The King Biscuit Blues Festival, founded in 1986, is one of the nation’s foremost showcases of blues music. Held for three days annually in October, tens of thousands of blues enthusiasts converge on historic downtown Helena, Arkansas to hear stirring and uplifting performances of an American art form on the banks of the Mississippi River.
As the home of “King Biscuit Time,” the longest running radio show ever, Helena became legendary in the Delta. First broadcast in 1941, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. played live in the studio as the “King Biscuit Entertainers.” Pinetop Perkins and James Peck Curtis later joined the band. The musicians played on KFFA every weekday, pausing for King Biscuit Flour commercials and announcements of their next nighttime performances.
According to Jim O’Neal, founding editor of “Living Blues” magazine and an authority on blues history, “The King Biscuit Time” was the thing that really crystallized blues music in this area. Muddy Waters and B.B. King would come home from working in the fields every day just to listen to it.”
In an interview with Helena’s “Daily World” in October 1986, harmonica wizard James Cotton expressed the feelings of many Delta blues musicians who chose to “come home” to Helena for the first King Biscuit Blues Festival. From original King Biscuit Time artists such as Robert Jr. Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins, to younger performers such as Anson Funderburgh, a wide range of blues stars were thrilled to be a part of Helena’s celebration of its musical roots.
Other artists remember a time in the 1940s and ‘50s when the town was filled with music. Pinetop Perkins, a King Biscuit regular, reported to the “Daily World” that “1940s Helena ain’t nothin’ like it is now. I used to play all night long at a club called the Hole in the Wall. We got paid $3 a night plus all the whiskey we could drink. We’d play all night and then go home and sleep until it was time to play again. Those were the days.”
But by the mid-1980s, Helena had changed from a jumping town to a community in danger of dying. Businesses were closing and people realized the downtown area was decaying, but no one knew what to do to save it.
Experienced Main Street directors recommended community festivals to get local people back to town and at the same time promote tourism. A group of blues devotees formed as the Sonny Boy Blues Society, and they became the core of the first King Biscuit Blues Festival planning committee. Helena’s musical heritage was largely unknown even to blues fans, and the festival was an effort to establish Helena’s rightful place in the Delta’s musical history.
After a glitch in 2005 with licensing issues, the committee was forced to abandon the King Biscuit name and switched to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. It wasn’t until the festival’s 25th anniversary that festival leaders began to look into getting the King Biscuit name back. When Wolfgang’s Vault, the owner of the trademarked name, understood the history of the festival and how important the name was to Helena, they allowed the King Biscuit name to be used again. In 2011, the year B.B. King headlined the event, an announcement was made from the main stage saying the festival name had been restored to the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Wolfgang’s Vault, headquartered in San Francisco, is a vast archive of live music performances and recordings that includes the “King Biscuit Flower Hour.”
Last modified: August 6, 2019