Introduction


King Biscuit Time is the longest running daily radio show in history, and continues to be broadcast daily on Delta Broadcasting's KFFA 1360 AM in Helena, Arkansas. First broadcast on November 21, 1941, King Biscuit Time featured legendary Blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. Lockwood playing live in the studio. The show was named after the locally distributed King Biscuit
Flour.

The distributor agreed to sponsor a radio production for Sonny Boy and his band if they agreed to endorse the flour. The agreement was made and the show has been broadcast ever since.

The original band, the King Biscuit Entertainers, often included boogie pianist Pinetop Perkins and James Peck Curtis on drums. It was the first regular radio show to feature blues, and influenced four generations of delta Blues artists and three generations of rock artists whose sounds are based on the raw energy of Sonny Boy Williamson's blues. In keeping with its tradition of broadcasting live music from the studio, King Biscuit Time still welcomes artists in the studio almost weekly.

 


Award-winning Sunshine Sonny Payne has hosted the show since 1951, and has been a presence on the program since its inception in 1941. By continuing to focus on a Delta blues format, King Biscuit Time has become a real anomaly true to its heritage. It has been so recognized with a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, presented to the station in 1992 for outstanding achievement in the field of radio and broadcast journalism through its continuous support or ‘an original American art form.’ Sonny Payne has received an impressive array of awards and accolades, including the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive award for lifetime service and the Arkansas Broadcasters Association's Pioneer Award.

The direct influence of the show can be found throughout the music industry. Examples of this include the syndicated rock show, King Biscuit Flower Hour, and the largest free blues festival in the south, the King Biscuit Blues Festival. First organized in 1986, the festival annually welcomes Blues fans to Helena, AR, from around the world to a three-day event that features several stages and showcases veteran blues performers along with today's rising stars.

The ripple effect of this show broadcast from the banks of the Mississippi in the heart of the Delta can be felt far beyond the radius of its local signal. The hit film "O Brother, Where Art Thou" features a delta deejay who uses the line, "Pass the biscuits," a direct quote from host Sunshine Sonny Payne, who begins each broadcast with those words at 12:15 Monday through Friday.

Before B. B. King became a blues deejay, and long before he became The King of The Blues, he listened to the show. King recalls in the PBS documentary American Roots Music, “Being on a plantation you had an hour off for lunch. So, I would come out of the field at noon. Sonny Boy Williamson would come on about 12:15. So, we had a chance to listen to live music from one of the guys I liked a lot, Sonny Boy Williamson. And KFFA was the only station in the area at that time that played music by black people."

"That was my show," says Levon Helm, legendary rock drummer for The Band, who was inspired to play drums by listening to the program as a child growing up on the Mississippi. "It was on every day at 12:15. I could always find 15 minutes. I had time to get off work, eat lunch and still get to a radio. I could go back to Habi's Cafe and get a box of milk and three donuts for a dime," recalls Helm who would often sit in the studio and watch the show. It was the show's regular drummer James Peck Curtis who inspired Helm to take up the instrument and lent him his drum kit for one of Helm's first gigs. "I would walk down the street to the bank building and ride the only elevator in eastern Arkansas that I knew of, go up to the fifth floor and watch King Biscuit Time live."

Jim Howe, owner of KFFA, sees the show as a feather in the cap for his hometown. "We're pleased we can continue the blues' heritage right here in Helena. It's important that the people who first put blues on the radio continue this tradition."

On May 24, 2002, King Biscuit Time was broadcast for the 14,000th time. This appears to be a record for any radio show ever broadcast.

A Brief History . . .

Pass the Biscuits, 'Cause it's King Biscuit Time!


by Donald E. Wilcock


I was shocked 25 years ago when John Hammond told me that his work with Jimi Hendrix, members of The Band and The Stones, Dr. John and other rock icons paled in comparison to the thrill of being in the presence of blues masters like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. After taking part in King Biscuit Blues Time's 14,000th radio program, I understand where John Hammond is coming from.

You can see the Mississippi levee from the store front windows of the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena, Arkansas where the show is broadcast daily.


It was the first show in history to play live blues on the air. In 1941, the call of "Pass the biscuits, please," ushered Sonny Boy Williamson onto the airwaves and introduced rural Delta blues to a world that included B. B. King, Levon Helm, James Cotton and a host of others who would be inspired by what they heard. The ripple effect, worldwide, of that show on the icons of blues, rock and pop is only surpassed by the incredulity of its longevity.

On May 24th, 2002, Sunshine Sonny Payne, who was sweeping floors as a teenager at the station when the program started in 1941, celebrated the 14,000th program. He's hosted since 1951. King Biscuit Time beams from Delta Broadcasting Company to a 50-mile radius that barely kisses the edge of Memphis but has produced more shows than The Grand Ole Opry. Its legacy outdistances American Bandstand by two generations. Its direct influence has inspired a namesake blues festival that is the biggest in the south and the King Biscuit Flower Hour, a syndicated rock music show. King Biscuit Time also was the prototype for the radio station scenes in the hit film O'Brother Where Art Thou.

