The blues world lost a legend and Helena lost one of its favorite sons when John W. “Sunshine Sonny” Payne passed from this life on February 10, 2018. Payne had recently suffered a stroke and was residing at Crestpark Nursing Home when he died. He was 92 years old.
Payne was the longtime announcer for the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA 1360 AM in Helena. The show is credited with helping to popularize blues music, featuring many of the early Delta blues artists.
“Sunshine, “as he was often called, was a giant in the blues world - not in size, but in reputation and in his passion for sharing the music he loved. He worked with dozens of blues musicians over the decades and current day musicians would travel to Helena to meet him and be a guest on his show. In recent years the radio show has been broadcast from the Visitors Center of the Delta Cultural Center. It was not uncommon to see the likes of Bobby Rush, Robert Plant, or Elvis Costello come in to see Sonny.
Payne has been recognized many times during his career. He is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, an inductee in to the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award. One of the greatest honors was when he and King Biscuit Time were awarded the George Foster Peabody award, considered by many to be the “Pulitzer for Media.”
Payne went to work for the radio station when it became operational in 1941, though not as an announcer. He worked as a janitor and errand boy, but his curiosity of electronics earned him after hours lessons by one of the engineers. He also learned how to play upright bass from one of the bands that played live in the studio.
His big break came in July of 1942 when the regular announcer was late returning from a break and “Sunshine” had to step in and fumble his way through the commercial script. Later that same day he was allowed to read more scripts, which he did perfectly.
Later that year, Payne lied about his age and joined the Army, serving until 1948. Upon his release in San Antonio, Payne was approached by a musician friend who suggested Payne tour with them, since they were in need of a bass player. From 1948-1951, he played with the likes of Tex Ritter, Harry James, Ted Williams, and others.
Tired of touring, Payne returned to Helena in 1951 and asked KFFA owner and station manager, Sam Anderson, to hire him back as an announcer. He began hosting the King Biscuit Time radio show that year.
“Sunshine” had been hosting the show up until a few weeks ago when he became ill. It was an amazing run for Sonny. The show became the longest running blues radio program in the country and he became a major tourist attraction!
Journalists and broadcasters came from all over the world to interview Sonny. They could not get enough of his stories about the old days when Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Houston Stackhouse, Cedell Davis, and so many more were in the studio.
Sonny was a walking encyclopedia of blues music. He was also a very nice man who loved his work. The blues world will miss him, but his Helena family and friends will forever remember the legacy he leaves behind. Rest in peace, “Sunshine.”