"Sunshine" Sonny Payne (1925–2018)
aka: John William Payne
“Sunshine” Sonny Payne was the longtime host of King Biscuit Time, the radio program broadcast on KFFA 1360 AM in Helena (Phillips County) (now Helena-West Helena) that has done much to popularize blues music. As blues journalist Don Wilcock wrote, “Sunshine Sonny Payne exists totally outside the boundaries that define and confine most of society. That he loves blues music and the people…all people…who make it and that he has a vehicle for expressing that love to thousands who then in turn influence millions makes the contribution of his cherub wisdom and good humor of incalculable value.”
Sonny Payne was born John William Payne on November 29, 1925, to Gladys Swope Payne and William G. Payne, in Helena (Phillips County). After the death of his mother in 1938, his sisters Rebecca (Becky) and Fosteen (Teen) left home to get married, and Payne lived first with his father and then with Becky. In 1940, he went out on his own and lived in a rooming house in Helena. At that time, his father worked at a gas station in town, and Payne often spent time there during breaks from his work as a paper boy. The gas station is where he met Robert Lockwood Jr., leading to their lifelong friendship.
KFFA 1360 AM radio station was built in Helena and became operational in 1941. Having watched the building’s progress, Payne applied for a job as soon as it was completed and started work as a janitor and errand boy at the station two days before broadcasts began. His curiosity about electronics earned him lessons after hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from one of the engineers, after which he was required to clean the old 78 rpm records for the next day’s broadcast.
In July 1942, during the fifteen-minute time slot sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, the show’s announcer, Sam Anderson (also the general manager and owner), stepped out of the control room and returned too late to broadcast the next commercial script. Seeing that Payne was in the control room, he banged on the control room’s glass wall and gestured for Payne to read the copy over the air. Flustered, Payne glibly ad-libbed his way through the commercial. Despite the flubs, later that day Payne was allowed to read a few Sonny Boy cornmeal commercials, and he performed the scripts perfectly. Meanwhile, he began learning to play the upright bass from a local band, the Copeland Cowboys, who often played live in the studio.
In December 1942, tired of being hungry making $12.50 a week, Payne lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. He served in the Seventy-Fifth Signal Battalion until December 1948. He attained the rank of “buck” sergeant and left the service as a corporal. He served in the Aleutian Islands and New Guinea, where he fought alongside the infantry to dig in behind their lines to set up communications. While in the army, he often went to United Service Organizations (USO) clubs to get music lessons from band members.
When he got out of the service in December 1948, he was released in San Antonio, Texas. A guitarist friend, Bud Davis, had a gig at the time with Tex Ritter in Austin, Texas, and Davis suggested that Payne join them, since they needed a bass player for the remaining three weeks of their tour. Payne agreed to join that tour and signed up with the musicians’ union so that he could continue touring as a side man with Harry James, Ted Williams, and numerous others until 1951.
Tiring of road tours, he returned in 1951 to Helena and asked KFFA’s Sam Anderson to hire him back as an announcer. That year, he began hosting the King Biscuit Time blues music radio show, which became the longest-running blues show in the world, with Payne its longest-running blues show host. King Biscuit Time is still broadcasting, and the King Biscuit Blues Festival is still celebrated annually.
Payne acquired the nickname “Sunshine” because of his attitude one day while assigned to host a live, remote-location, all-day broadcast in Marianna (Lee County) called “Marianna Calling.” It was a cold, miserable, rainy day, and Helena disc jockey Bill Fury “threw” the live broadcast over to Payne in Marianna. When Fury announced Payne’s name to switch the broadcast over to him, Payne did not answer right away. After Fury’s second attempt to rouse him, Payne grumpily returned the hail over the air, and Fury asked Payne, “What’s wrong with you?” “Nothing wrong with me,” Payne replied. “But it’s cold and rainy here, with ice and snow.” “Well, boy you’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?” said Fury. The next morning, when Payne walked into the Helena station, everyone greeted him saying, “Hey, Sunshine.” It might not have stuck except that Robert Lockwood Jr. kept it going to get a rise out of Payne.
Payne was an inductee of the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, and he received the George Foster Peabody Award in 1992 for outstanding achievement in the field of radio and broadcast journalism. He twice received the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award and was the recipient of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award. In 2010, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. On May 13, 2014, Governor Mike Beebe declared May 13 to be “Sunshine” Sonny Payne Day. He also received the 2015 Cecil Scaife Visionary Award, given annually to an individual whose work has helped others achieve careers in the music industry.
Payne was married twice but outlived both his wives. He had one daughter, now deceased, from his first marriage. Payne died on February 9, 2018.
For additional information:
Clancy, Sean. “John William ‘Sonny’ Payne.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 12, 2010, pp. 1D, 7D.
Khatchadourian, Sonia. “A Ray of Sunshine in the Blues.” Living Blues (May–June 1991).
Neal, Amy. King Biscuit Time Magazine (Summer 1971).
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Bella Vista, Arkansas
That’s my uncle! He was married to my aunt Joe. I remember that he used to take us out to eat at Moon Lake. He was a very generous man.
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