KING BISCUIT BLUES FESTIVAL
A MUSICAL LEGACY
By Jerry Pillow
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
About the Author
Jerry Pillow is a Helena native and one of the originators of the King Biscuit Blues Festival along with being a charter member of the Sonny Boy Blues Society. The Sonny Boy Blues Society has had the responsibility of securing the entertainers for the festival. It has been through Jerry's efforts that the festival has had, and continues to maintain one of the best blues lineup of any festival. Jerry has booked the talent for the KBBF for a number of years and also co-ordinated the local Blues-In-Schools program. He was recognized for his efforts in by being presented a "Keeping the Blues Alive" award by the Blues Foundation.