The Blues in Region 8...Part Two

February 10, 2005 – Posted at 9:52 p.m. CST

HELENA -- King Biscuit entertainers on KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas had a reach went far beyond the airwaves in their day. They touched the souls of many hopeful Blues men that would soon follow their lead. Some of those would become legends that called Region 8 home.

KFFA was the first radio station to play live Blues on the radio back in 1941. Blues expert Bubba Sullivan remembers working with Sonny Payne and the rest of the King Biscuit Time entertainers. The group had a strong influence on many future Blues legends.

"I would say a good 60% of your famous Blues players were born right here," said Sunshine Sonny Payne.

Those who grew up around Helena had the opportunity to learn from the best.

"Like B.B. King for example, I remember when he came through here, he was just a skinny little kid," laughed Payne.

The lucky ones got to learn from blues master, Sonny Boy himself. Howlin' Wolf married Sonny Boy's half sister and learned the rhythmic style of the Blues. James Cotton moved here from Tunica when he was nine just to learn how to wail on the harmonica from Sonny Boy. Both Howlin' Wolf and James Cotton moved to West Memphis where they established their music careers on KWEM.

"It was an outlets for their music," said Sullivan.

They reached Forrest City where Albert King lived. Now don't confuse Albert King with his good friend B.B. King. The two were like brothers, but Albert King developed his own unique style. He played guitar left-handed, even though it was strung for a right-handed player.

His tone resonated with the likes of Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. King would hit the road, like his predecessors.

"Robert Lockwood Jr. and Sonny Boy played in juke joints on Saturday nights," said Sullivan. Juke joints like the old Dipsy Doodle Club in Osceola.

King, Lockwood and Williamson all played there. And the club's owner had a little boy who listened carefully in the back. By 1966 Son Seals was behind the drums playing with Albert King, but he's best known for his uncompromising guitar riffs and gritty vocals.

Our Region 8 legends eventually moved north.

"A lot of musicians here couldn't make money here so they moved onto Memphis and onto Chicago," said Sullivan.

The legendary Honey Boy Edwards once said "there wasn't much blues in Chicago until we took it there, some are still playing today."

Robert Lockwood Jr. performs regularly in Cleveland, Ohio, at the ripe old age of 89.

"One of my best friends, James Cotton...he's got his own and is still going strong," said Payne.

At nearly 80, Sunshine Sonny Payne is still pushing buttons at KFFA, and keeping Blues alive on this side of the Mississippi.

We all know that the Blues spread around the globe. But Blues fans come to our part of the world to trace its musical roots.

Each year in October, over 100,000 people travel to Helena to attend the King Biscuit Blues Festival. It's one of the largest free Blues festivals in the world.