Payne was best known as a radio personality who hosted King Biscuit Time at KFFA 1360 in Helena, AR for over 50 years – broadcasting his love for the blues which in turn influenced millions of others throughout his career.
As a teen, he had worked for KFFA 1360 AM radio station in Helena. King Biscuit Flour had a commercial spot on that station and, once, Payne was asked to step in and read some copy over the air. This led to getting to read for some more commercials where he found he had a voice for radio.
At the same time, Payne began learning to play upright bass with a band, the Copeland Cowboys, who often played at the studio.
He joined the Army in 1942 WWII, and during some of that time, he sought out USO clubs where he could play and learn from some of the other musicians.
After getting out of the Army in 1948, Payne toured for a few years with Harry James and Ted Williams, among others. But by 1951, Payne became tired of road tours and went back to the radio station in Helena. He was hired on and began hosting the King Biscuit Time blues music radio program.
That show became the longest running blues radio program in the world and Payne the longest running blues show host.
Payne acquired the nickname “Sunshine” because of his attitude one day while assigned to host a live, remote-location, all-day broadcast in Marianna (Lee County) called “Marianna Calling.” It was a cold, miserable, rainy day, and Helena disc jockey Bill Fury “threw” the live broadcast over to Payne in Marianna. When Fury announced Payne’s name to switch the broadcast over to him, Payne did not answer right away. After Fury’s second attempt to rouse him, Payne grumpily returned the hail over the air, and Fury asked Payne, “What’s wrong with you?” “Nothing wrong with me,” Payne replied. “But it’s cold and rainy here, with ice and snow.” “Well, boy you’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?” said Fury. The next morning, when Payne walked into the Helena station, everyone greeted him saying, “Hey, Sunshine.” It might not have stuck except that Robert Lockwood Jr. kept it going to get a rise out of Payne. ~ (directly quoted from:) The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Payne was the recipient of many awards during his career. He was an inductee of the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame and received the George Foster Peabody Award in 1992 for outstanding achievement in the field of radio and broadcast journalism.
According to a 2014 article in Arkansas The Natural State, musical legends B.B. King and Levon Helm gave credit to Payne as being an influence in their music careers. Music legends Robert Plant and Elvis Costello were among the throngs of legendary musicians who visited with Payne on the set of “King Biscuit Time.”
He has twice received the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award and is the recipient of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award. In 2010, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. On May 13, 2014, Governor Mike Beebe declared May 13 to be “Sunshine” Sonny Payne Day. He also received the 2015 Cecil Scaife Visionary Award, given annually to an individual whose work has helped others achieve careers in the music industry.
The Blues Foundation mourns the passing of Sonny Payne, who was a two-time Keeping the Blues Alive Award recipient and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010. He was the host of the legendary “King Biscuit Time” program on KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas for over five decades. We join the rest of the blues world in sending condolences to his family.
To all the blues fans and musicians out there today who would like to check out some wonderful blues history, and appreciate one of the industry’s most iconic figures, you won’t regret taking a few minutes to have a listen:
(1) Full credit is also extended to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture for their information contained within this article. The organization is a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, Arkansas with major funding provided by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and additional funding from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas General Assembly, the Arkansas Humanities Council, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as donations from individuals, foundations and organizations. Blues Insights extends its utmost gratitude to these entities and individuals which make it possible for stories of our rich history of American citizens to be told for the education and betterment of our society.
When Mike Zito puts on a concert, he only knows full throttle. When he came to Knuckleheads Dec. 9 with special guest Jeremiah Johnson Band, the energy couldn’t get any higher on a ride that lasted even longer. It felt like like doing shots of Red Bull.
With two bands each this good, either one could have packed a Knuckleheads stage house – each of them has before. Together, they sent Kansas City fans scrambling for tickets.
Zito showed off his star quality by goading an already hyped-up, on-their-feet crowd into staying for a pairing of both bands well-into a three-song encore. Sharing the stage with the already popular Johnson, was fine with Zito, who seems to thrive on choosing to play with the very best. After all, not only is Johnson an award-winner also but he brings Frank Bauer’s dipping, back-arching saxophone performance, the personable Benet Schaeffer on drums and seasoned bassist Tom Maloney keeping everybody on track.
And Zito’s band is one of the best anywhere with Terry Dry on bass and Matt Johnson on drums. Plus, they can all sing and are performers who carry an intuitive showmanship into Zito’s performances.
These two bands are clearly among the most audience-satisfying acts touring right now. They easily interact with and take charge of the audiences who clearly are pumped and energized by these performers. When Zito took his wireless guitar out into the audience, exposed as he was, the fans cleared the way and egged him on. Well, let me just show you Mike Zito untethered:
At the sold out show for Jeremiah Johnson this past summer, nobody left the packed Gospel Lounge at Knuckleheads the entire performance as the St. Louis native blues home boy and his fiery saxophonist Frank Bauer, drummer Benet Schaeffer, and bassist Tom Maloney, solidified their hold on the Midwestern blues scene.
On another night this summer in the Knuckleheads venue, another St. Louis-born bluesman, Mike Zito similarly fired up a crowd on the outdoor stage opening for Tab Benoit – then, together with Tab Benoit. And, yes, (why do you even ask?) the crowd went wild.
