot dusty day in Southern America, Robert Finley is a shiny new, albeit not entirely young, star.
One week before the album release, Robert is sitting in the restaurant of a big and fancy hotel in the most expensive part of London, looking like he’s trying to absorb everything that’s happening around him. Two meters tall, dressed in all black with a leather coat, leather trousers, hat, and sporting a long grey beard, he stands out amongst all the superbly posh hotel guests taking their afternoon tea with a view over a foggy Hyde Park.
“You just have to try and stay grounded,” he says with a thoughtful look on his face while rolling the crystal glass between leathery working hands. “Every morning I get out of bed and put on a 7 1/2” hat, and if the hat fits, my head hasn’t got any bigger!” he chuckles warmly. “The important thing is to stay humble and focused. All the attention can get to your head.”
Finley is currently living his childhood dream, at a point in time where everything could easily have slipped between his fingers. When his eyesight disappeared, so did his profession. That was a difficult thing to accept for somebody who had grown up in poverty, who was used to working from the early hours of morning until late evening, who barely ever had enough food on the table and who, at one point, could drive down any street in his neighbourhood and see houses he had built himself. “But I’m a perfectionist,” he smiles thoughtfully, looking down at his hands, “And I could no longer guarantee perfection.” So as a result, the hammer had to be put down.
However, in the process, he discovered the ancient truth that when one door closes, another opens. Because how does one handle the transition from being a proud and strong working man to suddenly have no profession, nothing to do each day, and no way of contributing to society the way you’ve been trained to through a long and hard life? “You look to the one thing that has followed you since you were a little kid secretly listening to the radio while your parents went to church,” Finley nods and chuckles at the memory. His parents were strict Christians and rock and roll was forbidden in their home. But as soon as the parents left the house, Finley and his siblings tuned in to the rock channels, intrigued by the forbidden music streaming through the air. James Brown, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, The Temptations… exciting music, which they would never hear in church. As soon as they saw the dust cloud down the road signalling the return of their parents, they would retune the radio to the channel their parents listened to.
Finley bought his first guitar at the age of ten, using the money he was meant to spend on shoes. Carrying it around on his back at all times, he taught himself how to play, and through all the ups and downs; all the different journeys in the army; all the different occupations and phases of his life, the music was the one constant — the one thing that was always present. So when you have nowhere else to turn, that’s where you look: to the music.
From surviving as a street musician to doing tiny gigs at local festivals to his first album recording, meeting Dan Auerbach and now being a successful musician, Finley has no doubts that everything he has experienced has happened in the right place at the right time, in exactly the right order. “Twenty years ago I would not have been able to handle what I’m experiencing now,” he admits, leaning back in his chair making the black leather coat creak against the dark polished chair. “I wasn’t mentally ready for it. But everything I’ve been through, all the hard work and all the struggles make me so much more prepared. And above all, so much more grateful for everything I’ve got. If I’d never been poor, I never would have understood what it means to be wealthy.”
But not everything is about money and fortune. Finley feels that one of the most important aspects of music is to take care of his father’s legacy. “My Dad was an amazing gospel singer. The very best thing about all this is that now, when I sing, I can feel him smile down at me say: That’s my boy,” Finley smiles while his eyes well up, “that, and being able to touch so many thousands of people’s lives is so much more important for me than money will ever be.”
Experiences are another type of wealth Finley greatly appreciates. “I get to travel,” he beams, “I get to sit at a hotel in London and talk about my own music. I get to tour through the USA and Europe, maybe all the way to Norway!”
One of the highlights that really stood out from the rest, was to enter the recording studio to record the album with Dan Auerbach, and to experience the way people reacted to his voice. Without any kind of education, he blew the listeners away, and when they ask him to try and sing the song Holy Wine (video to the right) in falsetto, he nailed it on the first attempt. He had never sung in falsetto before. Some times, things come naturally. Some times, people are born to sing. Some times, you hear a person’s soul through their music.
But another almost equally big experience for Finley was to discover that the musicians who were hired to play with him were none other than his own musical childhood heroes. Musicians who played with Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Joe Tex - the same people who were a giant part of the reason why Finley is playing music today. Sitting down with them and hearing them talk about their lives and hearing their histories was mind-blowing for him.
And now, Finley realises with surprise, HE is the one sharing his experiences and telling his stories to people who dream of one day maybe being like him. The wheel keeps turning. Sometimes it just takes a little bit more time than you’d normally think, in an age dominated by teen idols, YouTubers and child stars.
“Seriously though, if I can do it, anybody can!” he insists and ends our talk with a message to young and old dreamers everywhere: “Winners sometimes quit. But quitters NEVER win!”