Robert Finley’s road to success on the America’s Got Talent stage is longer than the dirt turn rows found around the fields of northeast Louisiana where he grew up.
Finley, the youngest boy of eight siblings, was the son of Camelia Franklin and Joe Brothers of Winnsboro. His parents moved their family to town when he was 10 and continued to raise their children to be active in church while living in Montgomery Edition.
“I started singing in the choir when I was seven years old,” Finley said. “All my sisters and brothers sang in the choir. We were not allowed to sing R&B.”
Musical talent flowed abundantly in his family with his father and sisters heavily involved in gospel quartets. Finley remembers his father taking him to watch gospel quartets sing on the front row. This is where Finley would become interested in learning how to play guitars.
“I would sit there and watch how they moved their fingers when they would play,” Finley said.
On a trip to buy a pair of shoes, 10-year-old Finley, urged by a group of friends, stopped by White’s Auto Store to look at a guitar. Winnsboro City Court is now located in the White’s Auto Store building.
“I made $20, and the guitar was $19.95,” Finley said. “My friends started talking me into buying it. They said they would help me make the money back by mowing yards before my father would find out I spent the money.”
He took the guitar to the counter, and the total was over $20. Not many 10-year-olds, including Finley, understand taxes.
“I thought the lady was trying to cheat us,” Finley said, laughing. “She finally said she would pay the taxes, so I gave her my $20 and waited for my change.
She asked me, ‘What know?’ I told her my friends and I were going to take my change and buy some bubble gum across the street. Back then you could buy gum for a penny. She just shook her head and handed me a nickel.”
Finley’s said his father was understanding about the guitar.
“My dad said all the money you spent on that guitar and you can’t play ‘Momma’s Baby,’” Finley said, laughing again.
It was not long before Finley could play “Momma’s Baby” and many more songs. He gives credit to Charlie Singleton, a member of Gospel Belle’s quartet, for teaching him to tune the guitar.
“I learned to play by ear and still today I play by ear,” Finley said.
Finley’s first break as a musician occurred when Singleton joined the military leaving a void to fill in the Gospel Belle’s. At 12-years-old, Finley found himself playing bass guitar and traveling with the quartet.
“Traveling was a big deal to me,” Finley said. “I was getting to go places I had never been, and I was playing music.”
Serving his country
Although Finley’s road to success had many detours, his musical talents found a way to be noticed.
Finley’s musical talents were once again discovered during basic training at Fort Polk where he won Outstanding Entertainer of the Year.
While stationed at Germany, he was recruited to play in a band on his first day on base. His first gig with the band was to be at a military picnic the next day.
“I didn’t know any of their music, but they said they would back me up,” Finley said. “I was the lead guitarist. It was great because I got to meet all of my commanding officers on my second day in Germany.”
After six months of being a mechanic for Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters and with the Vietnam War winding down, Finley was assigned another job. He was to work at the base’s recreational center. Finley would organize a monthly show and play at the officer’s club.
“Greatest thing about the military was if a person did not come to a rehearsal they could be considered AWOL,” Finley said. “The military took it very serious.”
The family life
After the military life came the family life. Finley took up his father’s trade of carpentry and continued to play in gospel quartets including Harmony Five in which his mother was a member of.
Along with the Harmony Five, he established Bro. Finley and the Gospel Sisters where he met his first wife. Finley went on to be the host of a one-hour KMAR gospel program called Bro. Finley and the Gospel Sisters Gospel Hour. He then started another quartet called the Young Gospel Brothers.
“This went on for years,” Finley said. “We performed every Sunday.”
R&B, blues and the big break
After the divorce from his first wife, Finley moved to Texas where he started playing with R&B bands.
“I would go to the clubs and sit in with the bands,” he said.
After some time, home would start calling to Finley. He moved to Bernice and has lived there for 35 years.
While traveling down his road to success, Finley has become a father, grandfather and great grandfather.
“I have three daughters and a 17-year-old son,” Finley said. “My three daughters are grown and my five grandchildren all play at churches.” Pride can be heard in Finley’s voice as he talked about his grandchildren’s musical talents.
His blues show has taken Finley, “a little bit of everywhere.”
Finley has toured in France, Germany, Italy, Amsterdam and the Carribbean along with many places in the United States.
“The greatest thing about music is even though they may not speak the language - they can speak the language of love for the art,” Finley said. “Once a person hears the music, everybody dances.”
Finley’s touring band is made up of musicians who live in a 50-mile radius. Finley and his band have been opening up for groups such as the Black Keys, a rock band out of Ohio who have sold more than 30 million albums.
“It feels more natural playing with my home band,” he said. “It’s just something about that Louisiana-style music. You just can’t teach it.”
While performing in his life shows, Finley always returns to his roots.
“I do gospel music during my blues shows,” he said. “People don’t seem to mind. I also do rock and R&B. I do whatever people call out for. It shows are like gumbo. It has a little bit of everything.”
Finley’s road to success is not at the end with America’s Got Talent. According to the tremendous applauses from the crowd and judges, Finley may go far in the talent competition airing on NBC. He does not know, but Finley does know he is enjoying the trip.
“I’m loving this,” Finley said. “I’m living my childhood dream. I’ve realized music is a universal language. It is a gift that opens doors.”