It was an exciting evening at the Rauma Blues festival (In English | Rauma Blues 2023) on Saturday, August the 12th, when Robert Finley hit the stage at half past nine and gave us a tremendous, exhilarating and – above all – a truly soulful performance. Running over one hour, his ten-song set consisted mostly of the single releases from his three released albums, and those songs with memorable melodies and effective hooks combined with Robert’s strongly improvised presentations totally captivated the audience.
He kicked off with mid-tempo jams, either with a heavy clip-clop beat, or sort of “swamp trotters” – I Just Want to Tell You, Sharecropper’s Son, Three Jumpers, Medicine Woman, What Goes Around Comes Around – and proceeded into highly emotional, slightly bluesy downtempo numbers: Age Don’t Mean a Thing, Souled out on You, Tell Everybody. The joyous Make Me Feel Alright and the stormy Get It While You Can brought the show to rousing end. A spectacular night, one of the finest in a long time!
On stage Robert was backed by a band from the U.K. – Liam Spratt on lead guitar, Charlie Love on drums and Oliver Hopkins on bass guitar. The backup vocalist and co-singer was Robert’s daughter, Christy Johnson. Robert: “I have a great European band, and when I send the music over to them – believe it or not – they know it better than I do (laughing). Then I have two bands that I work with regularly in the States. We have a band on the East Coast and then we have a band on the West Coast. If you don’t do that, the airline and the hotels will get all the money because of the expenses of flying around with so many people. Now it’s just me and my daughter.”
Photo: Marjo Parjanen
ROBERT FINLEY FUN DAY
I talked to Robert for the first time in 2016 right after the release of his debut album, Age Don’t Mean a Thing, and in that interview Robert tells about his childhood, military band days in Germany, leading a gospel quartet and launching his recording career (https://www.soulexpress.net/deep5_2016.htm#robertfinley). However, we forgot to talk about his own favourites at that point. Robert: “As a little kid I loved the Beatles and Elvis Presley. I had a great interest in his style and what he was doing. Then there were Little Richard and Ray Charles. I guess the dancing was coming from James Brown. I tried to imitate him, tried to do ‘the James Brown.’ My favourite female vocalist was Aretha Franklin. When I heard her singing, it felt like she was singing directly to me.”
“Bobby Rush is a close friend of mine now. I got a chance to meet him and do a couple of shows with him in his home town. Actually, I live about thirty miles from where he was born and raised - Homer, Louisiana. I live in Bernice, Louisiana, now. I was probably in my thirties, when I moved there after the military. I’ve been there for about 37 years. I’m only 105 miles from where I was actually born and raised at. I have three daughters from my first marriage, and they still live there, in Winnsboro, Louisiana.”
“They gave me a key to Winnsboro in 2020 and then they named ‘Robert Finley Fun Day’ that we were supposed to celebrate every year, but when the pandemic started we kind of lost the track of it. They have since changed mayors and I really haven’t met the new mayor yet. After that in Bernice they decided that they would have a ceremony and they gave me the key to the city of Bernice, and named that ‘Robert Finley Fun Day.’ I got keys to two cities now (laughing). Most times nobody has something named after them until they’ve deceased, but to have a key to two cities and be alive to talk about it, that is great.”
Photo: Pertti Nurmi
AMERICA’S ROBERT GOT TALENT
So far Robert has released three full-length albums – Age Don’t Mean a Thing (2016), Goin’ Platinum (2017) and Sharecropper’s Son (2021) – one five-song EP called Murder Songs (2017) and a while ago a lead song to a compilation album titled Tell Everybody. Robert: “Each album is a little different from the one before. I call it a gumbo. It’s like having a little bit of everything on an album and not label yourself into categories - blues or soul. Some people think that blues is a sad thing. The blues will make you cry, but then again it will make you cry tears of joy as well, depending on what the artist is saying about. Being able to do all of them, I’m glad to fill the generation gap, because I got babies fans and then I got grandparents fans, and everything in between. Kids say ‘I don’t like the blues’, but then they come to the show and hear some blues… and they love it.”
