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“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Helena in Phillips County, Arkansas — The American South (West South Central)
 

The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena

 
 
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
1. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Inscription. Helena has played a vital role in blues history for artists from both sides of the Mississippi River. Once known as a “wide open” hot spot for music, gambling, and nightlife, Helena was also the birthplace of “King Biscuit Time,” the groundbreaking KFFA radio show that began broadcasting blues to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941. The program had logged over 15,000 broadcasts by 2009 and inspired Helena to launch its renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986.

(Side 2):
The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, night spots, and good-time houses flourished, and musicians flocked here to entertain local fieldhands, sawmill workers, and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena Bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana, or down from Memphis.

Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards, and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost,
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
2. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Jimmy McCracklin, and George “Harmonica” Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues. Williamson, Nighthawk, and Lockwood were among the first bluesmen to play their instruments through amplifiers, paving the transitional path of blues from acoustic to electric music–a development often attributed to Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.

Soon after KFFA went on the air on November 19, 1941, Williamsonís broadcasts on “King Biscuit Time” brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio. Up-and-coming bluesmen B.B. King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion from WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Company, even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of corn meal. During Williamsonís extended stays away from Helena, drummer James “Peck” Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980 until 1986, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.

The
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
3. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Jack Johnson
Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, a favorite event among blues enthusiasts around the country, began as the King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986, welcoming back former King Biscuit Entertainers Robert Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins for the first of many annual appearances, along with a variety of other acts including perennial local favorites Frank Frost, Lonnie Shields, Sam Carr, and CeDell Davis.
 
Erected 2009 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. (Marker Number 88.)
 
Marker series. This marker is included in the Mississippi Blues Trail marker series.
 
Location. 34° 31.37′ N, 90° 35.17′ W. Marker is in Helena, Arkansas, in Phillips County. Marker is at the intersection of Cherry Street and Missouri Street on Cherry Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 141 Cherry Street, Helena AR 72342, United States of America.
 
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. KFFA 1360 Helena (within shouting distance of this marker); Hernando De Soto (within shouting distance of this marker); The Battle of Helena (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Helena and The Trail of Tears (about 300 feet away); They Passed This Way
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
4. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Rufus Thomas
(about 300 feet away); Sacred Heart Academy (approx. 0.3 miles away); "the gun boat Tyler saved the day " (approx. 0.4 miles away); "Hell-in-Arkansas" (approx. 0.4 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Helena.
 
Categories. African AmericansArts, Letters, Music
 
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
5. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Sam Myers
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
6. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Sam Carr
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
7. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Pinetop Perkins
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
8. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
Sunshine Sonny Payne
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
9. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
A Selection of 1950s photos from Helena photographer and bandleader Rogerline Johnson: right dancers at Kale's Nightspot on Walnut Street, above, Mexican and African-American customers mingle at Magnolia's Place on Missouri St. This 1944 KFFA photo shows Sonny Boy Williamson at the microphone and guitarists Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse sitting beside their amplifiers in the same five-piece ensemble format that Muddy Waters later adopted. All the musicians in this photo, including pianists Pinetop Perkins, and drummer James "Peck" Curtis, came to Helena from Mississippi.
The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker image. Click for full size.
By Sandra Hughes, January 17, 2012
10. The Blues Trail: Mississippi to Helena Marker
In the mid 1950s, BB King performs at the segregated Eliza Miller High School in West Helena, Arkansas Deejay Sonny Payne at the Tri-country Fair in Marvel, Arkansas, 1986, with (from left) Sam Carr, Willie J. Forest, Bruce Griffin, Lonnie Shields, Carl Stamps and T-Model Ford. Frank Frost posing for a publicity photo in the Walnut Street radio of Rogerline "Roger" Johnson
 
 
Credits. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016. This page originally submitted on January 23, 2012, by Sandra Hughes of Killen, Usa. This page has been viewed 871 times since then and 32 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. submitted on January 23, 2012, by Sandra Hughes of Killen, Usa. • Craig Swain was the editor who published this page.
 
Editor’s want-list for this marker. A photo of the marker and the surrounding area in context. • Can you help?
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