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The Soul Man

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In Center Block
Jan 9th, 2017
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On the verge of retirement, Robert Finley has found new life by strapping on his guitar, traveling from venue to venue, and proving that it is never too late to live your dream.

Article by Nils Borquist
Photography by Aaron Greenhood

MANY PEOPLE ON THE VERGE OF retirement look forward to days spent away from the normal bustle of working life. Time, our most precious commodity, swiftly flitters by and away, with days building into decades, all culminating in a period where attempts at decelerating those ever-moving gears become a priority in order to squeeze a minute of enjoyment out of every second lived. If the standard wisdom prescribes to slow down to embrace every moment, Robert Finley’s retirement years have thus far flown in the face of that logic. In the midst of his sixth decade, Mr. Finley has found new life by strapping on a guitar, traveling from venue to venue, and singing his songs his way, realizing the dreams of his youth.

At a young age, Robert Finley gravitated towards music. Growing up in Bernice, Louisiana, Finley listened to the gospel music that filled the churches of his youth, absorbing the sounds, the structures, and the soul. In particular, he focused on the guitar, on the way a person’s fingers could cull life from the wood and strings and make it sing. When an older brother got a guitar, the younger Finley found himself wishing he could get his fingers on one as well. Once sent out with some money intended to purchase shoes and with a group of friends, Finley instead found a guitar. Lacking the full funds, his friends stepped in and helped him buy his first guitar, and the seed once only dreamt of was fully sown.

As he got older, gospel music remained a powerful force for Finley, but other influences began to mingle. B.B. King, James Brown, and even the emerging Jackson 5 swirled about young Finley’s head, and he practiced his playing and singing, trying to achieve a sound similar to those he heard from the tinny crackle of the speakers. While gaining in proficiency, Finley now looks back on those years with a hint of regret. Although he knows that a certain amount of imitation absolutely helps a young aspiring musician, a horrible mistake of trying to be someone else can also wrest away creativity and a willingness to experiment. Fortunately, even during those years, Finley began developing the sound that resounds from stages five decades later.

After a stint in the military during which Finley was in the wonderful position of bandleader, and could hone his technical skills, he returned to the States with the intent of becoming a full-time musician. It was not to be. Unable to catch the break so often needed to gain a foothold in the entertainment world, Finley was forced to find alternate means to earn a living. Turning to carpentry, a trade taught to him by his father, Finley spent the next several years measuring and cutting, planning and building, all the while continuing to play at every opportunity no matter the style. He performed in R & B bands, soul bands and gospel groups, enjoying every performance while also never understanding why he was not being discovered.

As the years stacked up, Finley’s bands took on various forms as old members left to be replaced by new faces that eventually passed on, exchanged in a revolving cycle of performers grinded by the night hours. Finley, though, keep pushing, recognizing that his dream was not a flame to be simply extinguished. Still, no record executives were pursuing Finley. Fortunately, though, fate sometimes has a funny way of introducing herself, often quietly lurking in the shadows to spring up, when one has grown weary of looking for her.

A few years ago, Finley began to notice that he was having difficulty seeing lines to cut while at work. He realized that he was losing his ability to see, and he eventually was diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition that would take his vision completely in one eye. As the damage became worse, Finley would be declared legally blind, as he also has lost over half his vision in his other eye, the carpenter understood that he would be forced to quit his profession. However, he retained his ability to play guitar and play well. As a tool in his showmanship repertoire, Finley had years earlier taught himself to play guitar behind his back and head, thereby gaining the skill to use his hands and fingers independent of his eyes. This fortuitous skill would help him reap a career and life from that seed planted decades earlier.

Late in 2015, while playing in Helena, Arkansas at the King Biscuit Blues Fest, Finley busked on a sidewalk before the time he was to hit the stage. As passers-by listened, they would place money in his ever-present black hat and take photos with him. One person stopped and lingered for quite a while, before introducing himself as Tim Duffy, the man who would eventually help Finley get a record deal. Finally, after 50 years of playing music in seclusion, on stages in towns stretching no wider than a couple of streets, and in clubs darker than the midnight sky, Robert Finley was recognized as an artist.

The last two years have seen Robert Finley go from a Monroe, Louisiana, favorite to playing in New York for packed houses. He is in complete awe concerning his current situation, though he is not completely shocked. In his words, and with a signature raspy laugh, Finley says he’s just glad people have finally come to their senses. After years of trying to be like everybody else, he adds, he gave being himself a shot, and it has certainly paid off. As a dreamer, he always felt that he would get his chance one day, so he never gave up hope. Even though he’s in his sixties now, he still feels he was in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to live out a lifelong dream coming at this stage of his life is better than never coming at all.

With his newfound success, Finley is setting bigger goals. He believes that once a person is satisfied, it is easy to lose a sense of purpose, which can lead to an aimless and fruitless life. He loves what he is doing, yet he still finds the time to be involved with church and gospel music. In fact, in his words and again accompanied by that infectious laugh, he sings gospel music for soul salvation and rhythm and blues to pay the bills. With his songs, he is also able to spread a message of hope, of living life to the fullest. He does not want to sing classic blues songs about sadness and despair, instead focusing on a more upbeat style, espousing the joy of life and the pleasure one can find when grasping each opportunity life presents with a smile and a good attitude. As a dreamer himself, Finley wishes everyone would approach life in a similar fashion. He knows full well what can happen when we hang on to dreams, believe in ourselves and take the chance to fulfill them, no matter our ages.