“Man, who was that guitar player that just came down the street and played with us? He started playin’ and the damn crowd – you couldn’t get down the street.”
The young street performer was wide-eyed and looking for answers at Bubba’s Blues Corner Record Store, ground zero on Cherry St. at the heart of the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas.
Proprietor Bubba Sullivan smiled and said, “Have you ever heard of George Harrison? Have you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix? Have you ever heard of Eric Clapton? Those cats were in his band!”
It was Saturday afternoon and Delanie Bramlett of Delanie & Bonnie fame just decided to go busk with one of the bands playing along the street.
To tens of thousands from around the world The Biscuit is an annual pilgrimage. Guitarist Andy T. says The Biscuit is like going home. He’s been coming since the ’90s. He played the festival with Guitar Shorty in 2001 and was invited to sit in with Anson Funderburgh in 2011. He’s back this year with Nick Nixon who will take part in the Call & Response Symposium that I’ll be hosting Saturday morning. Anson produced two recent Andy T-Nick Nixon Band albums on Delta Groove Records. Drink, Drank, Drunk includes “No End to The Blues” that Nick co-wrote with Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitarist.
A native of Nashville, Nixon played with Rufus Thomas at nearby Fort Campbell back in the day. That’s where he met a young Jimi Hendrix in 1962. “We thought Jimi made a lot of mistakes,” says Nick about the young guitarist. “Of course, he was playing in tune, but it was wild, man. He wasn’t afraid to ask someone, ‘How’d you do that?’ He’d get different licks from other folk like (local Jefferson Street blues legend) Johnny Jones or people like this and ask them how do they do this. He’d pull all this together and come up with the weirdest thing.”
There are nearly 100 featured acts on four stages including such big names as James Cotton, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Vivino & The Black Italians, but the soul of this historic three-day event is in the untold back stories of the musicians who play their hearts out on the street and in the allies like Nick Nixon.
Nixon grew up in West Nashville company apartment without running water or electricity. Rent was a dollar a week. Every Sunday he rode the bus with his parents to a sanctified church in South Nashville where they spoke in tongues and sang the gospel. He learned to sing opera in high school but was drawn to the rock and roll he heard on his parents’ battery-operated portable radio and began to sing with groups he met in the Jefferson Street blues scene. “I fell right into it ’cause I ran around with a lot of guys that were bluesers and rockers, but I got most of my feel from the church.”
Jefferson Street was where the black musicians played. When he joined an integrated band The Sceptres he played clubs in other parts of the city where they loved his music but he couldn’t get waited on as a black person. His first wife was white, and they had to travel to Utica, New York to get married because interracial marriage was illegal in Tennessee.
The Andy T-Nick Nixon Band performed at a Nashville Blues Society Showcase at B. B. King’s in Memphis during this years’ International Blues Challenge. It was the most heartfelt performance I heard out of hundreds of bands that performed that weekend.
The Biscuit’s roots run deep, taking its name from The King Biscuit Time Radio show that began broadcasting in Helena’s KFFA in 1941. B. B. King would listen to Sonny Boy Williamson perform live on the air daily during his lunch break as a sharecropper.
“I used to listen to KFFA every day,” says The King of The Blues. “This is before I left (Indianola, Mississippi) because you know we could hear it very good in the Delta. At that time in the hills of Mississippi I didn’t know anything about who was doing what at the time. I was in the fields plowing. We had no social standing with the white people in the area, so I couldn’t tell what was going on really to be honest with you. (King Biscuit Time) did good for me ’cause I enjoyed it. I only had a chance to hear music electrified Saturday when I went to town. During that time, what can I say? I was just a plow hand if you will. John Lee Hooker was playing when I was plowing.”
The festival began in 1986 but is named after the radio show which is still broadcast today and hosted by Sunshine Sonny Payne who’s been with the station since the very beginning. Sonny Boy Blues Society historian Bubba Sullivan recalls the first festival when that then festival director Nina Waters sent her husband Edmond to talk a preacher into selling his stage to the festival for $25.
“The first guy ever on the festival was Cedell Davis,” says Bubba. “Cedell was crippled and played with a butter knife. During his set Robert Palmer, the guy who wrote Deep Blues, walked on stage with him and played a damn clarinet. We didn’t know what the shit was going on. Come to find out a month later, Palmer was an entertainment writer for the New York Times. We got a big write-up. That’s how King Biscuit got spread around.”
Festival Director Linda Broome explains the significance of the Biscuit in this, its 29th year. “In an era where every area of the U.S.A. has a blues festival, the King Biscuit Blues Festival brings the visitors worldwide back home to our great country’s fertile delta roots, the birthplace of the music that inspired the soundtrack of generation after generation. The annual pilgrimage of tens of thousands to Helena, Arkansas and the berm of the Mississippi is a homecoming, a touchstone, an intimate connection with the primal sounds that rose from the mud and the cotton fields and defined our society, propelled our pilgrims’ progress and dug deep into our psyches to help this country to stand tall in the world. The King Biscuit Blues Festival is a unique blend of blues’ past, present and future. Not too small, not too big, but just the right setting for a diamond in the rust.”