James Cotton at the Club Bijou in Philadelphia (Circa 1982)
I started thinking about all this when I got an email from Billy Hector notifying his fans that his gig with Hubert Sumlin was cancelled.
From: Billy Hector
To: Billy Hector
Sent: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 6:05 PM
Subject: BH GIG ALERT
Tonight's Birthday Bash for Hubert Sumlin at Mexicali Live has been cancelled.
Hubert is not well enough to perform-
I was sorry to hear about Hubert.
I met him at the Bijou Cafe in Philly in the early 1980s when he stopped there to see James Cotton, who I was interviewing in the backstage dressing room at the time.
I was with Billy Muller - an Ocean City NJ guitarist who played guitar with Backroads, a country rock band who often performed at Brownies, a now defunct old log cabin roadhouse in Bargaintown. Muller collected Les Paul guitars and had three or four of them, and he knew a lot of the old, black blues guitarists and also collected their LPs.
After Cotton's first show, Muller and me went upstairs and knocked on Cotton's dressing room door and he invited us in to talk before he went on for his second show. I asked and Cotton said I could tape our conversations so I turned my cassette tape recorder on and I put it on the table as we talked.
Muller did most of the talking, and got Cotton to recall his early years. Cotten said he listened to Sonny Boy Williamson's radio show out of Helina, Arkansas, and after learning to play the harp good enough he went there and Sonny Boy let him play the theme song for the King Bisquit Flower that sponsored the show.
"Hell, I'll play it for you now," Cotton said, hitting his thigh with a harp and then saying, "I got King Bisquit on my table," two or three times and then playing some harp riffs, - "I aint's done this since then," he said laughing.
At some point a women came over and wispered something in his ear, and then we continued talking, mainly about old blues men, especially guitarists, who Muller was most interested in.
When Hubert Sumlin's name came up, Billy Muller asked, "Is he still alive?"
I looked at Billy quizzically and Muller politely explained that Hubert Sumlin was guitarist with some of the old Chicago blues bands - Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and he influenced a lot of young rock guitarists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
Cotton lit up and laughed, and said, "Funny you should ask about him, cause he's right outside that door, waitin' to come in and say hello."
Cotton let Hubert Sumlin in and he waltzed in with a big smile on his face and dressed to the nines in suit and tie and starched shirt and little hat, and for them it was a reunion of sorts.
Sumlin said he was living in the area with his women and had to stop by, and Cotton asked him to stick around and sit in and jam on stage during the next set.
I had the tape on the whole time, but the Persuasions - acapella group, were singing downstairs, just below the floorboards, so they sort of add a backdrop to the conversation, but I remember listing to it later and still have it around here somewhere.
In any case, that's how I met Hubert, who later came to Somers Point to play at the Bubba Mac Shack - in the 1990s into early 2002-3, before they tore the Shack down.
Bill Kelly, James Cotton, Billy Mueller
Hubert Sumlin playing guitar at the Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point NJ
Sonny Boy Williamson on Harp
The drum reads:
KING BISCUIT TIME
Over Radio Station KFFA of HELENA, ARK
12 – PM
KING BISCUIT ENTERTAINERS
MONDAY Thru FRIDAY
The KBT Radio Show
King Biscuit Time is the longest running daily radio show in history, and continues to be broadcast daily on Delta Broadcasting’s KFFA 1360 AM in Helena, Arkansas. First broadcast on November 21, 1941, King Biscuit Time featured legendary Blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. Lockwood playing live in the studio. The show was named after the locally distributed King Biscuit Flour.
The distributor agreed to sponsor a radio production for Sonny Boy and his band if they agreed to endorse the flour. The agreement was made and the show has been broadcast ever since.
The original band, the King Biscuit Entertainers, often included boogie pianist Pinetop Perkins and James Peck Curtis on drums. It was the first regular radio show to feature blues, and influenced four generations of Delta blues artists whose sounds are based on the raw energy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues. In keeping with its tradition of broadcasting live music from the studio, King Biscuit Time still welcomes artists in the studio almost weekly.
Award-winning Sunshine Sonny Payne has hosted the show since 1951, and has been a presence on the program since its inception in 1941. By continuing to focus on a Delta blues format, King Biscuit Time has become a real anomaly true to its heritage. It has been so recognized with a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, presented to the station in 1992 for outstanding achievement in the field of radio and broadcast journalism through its continuous support or ‘an original American art form.’ Sonny Payne has received an impressive array of awards and accolades, including the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for lifetime service and the Arkansas Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award.
The direct influence of the show can be found throughout the music industry. Examples of this include the syndicated rock show, King Biscuit Flower Hour, and the largest free blues festival in the south, the King Biscuit Blues Festival. First organized in 1986, the festival annually welcomes blues fans to Helena, AR, from around the world to a three-day event that features several stages and showcases veteran blues performers along with today’s rising stars. The festival in Helena continues today, but has changed its name to the Arkansas Heritage and Music Festival.
The 30-minute long live radio program is broadcast at 12:15 every weekday and was named after the local flour company, King Biscuit Flour. The local grocery distributor financed the show at the behest of Williamson in exchange for endorsements and naming rights. KFFA was the only station that would play music by African-Americans, and it reached an audience throughout the Mississippi Deltaregion and inspired a host of important blues musicians including B.B. King, Robert Nighthawk, James Cotton, and Ike Turner. The show's 12:15 time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of African-American workers in the Delta.
King Biscuit Time celebrated its 16,000th broadcast on June 22, 2010. KBT has more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry andAmerican Bandstand. Since 1951 the program has been hosted by the award winning "Sunshine" Sonny Payne who opens each broadcast with "pass the biscuits, cause its King Biscuit Time!" Before Payne, the show was hosted by Hugh Smith from 1943-1951. Over the years the biggest names in blues have been associated with the program, and important blues artists continue to perform live.
The King Biscuit Flower Hour is a one hour syndicated rock and roll radio program the name of which was derived from King Biscuit Time. Levon Helm, drummer for The Band, has credited King Biscuit Time, and in particular James Peck Curtis, for inspiring his musical career.
Hubert Sumlin and Levon Helm at the Bubba Mac Shack