Helena, Arkansas and King Biscuit; the names are synonymous. For tens of thousands of music fans, they both mean one of the greatest blues festivals on the planet. However, as Lewis Carroll said, let’s “Begin at the beginning.”
Helena was founded in 1833 by Nicholas Rightor along the banks of the Mississippi River. As a terminal point on the former Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad beginning in 1906, the town served as a launch point for passengers and freight traveling to Joplin, Missouri. By the mid-1930s Helena was a hotbed for itinerant blues musicians to play the jukes, fish frys and weekend parties of the area. Noted musicologist Robert Palmer later claimed it to be “the blues capital of the Delta,” at that time.
Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Memphis Slim and Roosevelt Sykes regularly visited and performed in the area. Blues guitarist CeDell Davis, jazz saxophonist Red Holloway, gospel singer Roberta Johnson, and Country Music Hall of Famer Conway Twitty all hailed for the region.
In November 1941, Helena’s first radio station KFFA went on the air. Station Manager and part owner Sam Anderson offered to sell a block of time to a group of blues musicians on the condition that they obtain a sponsor. Max Moore, owner of Interstate Grocer Company, which distributed King Biscuit Flour, agreed to sponsor the show — thus was born the King Biscuit Entertainers and the beginning of King Biscuit Time, the longest-running daily American radio broadcast in history. The original King Biscuit entertainers were Williamson and Lockwood, followed shortly by Pinetop Perkins, and James “Peck” Curtis.
These broadcasts, at 12:15 PM each day and heard in the hometowns of Nighthawk, Lockwood, and Sonny Boy, were a draw to young southern blues artists who came to Helena to hang around and learn. Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter, later central to the sound of the Muddy Waters band, were among them. Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for Ronnie Hawkins and The Band, grew up outside Helena in Turkey Scratch. He frequently went into town to watch as the show was broadcast. Other musicians including B.B. King, James Cotton, and Ike Turner were also inspired by the KFFA broadcasts.
According to Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine and an authority on blues history, “The King Biscuit Time was the thing that really crystallized blues music in this area. Muddy Waters and B.B. King would come home from working in the fields every day just to listen to it.”
“Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who started out at KFFA as a janitor, took over announcing for King Biscuit Time in 1951 and continued until his death in 2018.
By the mid-1980s, Helena, like many American towns of the time, was failing in the areas of industry, and population. Something needed to be done to bring this once popular blues haven back to life. The Main Street America program with a goal of revitalizing older and historic commercial districts guided the local Main Street Helena organization in that goal. A group of blues devotees formed as the Sonny Boy Blues Society, and they became the core of the first King Biscuit Blues Festival planning committee. Helena’s musical heritage was largely unknown even to blues fans, and the festival was an effort to establish Helena’s rightful place in the Delta’s musical history.
Among the artists to play the first festival were West Helena native bluesman, Lonnie Shields, Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Frank Frost, Jack Johnson, Sam Carr, Willie Foster, T-Model Ford and CeDell Davis. It was one day festival in the beginning and the artists were chosen because of their contribution to blues and their ties to Helena, rather than if they could draw a large audience.
Since then King Biscuit has been going “great guns,” as my grandmother would say. For nearly two decades of the festival’s existence, Munnie Jordan has been the committee’s Executive Director.
Actually what draws me back is this little town that we live in needs the King Biscuit Blues Festival. It’s just a must for us to keep it going here in the Delta. It’s our heritage. It’s our culture, and we want to celebrate it. This is where the blues started, up and down this Delta region on the Mississippi River. Memphis, Helena, Clarksdale, that’s where it all started. Our stage is right on the Mississippi River. It’s a permanent stage and the people sit up on the levee bank. I think they love that. It just feels good. Plus the town is small, and people like it. They just feel good when they’re here. – Munnie Jordan
With a population of just 12,000, Helena grows in size to nearly 35,000 during the course of the four-day festival. The main stage on the levee, is the only stage that is ticketed and therefor the only one where an accurate count can be made. That stage area holds 8,000 people at any one time, but it’s far from being the only show in town. There’s also the Bit-O-Blues Stage (children up to age 18) on the North end of town, and following South are the Gospel Stage (in the Malco Theater), Lockwood Stackhouse Stage, CeDell Davis Stage (formerly known as the Rising Biscuit Stage and Doctor Ross Stage), Front Porch Stage, and a one-block strip of Cherry Street known as Busker’s Row.
Although the performances are the highlights of the festival, other blues-centric events take place as well. There are songwriter workshops, jam sessions, VIP parties, a 5K run, bike ride, blues symposiums, Kansas City sanctioned BBQ competitions, food vendors, merch tables, beverage tents, camping and more. There’s really no way that anyone can take part in everything that goes on during any given festival.
There have been some hiccups along they way. For a few years, the festival lost the right to use the words King Biscuit. However, the trademark owner has now allowed for the use of the name for a minimum of 99 years for free! The celebration when that announcement was made in 2010, just before B.B. King took to the stage, is one of Jordan’s favorite memories of her years with the Biscuit.
Then comes this year. 2020 has been nothing short of a conflagration, quite literally burning down the house in the field of music. Venues, including the King Biscuit Blues Festival were forced to postpone, or cancel due to COVID restrictions. For the first time since its inception King Biscuit was a much scaled-down, virtual event. But the show DID go on, and plans for the 2021 fest, October 6-9, have been made. Headliners for 2021 include Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues with special guest Bobby Rush, Mavis Staples, Allman Betts Band, Thornetta Davis, Paul Thorn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and more! Check out the full lineup here.
We look forward with great anticipation to the opening of venues across the globe, and festivals, particularly King Biscuit, to once again celebrate the blues.
What began in 1986 as a way to revive Helena has turned into one of the largest festivals in the South. It is one of the few major festivals that is still free. But what makes King Biscuit special is the sense of place: This is a festival tied literally and figuratively to its roots. Take the blues festivals out of Chicago and San Francisco, and these cities would hardly notice. Take King Biscuit out of Helena, and you have struck at the city’s identity and wounded its pride. – Nadine Cohodas