Category: History of the Blues

“Ya gotta live the blues before you play it” – Sunshine Sonny Payne 1925-2018

The Blues Foundation announced today the passing of “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who had recently suffered a stroke. He was 92.

With permission from The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, we share with you some great history of this phenomenal man’s accomplishments and contributions to the blues community: (1)

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.

From his perch in the studio at KFFA Radio 1360 in Helena, Arkansas, Sonny Payne ruled his corner of the blues airwaves for over 50 years. Governor Mike Beebe proclaimed Tuesday, May 13, 2014 “Sunshine” Sonny Payne Day in honor of the radio announcer’s 17,000th broadcast of “King Biscuit Time.” (re-printed here with permission from Arkansas The Natural State)

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.

In today’s announcement, The Blues Foundation stated:

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. 




The Serious Side of the Blues According to Blues Funnyman Boogie Woogie Red

Here’s a quick little story for you:

Bluesman Boogie Woogie Red, born Vernon Harrison in Louisiana in 1926, was a well-known blues funny man. Red’s father, who brought young Vernon to Detroit as a toddler, instilled a love for the vaudeville stage, since the senior Harrison was a vaudeville comedian. As such, Red became a great impressionist and storyteller in addition to his skills as a musician. But those music influences came from elsewhere…

As a child, he would go down to the bars and listen to his favorites of the time, including being greatly influenced by Big Maceo Merriweather’s performances. (Have a listen sometime and imagine a young Vernon Harrison getting his head full of this):

According to writings on the jacket of Boogie Woogie Red, Live at the Blind Pig, (yes, I have it) young Vernon grew up to be a great impressionist and storyteller on stage as he hosted at the Ann Arbor, MI club, The Blind Pig on what they called “Blue Mondays”. About Red, from his live album cover:

Anyone who comes down to the Blind Pig knows his Mr. Belvedere routine, his English accent, his French accent and his Cock Robin routine. Red’s also a wealth of stories. Stories about his years with John Lee Hooker and some famous spats he had with his wife Maudie. Stories about his trips to Europe…Stories that all have the same insane observations of an incredible wit simmered in 80 proof Canadian alcohol for the past 30 years.  

If you believe, as I do, that comedy and tragedy share the same whiskey bottle, then it’s understandable that the blues and comedy can go hand in hand as it did for Boogie Woogie Red.

It’s interesting, then, that while Red had his own act that included comedy, when it came to blues music, he had a more somber opinion about the blues genre:

“I’ll tell you about the blues – the blues is something that you play when you’re in a low mood or something, and the hardships that you have had through life. It’s just the mood that you are in. And the average person takes the blues as what you might call a plaything, but the blues is really serious. The blues is something that you have to play coming from your heart. ~ Boogie Woogie Red, 1960, Conversation with the Blues


Have a share of this youtube video of Red’s performance in Sussex, England, 1973.

“And you don’t have to have anybody around to have the blues, and you don’t have to be around people. You be alone to yourself, time to think about the mistakes you have made in life…the money, everything…that’s what you call the blues.” ~ Boogie Woogie Red, Conversation with the Blues. 1960. compiled by Paul Oliver; published by Cambridge University Press.

Blues author Paul Oliver passes away

From left to right: Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim, Roosevelt Sykes, Jump Jackson, Paul Oliver, and Little Brother Montgomery, Chicago, 1960. (1.) [O’Connell]
All I can do is pass along what was relayed to me via the Blues Foundation just now:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 10.43.25 PM

Oliver’s contributions cannot be understated. His book, Conversation With the Blues, is still available on the used market and, if you’re lucky, you’ll find one with the CD included.

If you are a blues lover,  it’s a golden nugget of blues history:

It is through the efforts of writer/enthusiasts like Oliver that there are invaluable preservations, interviews and conversation on blues history and its innovators.

A deeply, heartfelt thank you to Paul Oliver and blessings to his family.

1.) Acknowledgement to Re-Imagining The Blues: A Transatlantic Approach to African-American CultureBY CHRISTIAN O’CONNELLOCTOBER 6, 2014 Please click this link to see another wonderful article.

2.) I am not the owner of the youtube video and do not claim copyright to it but share as an honor memory to Paul Oliver’s work.

Rollin’ Stone and the Rolling Stones

What’s great about going to live music shows is you never know who might drop by: here’s a great one from 1981 at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago when Jagger and company dropped in on Muddy Waters. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been there for that jam?


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