Updated: Oct 4, 2018
By Jim Byrnes:
"Pass the biscuits, it's King Biscuit Time!" Those words were spoken 5 days a week at 12:15 a.m. for 67 years by "Sunshine Sonny" Payne on radio station KFFA, 1360 AM, Helena, Arkansas, to introduce the longest-running radio show in history, King Biscuit Time.
The show came on the air in 1942 and stills run to this very day, featuring a half hour of the very finest in blues music. Even the late, greats B.B. King and Muddy Waters recall listening as teenagers as they picked cotton across the river in Mississippi. In 1951, "Sunshine Sonny" took over as host and remained behind the microphone until just months ago when
he passed away on February 10, 2018 in Wynne, AR.
Here is some of the story of this wonderful man. John William Payne was born November 29, 1925 to Gladys Swope Payne and William G. Payne in Helena, Arkansas. His dad ran a local gas station, and Sonny delivered newspapers around town. It was at his dad's gas station that this young white boy met Robert Jr. Lockwood, the stepson of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and himself a celebrated blues singer and guitarist, and Alek "Rice" Miller who was known professionally as Sonny Boy Williamson II. These friendships lasted a lifetime. Young Sonny watched as the radio station was being built, and two days after it went on air in 1941 he hired on as the janitor. He went about his business and took great interest in all aspects of broadcasting, as well as learning to play the bass from The Copeland Cowboys who often played live at the station. Later that year, he lied about his age and joined the US Army, where he was assigned to the 75th Signal Battalion and served in the Aleutian Islands and New Guinea.
Discharged in 1948, he began touring as bass player with acts as disparate as Tex Ritter and the Harry James Big Band. He tired of the touring lifestyle and returned back home to Helena in 1951 and soon secured a job as an announcer on KFFA. That year, he began his life work as presenter of King Biscuit Time, sponsored by the King Biscuit Flour Company and their Sonny Boy products. The show was already quite popular across the mid South, as it was one of the few outlets that broadcast blues music at that time. It usually presented live performances by Sonny Boy, Robert Jr., William Love, and so many others. In later years, it began to primarily play recordings. The show grew in popularity of international proportions, enhanced by Sonny's off the cuff patter and personality. He gained the nickname "Sunshine"after a grumpy on-air comment about the weather during a live outdoor broadcast from Marianna, AR, and was taken up as a running joke by his old friend Robert Jr.Lockwood.
In 1986, they established the King Biscuit Blues Festival which runs every year in Helena; this year it will be held October 3–6. Sonny was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, given the George Peabody award, and I was lucky enough to be there the night he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in Memphis in May of 2010. Other inductees that night included W.C. Handy, Gus Cannon, Charlie Musselwhite, and Bonnie Raitt, among others. Having dinner that night with Sonny, W.C. Handy's granddaughters, and Sam Phillips's son, Knox, was quite a thrill, believe me.