Long-running radio show, festival honor Delta blues
Each weekday at 12:15 p.m., the voice of legendary Helena-West Helena radio announcer “Sunshine” Sonny Payne hits the airwaves and the internet with the familiar introduction: “Pass the biscuits, ’cause it’s ‘King Biscuit Time,’” while the original 1941 theme music for the blues radio show plays in the background.
It’s the same opening listeners of “King Biscuit Time” have heard for decades. Even though Payne passed away in 2018 after hosting the iconic blues program for nearly 75 years, new host Thomas Jacques has kept it.
“I cannot imagine anything finer or more heartening than hearing Sonny kick off the broadcast,” says Jacques, who also is the assistant director of the Delta Cultural Center in historic downtown Helena-West Helena. “It all communicates a continuity of spirit and intent, and a respect for who we are to our listeners.”
It is also preserving the history of the blues and Delta, which is part of the mission of the Delta Cultural Center. “King Biscuit Time,” the longest running daily radio broadcast in America, is produced at the center, which is part of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. The program is aired by Helena-West Helena radio station KFFA-AM, 1360, and livestreamed on Facebook. In August, the center celebrated the Peabody Award-winning show’s 19,000th broadcast.
Although Payne wasn’t there to see that milestone, he saw many others. And he saw the power of the show.
“‘King Biscuit Time’ put it (Helena-West Helena) on the map,” Payne said in an interview in 1996.
The show began on Nov. 21, 1941, not long after KFFA went on the air. As it still does today, it started at 12:15 p.m., just in time for the local workers to head to lunch. It lasted 15 minutes and featured live performances by Sonny Boy Williamson on vocals and harmonica, and Robert Lockwood Jr. on guitar. The sponsor was Helena-West Helena’s Interstate Grocery Co., the distributor of King Biscuit Flour.
As the program grew in popularity, additional musicians were added to form the King Biscuit Time Entertainers, who would travel throughout the area promoting the flour, and later, Sonny Boy Corn Meal. They would show up in front of a local grocery store, where they would draw a crowd to listen to them play some blues while also promoting the flour, cornmeal and their upcoming shows.
The program later grew to a full half-hour, and live performances were, for the most part, replaced by records. Today, the format remains at 30 minutes with Jacques spinning records and often welcoming bands to play live. The show draws visitors from all over the world, who come to watch it and visit the center’s exhibits. During the pandemic, Jacques decided to regularly stream each program live on Facebook, which quickly became a hit with a devoted group of regulars from around the world.
“There’s a warm camaraderie,” Jacques says. “You will see folks from North Little Rock asking folks from the Netherlands about how they are doing, or what their weather is like.”
A goal for Jacques is to keep the show’s authentic roots.
“Well, I try to make it specific to where it comes from,” Jacques says. “It’s not just a faceless blues show of just contemporary blues that could come from anywhere. … It’s specific to Arkansas and to the Delta, and it always starts out with an Arkansas performer.”
He provides a mix of old and new music, making sure to play homage to the show’s beginnings with a selection he calls the “scratchy record time and space continuum.”
“I think ‘King Biscuit Time’ is a point of pride for Arkansas,” Jacques says. “And I look at it as such; I try to honor that.”
The show also inspired the creation of a festival, known as the King Biscuit Blues Festival, in 1986. Over the years, it has drawn thousands of people to Helena-West Helena to hear blues from legends, including B.B. King and Robert Lockwood Jr., as well as up-and-coming musicians. That tradition continues this year from Oct. 4-7.
Through the show and the festival, Payne said Delta blues music found its rightful place in the music world.
“It means that there is some lost poor soul out there who has struggled all of his life and is finally getting the notoriety and the music to be heard, his music to be heard, for the first time,” Payne was quoted as saying. “It means someone has a chance of obtaining his goal in life and that is sharing his music.”
To watch “King Biscuit Time,” visit the Facebook page. To listen, tune in to KFFA-AM, 1360, if you are in the Helena-West Helena area. For more information on the King Biscuit Blues Festival, visit the festival website.