Taking the Biscuit – On the air with a living legend
(This article also appears in moore:music.biz)
Monday morning, Memphis in our mirror, we headed south on the legendary Highway 61. I suggested to Miki that we take a detour across the mighty Mississippi and into Arkansas to visit Helena. A stop on the outskirts at the visitor centre and a very welcome free coffee, provided me with an opportunity to confirm this town as the location of “King Biscuit Time”, the legendary radio show started in 1941 by Sonny Boy Williamson and a massive influence on the likes of BB King and Ike Turner. The lady in the visitor centre pointed out the studio’s location. She told us the blues exhibition where the station broadcast from was closed to the public on Mondays, but she called ahead and told them we were coming. And so it was that I met the legendary DJ “Sunshine” Sonny Payne who has been broadcasting the show for 60 years. A sprightly 85, this man really is a living legend and has brushed shoulders with the giants. On first name terms with the likes of Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, etc, he is an affable, cordial host, and I was honoured to be invited to take part in the latest broadcast of the show. It is always broadcast at 12.15, the time originally chosen to match that of the lunch break of the African-American workers in the Delta. Miki even got a mention, introduced as the French artist who doesn’t speak!!
I talked a little about Christie, and how the B-Side of our multi-million seller was called “Down the Mississippi Line”, and how I was thrilled to be going down the Mississippi for real, and I was invited to sign a guitar for the display and also the large flight case display, where I put my name next to Robert Plant’s.
Sonny very kindly signed one of his posters for me, which will be on permanent display at “Kev and Miki towers” when we get home!
King Biscuit time occupies a unique place in Blues history and culture. If it wasn’t for Sonny Boy Williamson’s success in getting the local grocery distributor to finance the show in exchange for endorsements and naming rights, a whole generation of musicians may not have had access to what was to become their inspiration. Situated in Helena, it also was perfectly placed as a stopping off point for blues musicians on their way from the Delta region to the Chicago blues nightclubs and was also convenient to Memphis, Tennessee and its lively blues culture. Several blues musicians came to Helena and made it their home, such as Little Walter Jacobs and Jimmy Rogers. The King Biscuit Flour Hour, the one hour syndicated rock and roll radio program, was derived from King Biscuit Time. Levon Helm drummer for The Band, has credited King Biscuit Time, for inspiring his musical career.
To have been a small part of this wonderful, historic show was a huge honour for me. As Sonny says, every day at 12.15 without fail for the last 60 years, “Pass the biscuits, ‘cos it’s King Biscuit Time!”