The Blues in Region 8...Part One

February 10, 2005 – Posted at 9:38 p.m. CST

HELENA -- We all know that Memphis has a musical history but, during the 40's, juke joints were rocking' on this side if the Mississippi too. In fact Region 8 has it's own fair share of Blues legends. But before we get there, let's travel down the Blues highway to Helena, Arkansas, where a foundation was laid for the music. It was a time when plantation politics still ruled the South.

"African Americans couldn't express themselves, so they expressed themselves through music," said Blues Expert Bubba Sullivan.

Songs about the current social climate rang from the cotton fields and the juke joints. Whites had their side of the story.

"African Americans had a story and they wanted to share it but nobody wanted to listen. That is Blues in essence," said Sullivan.

Blues was more than music, it was freedom. Something that black southerners couldn't get enough of, so many of them began migrating north along Highway 61 in search of better pay and dignity... and they took their music with them. Highway 61 would come to play a more ominous tune.

These days when most Blues fans around the world hear of Highway 61, it conjures up images of legendary Blues man Robert Johnson.

"Nobody knows actually what happened, I mean I've had a lot of Japanese come here where the actual crossroads were. And I said man if I knew that I'd be richer than Donald Trump," said Sullivan.

The one thing people do know, is that he died a horrific death at an early age, but not before passing his guitar skills to his stepson Robert Lockwood Jr.

"I met him in 1937, I was 12 years old and he was 22," said "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, a KFFA Radio Host.

Payne and Lockwood would become good friends.

"In 1940 he brought Sonny Boy Williamson by the gas station were my father worked," said Payne.

The three boys didn't know it back then but together they were about to leave their handprints on the airwaves that took Blues around the world.

"Robert Jr. and his mother came in one time and we had heard rumors about a radio station going up it was KFFA," said Payne. Payne got a job sweeping floors at the station.

"Robert asked me he said do you think we can get on the air?" said Payne

Blacks weren't really allowed on the air back then and no one was playing live Blues on the radio, but Sonny's boss agreed, on one condition. The boys had to find a sponsor, and they got that sponsorship from a local company called King Biscuit Flour and Meal.

America's first live Blues radio show was born, and King Biscuit products went flying off the shelves.

"Everybody and their brother...they've got African Americans on that air and they're good," said Sullivan.

Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins, the band's Levon Helm and many, many famous blues man grew up or were born within a 50-70 mile radius of KFFA's signal.

"They inspired a lot of young ones like B.B. King for example," said Payne.

And that inspiration spread to another generation of blues men, many of whom would pass through Region 8...and some who even called it home.