Since each album differs musically from the previous one, does it any way show in sales? Robert: “They’re really running equally. Some people come up and want all of them. At one time they were selling so fast that they couldn’t press them enough. I had to be on a waiting list to get them myself. The first album, Age Don’t Mean a Thing, did super well, but it didn’t have distributor connections. With Easy Eye Sound (https://easyeyesound.com/) we got involved with Concord and those major record companies and partnered up with them, and they could move more worldwide.” Robert’s first album was released on Big Legal Mess Records, based in Oxford, Mississippi, and since then the rest have come out on Easy Eye Sound out of Nashville, Tennessee, which is owned and operated by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
In 2019 Robert took part in America’s Got Talent and went as far as the semifinals. “I think Sharecropper’s Son is now probably the most sought after, because it tells the life story… and nobody could tell it like me, because I was the one that lived it. Maybe the TV and America’s Got Talent had something to do with it, because people could actually see the performance and not only hear it on the radio.”
Photo: Pertti Nurmi
Robert is a prolific songwriter and he practically writes all his material – sometimes with some outside help, mainly from Dan. “I try to write about things that people can relate to on a day-to-day basis. I like to try to ‘keep it real’, like in Sharecropper’s Son. A lot of people have dealt with sharecropping at some point. In my case it was ‘poor and not know it’, because we were happy. As a matter of fact, I cried when we moved from the farm, because that was all the life I knew and it took me a while to adjust to have neighbours and to live in a community with other kids. Once I got used to it, half of the time nobody knew where I was” (laughing).
A compilation album called Tell Everybody was released on Easy Eye Sound on August the 11th and Robert sings on the title track. “We did the song in a studio, but at that time I wasn’t aware of the compilation album. I thought it was going to be on my upcoming album, Black Bayou, but then I found out that they used me for the cover of the album and they even named the album after my song, Tell Everybody. As a matter of fact, we had the album release party in Nashville with the Black Keys and studio musicians right before we came here. Next we’ll be doing the Black Bayou album release party on October the 26th in New York.”
“Basically it’s the same studio musicians as on the previous album, but some of them were not available, so somebody might fill in. Some of the music is totally different, because we didn’t sit down and write these songs with pens and paper. The band just started playing and I just started to reminisce about my childhood. Dan might say ‘hey, sing something about this and something about that’, and I would listen to the beat and then I would tell a story. I just need to know, when to go up and when to go down. We came up with a whole new way of songwriting, and it’s a lot less time-consuming. By the time they got the music together, then I would have a story to tell. When you hear a song, it should be like you read a short book.”
“I’m on the Easy Eye Sound, although there are a lot of record labels that have asked me to change over, but I believe that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I’m loving the way we produce music. Now I know every musician in the studio and I know that all of them are looking out for my best interest.”
For Robert this was not only his first performance in Rauma, but also his first-ever visit to Finland. In November he’ll return to Europe for more shows in the Netherlands, Belgium, U.K., Denmark, France and the Czech Republic. “I’m looking forward to that, because I had the Best Soul Album in 2021 in France and we were just coming off the tour. I didn’t want to fly again to France just to pick up the award. I received it the next time I went there, I took it home proudly and put it in my showcase in my little studio.”
Photo: Pertti Nurmi
“I’m building a studio, which, I hope, will be a base for talent scout. There are so many great artists in North Louisiana that just haven’t had an opportunity to express their talent worldwide. When I’m not on tour, I can run local talent shows and with winners from a talent show I can record their demo and then send it to the label. That will be my way of giving back. I’ve already had the experiences as a programmer, director and entertainer in a military band, so I think I can be a scout for talent.”
“I want to get into TV – either a talent show, or talk show – because that will give me a chance to promote and bring more people to the industry. I would love to have my own TV show. I survive from the energy from the crowd. People ask ‘what keeps you going?’ They keep me going. If I dance, they dance. To get people put aside their differences and come together – even if it’s just that hour and a half on stage – and to get all the laughter, joy and screams, it’s like a peace time. You put your weapons down – let’s have a peace talk.”
“I feel like this: if you ever accomplish all your goals, then there’s no purpose. Each time you accomplish a goal, you got to set a higher goal in order to keep life interesting.”
(Interview conducted on August the 12th; acknowledgements to Robert Finley, Christy Johnson, Pertti Nurmi and the Rauma Blues organization).