B. B. King recalls in a PBS Roots documentary the impact King Biscuit Time had on him as a teenaged sharecropper. "Being on a plantation you had an hour off at noon. So, I would come out of the field at noon. Sonny Boy Williamson would come on about 12:15. So, we had a chance to listen to live music from one of the guys I liked a lot, Sonny Boy Williamson. And KFFA was the only station in the area at that time that played music by black people. "

"That was my show," says Levon Helm, legendary rock drummer for The Band who was inspired to play drums by listening to the program as a child growing up on the Mississippi. "It was on every day at 12:15. I could always find 15 minutes. I had time to get off work, eat lunch and still get to a radio. I could go back to Habib's Cafe and get a box of milk and watch the show," recalls Helm who would daily sit in the studio and watch the show. It was the show's regular drummer James Peck Curtis who inspired Helm to take up the instrument and lent him his drum kit for one of Helm's first gigs. "I would walk down the street to the bank building and ride the only elevator in eastern Arkansas that I knew of, go to the fifth floor and watch "King Biscuit Time" live."

The King Biscuit Time magazine, a sister publication to the radio show, has produced programs for The Chicago Blues Festival, The King Biscuit Blues Festival, The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival and Pocono Blues Festival. The publication was awarded the Keeping The Blues Alive in Print Journalism Award by the prestigious Blues Foundation.

As longtime managing editor of that magazine, I was invited to take part in this milestone event which happened to take place the day after the 23rd Annual W.C. Handy Awards an hour's drive to the north in Memphis.


Backstage at The Handys, Little Milton remembered listening to Sunshine Sonny Payne as a kid and hearing artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love on the show. He characterizes Sonny as tireless. "He does it right, and he does it from his heart, and I think his audience feels that. He's probably one of the last real d.j.'s doing something that will be remembered in the coming years." 

On these pages are photos and comments of other blues icons who extended their best wishes to Sonny at the W. C. Handy Awards. Chris Thomas King who plays Tommy Johnson in the film "O' Brother Where Art Thou" marveled that Sonny had been on the air longer than he'd been alive. Muddy Waters' last guitarist Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin thanked Sonny "for all the wonderful music for all those years." Folk blues legend Odetta commented, "I can hardly believe you've been going since 1941. That in itself feels like a victory to me." Up and comer Sean Costello characterized King Biscuit Time as "a very important radio show spreading blues music." And Marcia Ball thanked him for all he's done.

As glitzy and star-studded as the Handys were, it was being on the King Biscuit show itself with Sonny and his childhood mate Robert Lockwood Jr. that made me finally understand how John Hammond must feel. I've interviewed everyone from Eric Clapton to Jerry Garcia, but sharing a mic. with the man who practically invented blues radio and his best friend, the only man ever to take guitar lessons from his stepfather Robert Johnson, was - well, it just raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I felt like a freshman English student whose final exam is to interview the stepson of God and his favorite disciple on the occasion of his second resurrection and create a 21st century Book of Don for the New Testament.

Nervous? What broke the ice for me was seeing Charlie Musselwhite standing behind Sonny. I said on air that I'd once given Musselwhite a hard time about claiming to be older than dirt when he was born one day after was, and how this interview made me feel absolutely adolescent. Thank goodness Charlie wasn't the only one to laugh. Lockwood has a reputation for being "salty" to borrow a term one nameless blues singer used to describe him.

We kept it light, but Lockwood described Sonny Boy's relief in finding him a couple of weeks after the show began and detailed the important role he played in introducing the electric guitar and hiring members of Sonny Boy's band. Lockwood marveled at Sony Boy's ability to invent lyrics on the spot. "Sonny Boy could also announce all the places he was playing every night," said Lockwood. "I don't know how he could keep that in his head."

The rest of the show is a blur to me. Other guests included Charlie Musselwhite, Louisiana Red, and Bob Vorel, publisher of Blues Revue.

Two days later I left Helena as the Mississippi overflowed its banks, wiping out roads and reminding me how fragile life in the Delta is. I hadn't turned on a TV in four days, happy to be in a place where time has no meaning and blues is as essential as water and air.

A very special thanks to Sonny and to Jim and Nancy Howe of KFFA and their son, Jim, for defining southern hospitality to one damn Yankee.


More About KFFA Radio

 

Visit our online store for your exclusive King Biscuit Time merchandise!

Authentic King Biscuit Flour & Sonny Boy Corn Meal sacks.

Only $1.00.

 

KFFA is alive and well and playing the BLUES in Helena, Arkansas. So when you are in the Delta we want you to come by and visit us in person at the radio station, or be "Sunshine" Sonny Payne's guest on "King Biscuit Time." The show is broadcast Monday through Friday at 12:15 pm from the Delta Cultural Center in historic downtown Helena on the banks of the Mississippi River. Email us at kffa@arkansas.net. We'd really like to hear from you!