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In November 1941, KFFA, 1360 AM, the first local radio station in Helena (Phillips County), went on the air. Soon after its first broadcast, blues musicians Robert Lockwood Jr. and Sonny Boy Williamson approached owner Sam Anderson with a proposal to air a local blues radio show. Anderson liked the idea, but he knew the show would have to have a sponsor. He directed Lockwood and Williamson to Max Moore, the owner of Interstate Grocery Company, as a possible sponsor. Moore, who recognized the possibilities of marketing to African Americans, agreed to sponsor the show if the musicians would endorse his product. With a corporate sponsor, the King Biscuit Time radio program went on the air on November 21, 1941.
Soon, sales of King Biscuit flour greatly increased. With this success, Interstate Grocery began marketing Sonny Boy cornmeal; the bags featured a drawing of Williamson sitting on an ear of corn and holding a piece of cornbread instead of his harmonica.
The show, which then aired daily from noon to 12:15 p.m., featured Williamson and Lockwood. Soon afterward, drummer James "Peck" Curtis and pianist Dudlow Taylor joined the pair, rounding out the King Biscuit Entertainers. Later band members included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Robert Nighthawk, and Houston Stackhouse. The show finalized its makeup in 1951 with the addition of host “Sunshine" Sonny Payne, who still holds the position in the twenty-first century. The show could be heard within a fifty- to eighty-mile radius of Helena, including much of the Mississippi Delta and the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee. King Biscuit Time was the first regular radio show to feature the blues and the first regular radio show to feature live blues performances. It was also one of the earliest examples of integrated radio in the South.
In addition to KFFA’s groundbreaking accomplishments in broadcasting, the makeup of the King Biscuit Entertainers, Williamson’s amplification of the harmonica, and Lockwood’s jazz-influenced style are often cited as the prototype for the modern blues band. King Biscuit Time’s influence can be seen in the formation of radio stations throughout the mid-South, such as KWEM in West Memphis (Crittenden County), WDIA in Memphis, WROX in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. Guest artists on King Biscuit Time serve as a "who’s who" of American music: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, James Cotton, and Levon Helm.
Broadcast from the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena-West Helena five days a week from 12:15 to 12:45 on KFFA, King Biscuit Time is one of the longest-running radio shows in history. In 1992, KFFA was recognized for its importance in the history of radio and American music and was awarded a George Peabody Award for outstanding achievement in radio and broadcast journalism.
For additional information:Harvey, Hank. “How King Biscuit Blues Got Its Start in Helena.” Helena Daily World, October 16, 1986, p. 18.
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Robbie FryFlorida State University
Last Updated 1/26/2016
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