Making His Debut At 63, Bluesman Says 'Age Don't Mean A Thing'
Robert Finley is not your average new artist.
At 63, the north Louisiana blues and soul musician has already lived a lifetime. He served as a helicopter serviceman in the Army in the ’70s and worked as a carpenter for decades until he started to lose his sight a few years ago.
Unable to continue working, Finley fell back on his dream: singing and playing guitar.
He speaks with Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd about his debut album, “Age Don’t Mean A Thing,” which comes out Friday.
Here’s Finley performing his songs “Age Don’t Mean A Thing” and “It’s Too Late,” live at KEDM in Monroe, Louisiana:
Interview Highlights: Robert Finley
On pursuing his dream of being a musician at age 63
“You know, you never give up on your dream, until the end. I guess this was a childhood dream, but it was something I really never stepped out on. And then, after I lost my sight, partially — I got to where I couldn’t read the tape measure or build a square building — I just reached back and grabbed a guitar, which I’d been playing all along, playing at local places here in Monroe. But now I’m heading around the map with it so that’s the good news.”
On the story of his first guitar
“What happened was … it was five of us, me and four of my little friends. We were 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boys. I was going to buy a pair of shoes, that was gonna be my first time to actually pick out my own shoes. … There was this guitar up there for $19.95. And we was like, ‘Man, I could buy this guitar.’ And I said, ‘But I got to buy some shoes.’ My friends said, ‘Well man we’ll help you make some more money to buy some shoes. Just get the guitar.’ So the guitar was $19.95, so I gave the lady the $20 bill, and she was telling me something about how I owed her some more money, you know, for taxes. And I’m like, ‘No ma’am, the thing says $19.95.’ And so, we started out the store and she called me back and she said, ‘Come here, son. I’ll pay the taxes, ’cause you don’t even know what that is.’ And so she gave me the nickel back and so we went across the street to the little store and got five pieces of bubble gum, because the bubble gum was like a penny back then.'”
On learning to play
“I always went to gospel quartet groups and I always took the front row seat, and I just watched their fingers, I just watched their fingers. My dad was going to buy me one for Christmas, but I didn’t know it, and my dad was real religious and he caught me playing the blues on my friend’s guitar and that kind of canceled that for that Christmas. He didn’t allow us to play the blues on the radio in his house, more or less than somebody doing it live.”
On where his songs come from
“Sometimes you sit down, you talk to guys sitting around in a circle, just shooting the breeze. And everybody, you know, kinda start discussing their problems and the things they’re going through, and you kinda take this guy’s problem and that guy’s problem and put it together and make one big problem. It’s easy to relate to it. My thing is, I try not to sing the depressing blues. I try to sing some blues that’ll make a person hold their head up rather than dropping it down, because I feel like a person has enough problems already.”
On playing music with impaired vision
“I’ve lost one eye completely and probably 60 percent of the other one. But, I went to a blind school and they trained you how to use what sight you got left.”
“To tell you truth, I never could read music anyway. And I don’t have to see it because I, years ago, I practiced to play behind my head and behind my back. We were always trying to see how many different positions we could play the guitar in. That’s something that I do every now and then. I may just do a little at the end of a show or something.”
“I feel it, I can feel it. You don’t really have to see it, there’s an energy that comes from [the crowd.] And I can seem them, but I can’t make out like who they are, this and that and the other. The bright lights pretty much take what little vision I have of it.”
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.