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St. Pete music legend Danny ‘Panama Red’ Finley dies

Bill DeYoung

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Danny "Panama Red" Finley. All photos from Panama Red Facebook page.

According to a well-traveled legend, Danny Finley was fired by Billy Joe Shaver three times on the same day.

Shaver, the Texas singing/songwriting icon, later admitted that the story was true, as did Finley, his onetime guitarist, harmony singer, songwriting partner and second banana. Those volatile highs and lows came with the territory among “outlaw country” musicians, where the stress to succeed was great and the stakes – as well as the players – were often high.

Finley, whose stage name since the early 1970s was Panama Red, died April 29 after a lengthy illness, and was interred this week at the Veterans Administration National Cemetery at Bay Pines. He was 76.

A Celebration of Life will be held Saturday (May 22) at Craftsman House, beginning at 4 p.m.

Before he went national, as a member of Kinky Friedmann’s Texas Jewboys (first album produced by Willie Nelson), and with Shaver’s band (the two co-wrote the outlaw classic “Bottom Dollar”), Finley was a familiar figure on the St. Petersburg music scene.

In the early 1960s, the native West Virginian was in South Korea, working as a correspondent for US Army’s Pacific Stars & Stripes. He then operated coffeehouses in both San Francisco on New York, and landed in St. Petersburg in 1966, where he became a regular performer – known for his humorous onstage banter and outrageous behavior almost as much as his singing and guitar playing – at the Beaux Arts Coffeehouse in Pinellas Park.

“At Beaux Arts, he was a left handed, nylon string guitar wielding singer-songwriter with a shock of bright red hair and a songbag chock-a-block full of wonderful tunes he had written,” remembered fellow musician Rick Norcross. “He was by far my favorite of the Beaux Arts musical lineup and we spent a lot of time together there.”

A “somewhat seedy former hotel which doubled or tripled as an art gallery, live music stage, art film house and meeting place for folk musicians,” according to Norcross, Beaux Arts was “the only place you could hear folk singers in their natural habitat back in the day.”

From the Beaux Arts sprang Bethlehem Asylum, an avant-garde rock band featuring Finley, Charles DeChant, Jim ‘Captain Ego” Neiman, Christian Ghandi and Buddy Helm.

Bethlehem Asylum made two albums for short-lived Ampex Records before splitting in late 1971. Much of it is reasonably good hippie/harmony music, typical of the era.

They were certainly different times:

Must have been ’69 or ’70. {My band} Duckbutter was finishing a set at the Grove Pub in Coconut Grove. I was tap dancing and singing “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.” The saloon doors swung open and in marched Panama Red, followed by Captain Ego in full regalia and two young women. They strode to a mic and sang with us as though we were closing an Ed Sullivan episode. I’ve never seen anything to match it, before or since. Stuff happened when Danny was around.

Ronny Elliott, fellow musician 

Finley next moved to Nashville, where he alternated between working with Shaver and the flamboyant, controversial Friedman (it was during this era, because of his penchant for white linen suits and white Stetsons, his bandmates began calling him Panama Red).

When he wasn’t on the road again, Finley was in St. Pete.

Most of us thought Panama Red was the person in the Peter Rowan song of the same name, and it was easy to believe that since the lyrics seemed to fit him perfectly. He was constantly leaving on tour or coming back, so regularly that many of us followed his pursuits in the early Rolling Stone and other music fan mags. He always had a smile on his face, though he suffered many physical woes, bad luck and every sort of malady suffered by the troubadour musicians of those days. But he outlasted most of them and is a part of American folk music history, especially in Texas and Florida where he mostly hung out.

Peter Gallagher, fellow musician and co-host of WMNF’s Florida Folk Show

He put together another band, Montezuma’s Revenge, touring in a 1947 Silversides GM road bus, and  was one of the first acts to appear at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City. Finley also played at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, and is credited with first rhyming use of the phrase “lost in Austin” (from his song of the same name).

According to Finley’s website, in the 1980s he studied computer science at Miami Dade College, radiography at Northern New Mexico College, and majored in journalism at the University of New Mexico. Between 1990 and 1993, when he resumed his career as a musician, Finley worked at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

In later years, I booked him regularly at our Florida Folk Night shows which have been going on, in various Tampa Bay venues, non-stop for over 20 years. In fact, I believe he was the feature at a Florida Folk Night show only a few months before he died. His records were always requested at WMNF. Suffice to say, the was the real thing. In fact, he was a lot of the real things you may have heard about, all rolled up into one left-handed, guitar picking traveling American folk music legend.

Peter Gallagher

Finley is survived by his wife, Peppermint Patty; his daughters, Megan, Mercedes, Nicole, and son, Ian; his grandchildren, Roosanneke, Sierra, Savannah, Noah, and Chloe; his beloved sister, Donna, nieces, nephews “and recent great-grandchildren.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Tanja

    May 19, 2021at5:24 am

    One of the most lively, lovely, intelligent ànd interesting people I’ve ever met. Shine bright you rock star and hope we’ll meet again ‘on the other side’ 💋

  2. Avatar

    Bruce Williamson

    May 21, 2021at12:17 pm

    One of the Texas greats in my mind anyway. Remember him from Austin Texas in the mid to late 60’s. Played with Kinky along with Willie. There is a song called Panama ♥️ Red. By who … Sorry getting a touch of the I forget..

  3. Avatar

    Becky Higgins Harman

    May 24, 2021at7:45 pm

    A beautiful tribute to my dear Mercedes father!

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