Age ‘don’t mean a thing’ to guitarist Robert Finley

Robert Finley will perform Wednesday, June 14 at Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
Robert Finley will perform Wednesday, June 14 at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Submitted

“Age Don’t Mean a Thing” is the title of Robert Finley’s recording he made after getting connected with Music Maker Relief Foundation. Recorded in Memphis, it has the warm sound — created by horns and backup singers — of Stax Records and other soul music and rhythm and blues that has come from that city.

The title reflects Finley’s approach to live performance, and his joining the Music Maker group of artists. Since joining, he has performed in France, Spain, and in the United States at the GlobalFest, the King Biscuit Blues Festival. He will perform Wednesday, June 14, during Duke Gardens’ summer series.

He sees the music appealing to listeners of all ages. “It kind of fills the generation gap,” Finley said during a phone interview from his home in Bernice, Louisiana. “It brings back memories to the older people and something new to the younger ones. ...You need the young people. They’re the future. If you ever get them interested in what you are doing, they’ll keep up with you and will tell their friends and neighbors about you,” Finley said.

Finley, now 63, got “discovered” when Tim Duffy, co-founder of Music Maker of Hillsborough, heard him playing on the street in Louisiana. On a Music Maker video, Finley tells how Duffy put some money in his tip bucket and began taking close-up pictures of him. Duffy told him about Music Maker, and said he would give him a call. “We talked the following week, and they invited me down to the office there in North Carolina,” and did some recording, which led to “Age Don’t Mean a Thing,” released by the Big Legal Mess Records label.

His Music Maker contact also led to Finley contributing vocals to Black Keys guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach’s video for “Murder Ballads,” a graphic novel by Gabe Soria and Paul Reinwand, to be released in July. Finley and Auerbach performed for a video from that collection that was released for Free Comic Book Day — a song titled “In the Pines,” a cover of a tune by Leadbelly, with accompanying images from the graphic novel.

Finley has been playing guitar since he was 11, gospel at first, but later he heard the rhythm and blues sounds of B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Joe Simon and other artists. “We didn’t live far from the neighborhood juke joint, and you could hear a lot from the juke joint,” he said. “They didn’t have any of these noise pollution laws” at the time, Finley said.

He joined the Army at age 17, was trained in helicopter repair and sent to Germany. Soon after arriving at the base, he learned that the post band needed a guitarist. He describes getting that job as “just one of those things where I got there on a Friday morning and just happened to go to the recreation [area], and started strumming on a guitar.” Someone from the band heard him playing and he got the job.

“We played for officers’ clubs, but we also went to civilian clubs off post,” Finley said. European audiences loved American soul music, and on his recent European tours with Music Maker, he sold out of the CDs he took with him, he said.

When he returned to Louisiana after his Army service, he tried to continue playing and touring with a band, but the money did not work out. He made his living as a carpenter, a skill his father taught him. He continued to play guitar for a church and took other solo performances to keep his fingers in shape.

He wrote all but two of the nine songs on “Age Don’t Mean a Thing.” They range from danceable tunes like “Let Me Be Your Everything” and “You Make Me Want to Dance,” to heartbreaking ballads like “Snake in My Grass” and “Is It Possible to Love 2 People.” His inspiration for songs comes from “basically everyday life. ... I used to say you could take everybody’s problems and put them together” and get one miserable life, he laughs. But listeners “get a kick out of the hard times. ... If you write about hard times, they love it.” Listeners empathize with the sad songs. “A lot of times people come up, and they are actually going through the situation [in the song]. ... Someone is always going thru it,” Finley said.

At Duke he will be performing with members of the Music Maker Blues Revue, a band that tours with Music Maker artists. Revue members include Albert White on guitar, Lil’ Joe Burton on trombone, Harvey Dalton Arnold on bass and Bubba Norwood on drums. “They’re old musicians, but they’re good,” Finley said. “They’re skilled — they’re still on top of it.”

Music Maker “opened some doors for me,” and “helped me get worldwide recognition,” Finley said. “I’m getting the exposure and loving the business. … I always just give it my best shot. That’s all I require from any of the musicians — be yourself. Play what you feel.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Robert Finley

WHEN: Wednesday, June 14, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Sarah P. Duke Gardens

ADMISSION: Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at 919-684-4444 or tickets.duke.edu.