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
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
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.
Brief History . . .
the Biscuits, 'Cause it's King
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."
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.
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
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