King Biscuit Time started broadcasting in December 1941 and helped define Eastern Arkansas’ musical tradition. Helena with its’ many jukes, clubs and bars had long been a hub for many area blues musicians, who when they were in town knew they could play with and hear some of the best players in the area.
When King Biscuit Time started broadcasting in 1941 with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood, Jr. it was a reflection of the musical scene that was current in Helena at the time. The radio program enjoyed a huge following and was listened to religiously by many aspiring, soon to be famous, blues musicians.
Blues popularity has ebbed and flowed over the last fifty years with each new generation discovering the legacy of their musical forefathers. Even though there had been several rediscoveries of the blues, Helena’s contribution never seemed to earn much attention from the blues community. It was this exclusion from recognition that was the kernel for the beginnings of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Recognition for the artists that helped shape the blues on the Arkansas side of the Delta was sorely lacking. These performers, which played in and around Helena, have had a lasting effect on the landscape of modern popular culture, yet there was little acknowledgment for their contributions.
There is a group of musical kindred souls that are bound together by more than just friendship, the love of the Blues and Helena’s musical past have compelled this group of music maniacs to reach far beyond their grasp in the blues world.
Bubba Sullivan and Jerry Pillow in 1985 decided to explore the possibilities of having some type of Blues Festival in Helena. Neither had ever organized an event of such a large scale so they decided to pull together all of the blues lovers that they knew in the area. The list is a long one of all the individuals that responded to call, some of the most involved were Ray Galloway, George Hays, Houston Stackhouse Jr., Lonnie Shields, James Morgan, Sterling Billingsley, Mike Harcourt and many, many more.
Putting on the first festival was a learning experience for all involved and over the years has been an incredibly rewarding experience for the vast number of volunteers. However, the primary focus of the music maniacs, later the Sonny Boy Blues Society, has been ensuring that the musicians are treated with the highest degree of respect and that there is recognition for their musical contributions to not only blues but our culture.
Two core factors led to the starting of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, respect for the artists and love of the music. These have been the driving forces for the last fifteen years that have kept the founders zeal at a high level. The musicians were truly the focal point in the beginning of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Early on, the organizers wanted to showcase performers that had been instrumental in the development of Helena’s blues scene. Artists such as Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Frank Frost, and Sam Carr, Cedell Davis were all booked for the first festival. These artist were contacted because of their contribution to the blues world and their ties to Helena not because it was felt that they would draw a large crowd and insure the success of the festival. That mind-set has continued to be the attitude of the original organizers since, it is more important to give just recognition to deserving blues artist than to have a line-up that will draw huge crowds but betray Helena’s musical legacy.
The King Biscuit Blues Festival has undergone many changes since the early beginnings, several stages have been added, the number of days have been increase then decreased, bigger budgets, bigger crowds. Through all the many changes, the one constant has been the music and the bond between the musicians and the King Biscuit Blues Festival. The artists realize the organizers are trying to present the music in such a way that will both educate as well as entertain.
The last fifteen years has brought much recognition to Helena and its musical history. People roam around the world gather in Helena each fall to help the community celebrate and honor the musical greatness of its forefathers and its heritage. That was always the goal of the original organizers, recognition for the great African-American musicians from Helena and the area and acknowledgement for their contributions.
What will the future bring for the King Biscuit Blues Festival? Will musicians and the public still hold the festival in such high regard? Will the festival still be able to maintain a high level of talent in the face of increasing fees and costs?
We can’t predict the future in these areas but if the past is any indication, the Biscuit will persevere. The dedication of the hundreds of volunteers, that freely give of their time every year and expect nothing in return, will carry the spirit of the Biscuit into the future.