Greetings From…Helena, Arkansas

Helena, Arkansas

By Michael Boyink / mike@douglascountyherald.com

He shuffled in supported by a walker.  He was the same height as my grandfather – coming just up to my shoulder. 

He wore large, thick glasses and a green sweater over a blue button-up shirt. He wasn’t quite bald, some streaks of darker hair still showing through the gray. 

We made small talk. He was a bit hard of hearing, but if you spoke up he was right there with you. He could serve up playful banter with a wry twist.

Then the time came, and he sat down to do what he’d been doing every day for the last 64 years.

John William Payne, better known as “Sunshine Sonny Payne” put headphones on, adjusted the boom microphone attached to the desk in front of him, waited for his cue, then called out the words he opened every radio show with: “Pass the biscuits! It’s King Biscuit Time!” 

The late “Sunshine Sonny” Payne prepares to go on the air in Helena.

Payne played the blues and people listened. Muddy Waters listened. B.B. King listened. Robert Plant and Elvis Costello listened.

Payne started his radio career sweeping the radio station floors and learning to read and announce at night. 

His big break came when the previous host couldn’t make it back in time for the show, which had Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood, Jr. waiting to play live. Payne stepped in and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Army called him away for a while. After his service Payne toured for a while, playing bass with jazz and big band groups.

1951 found him back at KFFA hosting the King Biscuit Time show. It was one of the first to feature blues musicians and led to the annual multi-day King Biscuit Blues Festival held in Helena each fall.  

Payne’s on-air work led to several awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award for outstanding achievement in radio/TV journalism, the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award, and the Arkansas Broadcasters Association Pioneer Award. 

He was also a 2010 inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame.

On the day of our visit Sonny hosted show number 17,381. We weren’t the only ones who had traveled to see him in action. We shared guest chairs with a group of Polish motorcyclists and a musician from New Mexico.

Once the show was over, we posed for a few photos, shook hands, and said our goodbyes.

We left grateful to have met Sonny. 

We also left challenged with our culture’s current views on retirement. 

If Sonny had hung up his headphones at the age when society said he should have, we would have missed out on over 25 years of his work. 

And would it have been the best thing for Sonny? His love for the music and a daily responsibility kept him active, engaged, and contributing to the world.

We can only hope for a similar “retirement” for ourselves.

John William “Sunshine Sonny” Payne passed away on February 9, 2018 at age of 92. The King Biscuit Time radio show continues on and can be heard online at www.kffa.com.