Not many blues writers and aficionados would make a connection between the blues and the sale of flour. But after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the blues recording business crashed along with it. Blues artists doing well selling records during the roaring twenties suddenly found they had to return to a life of hard work in the cotton fields or doing other manual labor jobs. Blues recording seemed to die an early death. However, one staple every Great Depression family needed was bread, especially the kind made from white flour. Mixing the previously popular blues music with flour advertising seemed like a no-brainer to some flour companies. Using the relatively new medium of radio was also a self-illuminating idea.
Actually, the blues never died but was fused with Western swing to produce a lively new form of music that was easy to dance to, especially for White audiences. Fort Worth-born fiddler Bob Wills was one of the first to mix the two genres after he migrated down from the Texas Panhandle in 1929. In Cowtown, he performed in blackface in minstrel shows and formed the Wills Fiddle Band, which included vocalist Milton Brown and guitarist Herman Arnspiger. The band played on the radio and was hired by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour salesman who later went on to become Texas’ governor and a U.S. senator. O’Daniel was the only man to defeat Lyndon B. Johnson in a political race. The band, renamed the Light Crust Doughboys (named after light crust flour), became so popular that virtually every radio in Texas was tuned to its popular daily radio show whose tagline was “The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!”
The National Fiddler Hall of Fame says: “Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some Negro songs directly from African Americans, and said that he did not play with many white children other than his siblings, until he was seven or eight years old. African Americans were his playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children.”
Did Wills learn the blues from these playmates? “I don’t know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not,” Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, “but they sang blues you never heard before.”
As the marriage between flour advertising and radio progressed, it was perhaps inevitable that a flour company would sponsor a radio program full-time. Enter King Biscuit Time (KBT), named after King Biscuit flour. It is not only the first radio program dedicated to blues music (established in 1941), it is also the longest-running daily American radio broadcast in history. The program is broadcast each weekday from KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and has won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence. Its website www.kingbiscuittime.com claims it is “bringing the blues into the 21st century.”
Programmers at KBT wanted to aim their show at a maximized black audience so the show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers in the Mississippi Delta. KBT has racked up more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand combined; it celebrated its 17,000th broadcast on May 13, 2014. The 30-minute live show is still being broadcast from the Delta Community Center in downtown Helena.
While working on the Stovall Plantation, just outside Clarksdale Mississippi, a young musician named Muddy Waters heard some KBT broadcasts on his lunch hour and decided in 1943 to head north for the bright lights and blues music being played in Chicago. The rest was history in the making. Muddy’s electrified blues style not only changed the Chicago blues, it changed the whole world of blues music.
Wikipedia explains the wide-sweeping influence of this popular radio program: “King Biscuit Time was also a major breakthrough for African-American music in general. The popularity of the program and its reach into the untapped African-American demographic gained notice and spawned a host of imitators. By 1947 the first black disc jockey in the South, Early Wright, had been signed at WROX across the river. WDIA in Memphis soon became the first radio station in the South with an all-black staff (including deejay B.B. King) and a musical format based on the success of King Biscuit Time.”
Who would have thought that a radio program sponsored by a flour company would have such an influence on the blues? A virtual who’s who of the blues have made live appearances on the program and continue to do so. Blues lovers from around the world, especially those in Europe, tune in through the Internet. Maybe you should too.
Longtime KBT disc jockey “Sunshine” Sonny Payne