Remembering Sunshine Sonny Payne and the Days When Radio Tucked Black Music Behind White Voices
If you ever needed an illustration of what a treasure “live and local” can be in radio, consider the rather amazing career of Sunshine Sonny Payne.
John William Payne died Friday at the age of 92 in Helena, Ark., where he had spent most of his personal life and all of his radio life.
He was best known as the host of King Biscuit Time, a show that has aired weekdays at noon on KFFA (1360 AM) since Nov. 21, 1941, 16 days before Pearl Harbor.
Payne was a teenage kid working as a maintenance man, electrician and 78 rpm disc cleaner at the newly operational KFFA when King Biscuit Time started, but he didn’t become its permanent host until 1951.
He kept that gig full-time for 65 years, which probably isn’t something anyone else who has ever worked in radio can say. In 2016 he suffered an attack of neuropathy and cut back to a couple of days a week until a stroke forced him off the show for good a few months ago.
In a 2016 interview with Matthew Mershon of KATV, marking the 75th anniversary of King Biscuit Time, he said he never thought of retiring.
“There’s nothing to retire to,” he said. “I’ve got it all right here.”
Longevity was certainly a part of Sunshine Sonny Payne’s legacy, and no one stays on the air that long without commensurate skill. Payne and King Biscuit Time won a Peabody Award in 1992 and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2014, Gov. Mike Beebe declared May 13 Sunshine Sonny Payne Day in Arkansas.
And all this, it’s worth repeating, blossomed not from a powerful national syndication outfit, but from a small AM radio station in Helena, Ark., that latched onto a good idea back in 1941 and stayed with it.
The launch of King Biscuit in fact was a critical landmark in radio history, and Payne’s role is instructive.
In the fall of 1941, he was a teenager scratching out a living as a paper boy and gas station attendant. He worked near the building where KFFA was constructing its new studio, which gave him the idea to apply for a job there.
Not incidentally, he also became good friends with a local blues guitarist, Robert Jr. Lockwood, who would later be known as a protégé of the then recently deceased Robert Johnson.
Payne was hired at KFFA as a janitor, but in the standard practice at small operations he did a little of everything. He later recalled getting tutorials in radio engineering in return for cleaning the 78 rpm records that would be played on the air the next day.
King Biscuit Time was born when bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) convinced Sam Anderson, KFFA’s owner, to let him and his band play live for 15 minutes at noon every day. He had a lot of fans, Williamson said, and noon was when the field hands went on their lunch break.
Anderson found a sponsor, Interstate Grocers, one of whose products was King Biscuit Flour. The match was made and blues harp virtuoso Williamson played every day alongside musicians that would include guitarist Lockwood, drummer Peck Curtis and pianist Pinetop Perkins. Among others.
The show was soon expanded to a half hour, and Williamson became such a popular radio draw that Interstate started selling a new product, Sonny Boy Corn Meal.
In retrospect, taking the show seems like one of the great no-brainers for KFFA.
At the time, however, few if any radio shows were built around a black performer, at least one who played music as raw as Williamson’s.
So as not to raise any eyebrows in the very segregated South, Anderson didn’t have Williamson do his own announcing. The show was hosted and its commercials read by a white announcer — in this case, Anderson himself. God bless low-budget local radio.
One day Anderson was called away during the show and realized he was about to miss a commercial break, which is never a good thing.
As Payne recalled it, Anderson pounded on a glass partition and gestured for Payne to get in and read the spot. He didn’t read it well, Payne later admitted, but it put him in the announcing game and he got better as he filled in more.
In the larger picture, this marked one of those American racial progressions that was awkward through no fault of the participants.
The idea that a black music show needed the voice of a white announcer seems troubling. But that was the lay of the land, and it helped that Payne, like later white colleagues such as John R. Richbourg of WLAC, embraced the music. As a tangential bonus, and in the minds of segregationists no doubt an unintended consequence, they also would eventually help bring it to white audiences.
Payne left KFFA in 1942 for the service, cracking years later that it paid better than the $12.50 a week he was earning at KFFA. He remained in the Army until 1948 and then, using bass-playing skills he had learned from Lockwood, went on tour with Tex Ritter, Harry James and other traveling bands.
But the band-touring era was winding down, and in 1951 he returned home and asked Anderson for his old job back. This time that included announcing King Biscuit Time, which through the intervening years had been hosted by Hugh Smith and now featured a variety of live blues musicians as well as recordings.
Blues would ebb and flow in popularity over the years, with a surge in the early 1950s and a revival in the early 1970s.
Through it all, Payne stayed the course. He became friends with numerous bluesmen like B.B. King as well as artists who just admired his radio style, like Frank Sinatra.
On the air, Payne was conversational, spinning short versions of stories about himself, the artists and the music.
He got the “Sunshine” nickname when he was doing a remote one day from Marianna and arrived to find the classic remote nightmare: miserable weather that likely meant almost no one would show up.
When anchor jock Bill Fury asked him how he was doing, Payne said, “Nothing wrong with me. But it’s cold and rainy here, with ice and snow.”
Fury, who was used to more upbeat comments from remotes, replied, “Well, you’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”
Lockwood picked up the line, basically to bust his pal, and eventually it stuck.
Over the years, as Payne’s reputation spread, he got on-air visits from folks like Robert Plant, Muddy Waters and Elvis Costello. An invitation to his broadcast station at Arkansas’s annual King Biscuit Blues Festival was a sign a young musician had made it.
King Biscuit Time itself had a remarkable reach even beyond showcasing music often underserved on the radio. For starters, it inspired the unrelated King Biscuit Flower Hour, a revered and more mainstream syndicated show that ran from 1973 to 1993 with artists like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and a host of lesser-knowns.
In 2013, the Reba Russell Band recorded and released a song titled “Sunshine Sonny Payne.”
And let’s guess it wasn’t entirely coincidenal that the long-time “sponsor” of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion was Powdermilk Biscuits — given that every Sunshine Sonny Payne show opened with Payne saying, “Pass the biscuits — it’s King Biscuit Time.”
Payne described himself to Mershon and numerous other interviewers as a small-town guy, happy to spend his life on the radio in Helena, Arkansas.
The pleasure was also ours.