The King Biscuit Blues Festival is one of the nation's foremost showcases of blues music and the best part it takes place in historic downtown Helena.
This year marks the 28th annual KBBF that will be held for three days this October and thousands of blues enthusiasts will hear stirring and uplifting performances of an American art form on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Until the festival came along in the mid-1980s, Helena's musical heritage was largely unknown even to hardcore blues fans. The King Biscuit Blues Festival was an effort of local blues lovers to establish Helena's rightful place in the Delta's musical history while at the same time help keep the Helena community thriving.
In 1941, what began with Sunshine Sonny Payne filling in dead air during the commercial breaks, soon transformed into what we know today as “The King Biscuit Hour” where blues music was crystallized. Payne was first introduced to the airtime while sweeping floors at the station when a program director motioned him into the studio.
As home of “King Biscuit Time” KFFA boasts the longest running radio show ever, it laid the foundation that broke the color barrier with a 30-minute lunch hour blues show that still broadcasts today. With some 50,000-plus broadcasts and 72 years later, KFFA continues to send out the blues signal that changed the world.
“This tiny little radio station broke the chains of prejudice 23 years before Civil Rights Act and introduced the world to America's indigenous music that paved the way for the development of the worldwide phenomenon of pop music, rock and roll, country and rhythm and blues for all the decades that have followed,” said Jim Howe Sr. owner of KFFA FM and AM.
Helena became legendary in the Delta when Sonny Boy Williamson and other musicians played live on KFFA every weekday, pausing for King Biscuit Flour commercials and announcements of their next nighttime performances.
Artists also remember the 1940s and 1950s when the town was filled with music. Pinetop Perkins, a King Biscuit regular, said in a Helena World interview that 1940s Helena “Ain't nothin' like it is now. I used to play all night long at a club called the Hole in the Wall. We got paid $3 a night plus all the whiskey we could drink. We'd play all night and then go home and sleep until it was time to play again. Those were the days.”
Bubba Sullivan recalled the days when the King Biscuit Boys traveled from one farm to another on the back of a flatbed truck performing and extolling the virtues of King Biscuit flour, a staple in the southern diet that put the biscuit in “pass the biscuits, please.”
But by the mid-1980s, Helena had changed from a jumping town to a community in danger of dying. Businesses were closing and people realized the downtown area was decaying, but no one knew what to do to save it.
Page 2 of 3 - Experienced Main Street directors recommended community festivals to get local people back to town and, at the same time, promote tourism. The group, which would later form the Sonny Boy Blues Society, became the core of the first King Biscuit Blues Festival planning committee.
In an interview with The Helena World in October 1986, harmonica wizard James Cotton expressed the feelings of many Delta blues musicians who chose to “come home” to Helena for the first King Biscuit Blues Festival. From original King Biscuit Time artists such as Robert Jr. Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins, to younger performers such as Anson Funderburgh, a wide range of blues stars were thrilled to be a part of Helena's celebration of its musical roots.
Bobby Rush, known as “King of the Chitlin Circuit,” continues to wow the crowd with his stage show. His flare for music helped erase the line in the sand between the original African American blues audience and the contemporary white blues audience.
Carl Weathersby, Chicago blues artist and frequent King Biscuit performer, represented the link between the old and the new. A Vietnam combat veteran and former prison guard, Weathersby played out his angst with vibrant guitar licks that have been compared to the later Bobby Blue Band.
“King Biscuit helped prove that music is stronger than prejudice. So many of us fear those who are different than we are, but music is a common bond that seems to draw no lines whether it be of different races, age, color or religion,” commented Munnie Jordan, executive director of the KBBF.
Jordan has been rightfully proclaimed “Ms. Personality of the KBBF” and her business Delta Heritage Tours, as well as her southern roots, continue to inspire and rebuild the roads of Helena's music history. Jordan, a native of Helena, continues to promote Helena's music history by doing what she says she knows best – working with the King Biscuit Blues Festival volunteers and visiting with Delta Heritage tourists who come from around the world to Helena on the Mississippi River steamboats.
The King Biscuit Blues Festival did not run into any problems until 2005 when the festival became the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival.
It wasn't until the festival's 25th Anniversary that Jordan and her supporters began to look at getting the King Biscuit name back, and they finally discovered that its current owner is Wolfgang's Vault, a vast archive of live music performances and recordings in San Francisco that includes the King Biscuit Flower Hour.
Jordan says that as soon as Wolfgang's Vault understood the history of the blues festival in Helena they allowed the King Biscuit name to be used again.
Today, the King Biscuit Blues Festival is alive and kicking. It has grown to include five stages – the Main Stage, Lockwood Stackhouse Acoustic Stage, Rising Biscuit Stage, Bit 'O Blues Stage and Gospel Stage. The King Biscuit Blues Festival also has added additional activities, including the Kenneth Freemyer 5K run, barbecue contests, a Blues Symposium and more recently the Blues in Schools program.
Page 3 of 3 - With southern hospitality that flows freely as the music, featured live gospel performances, soul food tastings, live blues performances and the apparition of Helena's historical music favorites, its no wonder why they call Helena the safe haven for blues artists and enthusiasts alike.