King Biscuit’s Beat Goes On

By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Brian Chilson, Carol Boss, King Biscuit Festival, Rob Hammons and Rory Doyle

The 2019 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, won’t miss a beat, but it will miss radio personality Sonny Payne whose legacy continues.

As the King Biscuit Blues Festival approaches, the late Sonny “Sunshine” Payne’s voice and legacy echo in more than one Delta mind. Without his famed King Biscuit Time, the longest-running American daily broadcast program that put Helena, Arkansas, on the global map, it’s quite possible events like this festival would not have happened.
Payne literally grew up with KBBF, working as a janitor prior to his military career. He learned the radio equipment and broadcasting business from station engineers after hours. Eventually, he was named the announcer in 1951.
His on-air successor, Thomas Jacques, assistant director at the Delta Cultural Center, shares his own memories. “He was a character but the most excellent of guys. He’s always told me to just be myself on the air,” says Jacques. He worked alongside Payne, filling in during his absences, particularly when poor health interrupted his later years.
When asked about Payne’s nickname, “Sunshine,” Jacques laughs aloud. “It’s funny because if anything he had a tendency for grumpiness.” He recounted the time when Robert Lockwood, Jr. was supposed to perform in Marianna, Arkansas, it rained and rained. Payne kept going on about the weather until Lockwood, tired of hearing it, said, “You’re just a ray of sunshine!” From that day, the name just stuck.
The link between King Biscuit Time and the festival grew from a particular set of historical and cultural circumstances. When Payne launched the radio program in 1941, blues musicians had little opportunity to be heard. “When the show started, it was the first time African Americans in this area had the chance to hear their own music,” says Jacques. But it wasn’t easy initially. In order to play, the musicians were told they’d need a sponsor. Station Manager Sam Anderson suggested they find something akin to Hank Williams and Mother’s Best Flour.
“It just so happened there was a train car full of King Biscuit Flour they couldn’t give away. During those years, Interstate Grocery distributed to all the mom-and-pop stores across the Delta so sharecroppers and tenants had food. When owner Max Moore agreed to sponsor the musicians, these guys would carry a sack of flour with them from performance to performance,” says Jacques. The show also became a vehicle for artists to publicize their show route across the many juke joints.
“It was the first time on the radio for many of these artists and the show was popular because the African American community supported it,” explains Jacques. The show ran at noon which coincided with lunch breaks. The format has stayed relatively the same with time for a live performer, a current musician, and then as Jacques says, “a scratchy record” from earlier days.
Jacques’ colleague Carla Robinson has been with the Delta Cultural Center for more than a decade and knew Payne as well.
“He was a history book of the blues. You didn’t realize it until you started to talk to him. I miss him greatly.” Robinson has been connected with the festival since 1988 when she was a young college student. After visiting the festival, the following year she began volunteering.
“This was the real blues then and the King Biscuit boys were named after the flour. I met all those people like Pinetop Perkins and Robert Lockwood. I’m a diehard blues fan,” she says.
King Biscuit Time opened the doors for future blues generations. Young ambitious blues artists listened to the program while at lunch and in the fields, and later legends like B.B. King and Muddy Waters tuned in.

Helena, like many Delta towns along the river, experienced a downturn for many decades as people left, resources dwindled and buildings became vacated. Many musicians remember the busy times during the 1940s and 50s when music venues were hopping and free alcohol flowed. During the 1980s as towns searched for new ways to revitalize, festivals became a redevelopment tool.
In 1986, locals in Helena began to think of options and one group, the Sonny Boy Blues Society, emerged as the original planning committee. The goal was simply to raise awareness about Helena’s rich musical heritage. The event was also once known as the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival due to a licensing dispute with Wolfgang’s Vault, an online archive of mass amounts of musical collections, including the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Festival organizers worked with the owner of the trademarked name who finally agreed to release the name in 2011.
Before his death in February 2018, Payne earned many notable awards including a Peabody Award, the Pioneer Award from the Arkansas Broadcaster’s Association, and the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation. He was also inducted into the Blue’s Foundations Hall of Fame in 2010.

THIS YEAR’S FESTIVAL
The 2019 King Biscuit Blues Festival happens October 9-12 in downtown Helena along the Mississippi River. As in years past, the event promises to draw thousands of blue fans from around the world to enjoy emerging artists and well-known veteran blues.
But the music is just the start. The multi-day event also includes the “Tour Da Delta Bike Ride,” which visitors can tailor to their own liking from a family fun ride to a hefty 65-mile tour de force.
For the first time ever, the Bartlett Songwriters’ Alliance is offering a 2-day songwriting workshop for a reasonable $25 fee. Aspiring songwriters can learn more about the craft and will also have the chance to perform the song during the festival.
Headline acts this year include Delbert McClinton, Mr. Sipp, and Ruthie Foster among others. Favorites like the Cedric Burnside Band will be there alongside dozens of acts with memorable names like Marcus “Mookie” Cartwright and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith.
Every October for the last 30 years, people from all walks of life have come together to celebrate the late Sonny “Sunshine” Payne whose legacy continues with the festival. Jacques points out that the King Biscuit Blues Festival and radio show symbolize a cultural highpoint for the Delta. “The show says a lot about our heritage in the Delta.”
Complete details including tickets and the full 2019 lineup can be found on the festival website at
kingbiscuitfestival.com.

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