But if putting both Johnson and Zito together on one ticket is winning a blues bash lottery, then you have a chance to cash in your prize this weekend:
Both performers were big winners at the Independent Blues Awards this year: Johnson for Best Independent Contemporary CD for “Blues Heart Attack” and Best Funk Song “Sun Shine Through” and Zito for Best Blues Rock Song: “Redbird”.
It’s about the music, yes, but it’s also about their incredible bands and both performers’ stage presence along with their incomparable abilities to lasso an audience not just with their talent but with their down-home genuineness. Okay, to boil it down: these guys actually really like their fans.
So, get out of the holiday doldrums, leave the world behind you and get transported inside the happy cocoon of Knuckleheads. Get your tickets via Knuckleheads directly as this is always the best ticket deal.
Here’s a visual taste of the shows from this summer:
Australia native Leanne Trevena was just looking for an interesting evening of fun entertainment back in February, 2013 when she saw a write up about blues artist Mike Zito in her local paper, the Colorado Springs Independent.
So, she headed up with her husband, Simon, to check out a new venue she hadn’t tried before.
“It’s this little dive bar up on the highway,” Trevena said. (Our favorite kind of place, right?) “The write-up in the local paper was interesting, and it was a good chance to see the venue, as we had tickets to see another artist there in April.”
“I was standing there waiting for a friend and he [Zito] just walked right past me and went up on the stage and started playing,” she said. It’s one of the great things about experiencing live music at a small roadhouse is that the musicians are literally right there with you.
Trevena decided she liked the music and purchased the namesake Royal Southern Brotherhood CD at that concert – afterwards, doing some further research on the band.
“With more knowledge of the music, it was an even better night,” said Trevena. “I bought a [Royal Southern Brotherhood] t-shirt and promptly made my way around to the band members getting it signed. This lead to getting to chat with the band members and eventually with Mike himself.”
“He was very friendly and we talked about his blog and music. He was so real, so humble and so grateful for his fans and music followers,” she said.
The next time she saw Zito was later in 2013 on a two week road trip to New Orleans. Zito was playing a show at Chickie WahWah’s and, out of just dumb luck, Trevena said, she found out Zito was playing while she and Simon were there to attend a jazz festival. The couple went and Trevena said the crowd was sparse that night, but it didn’t matter.
“Mike Zito got up and he played like the house was full,” she said.
That night, Zito mentioned a show that would be the following night at the same venue – so Trevena and her husband went back the next night – this time to an overflow crowd and a packed house.
A further conversation after the second night in NOLA led Trevena to follow Zito’s suggestion to check out a memorial in Beaumont, Texas where there was a tribute Blind Willie Johnson. The couple got to visit the memorial on their way back home to Colorado. (Zito covered Johnson’s song Let You Light Shine on Me on his Gone To Texas CD.)
Trevena was finally hooked on Zito and his music as she listened to more and more of his songs and heard his performances and visited Zito’s blog: A Bluesman in Recovery
“His music gets me through a lot of things,” Trevena said. “His blogs are interesting, informative and thought provoking. I love that I have been able to meet him and chat with him many times. I also love sharing his music with family and friends and enjoy being able to give people autographed CDs.”
Trevena said that she found Zito’s openness about his own life experiences a positive influence for her.
“I felt he was saying that he wasn’t perfect and wasn’t claiming to be,” she said. “We’ve all seen headlines of what addiction does to people and cost to society, but I think being able to speak to someone makes it more understandable. I’m not sure I had ever really met anyone that had suffered with addiction – it was a chance for me to learn something, perhaps get rid of ideas that had been planted in my brain by other parties…family, media, etc.”
Trevena said she had suffered depression before in her life, and that, “although the two are not the same, there is so much that Mike talks about with recovery that I can relate to. Mike’s life has obviously given him some very good stories to tell, and he has been able to use that in his music.”
Zito performed recently at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, opening for Tab Benoit on the outdoor stage. After Zito’s performance, a small crowd gathered around to purchase CDs and t-shirts at the end of the stage. She waited quietly in line behind others there to have autographs signed and photos taken with Zito. Zito turned to the final two people waiting in line, nodded towards Trevena and said “She’s a fan AND a friend.”
To Trevena, he smiled: “When you are a friend, you get to wait until everyone is finished to catch up.” And a busy conversation ensued in the remaining break before the next set.
Trevena came away from the encounter a bit breathless but with a wide, girlish smile.
“I felt honored that he would refer to me in that way,” Trevena said. “I think a big part of Mike Zito is that he can make people feel special just by being him. He doesn’t come across as arrogant or superior. I think he’s amazing and he seems to think the same of his fans.”
The 2017 Independent Blues Awards winners were announced and Kansas City’s Samantha Fish won two well-deserved awards this year:
• Best Independent Female Blues Artist – Samantha Fish
• Road Warrior Award – Samantha Fish
According to Making a Scene, the Best Independent Female Blues Artist is awarded to the best of the female artists who tour and record as individuals under their own name.
The Road Warrior Award “goes to the artist whose lifestyle is on the road. This award honors those who spend the countless hours on the road driving from town to town performing. This is to honor those hard working musicians,” according to Making a Scene‘s website.
Ms. Fish is one of Kansas City’s treasured musicians and has clearly earned this recognition as she toured the United States this past year, dazzling thousands of fans (and no doubt making many more) in stops near and far, road houses large and small.
Thank you to Making a Scene for creating this forum for bringing enthusiastic support to the many blues musicians who work hard to make the work.