Legendary radio broadcaster and Blues Hall of Fame member “Sunshine” Sonny Payne will be honored on Tuesday, Dec. 1, as he is presented with the 2015 Cecil Scaife Visionary Award; friends and family will also gather to celebrate his 90th birthday. Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin and LaRawn Scaife Rhea, Helena native and daughter of Cecil Scaife, will present the award to Payne at the event, being held at the Delta Cultural Center, located at 141 Cherry St. in historic downtown Helena, at 1 p.m. Also on hand will be Payne’s longtime friend and blues legend Bobby Rush, who will perform along with Reba and Wayne Russell. The event is free and open to the public, but due to limited space, those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to Pamela Davis Needham at PDN@NATIVEentertainmentGroup.
The Cecil Scaife Visionary Award, founded in the name of the music industry pioneer and veteran, is given annually to an individual whose life and work have made it possible for future generations to realize careers in the music industry. In the early 1970s, it was Phillips County native Cecil Scaife’s vision to create a music business program for musicians, artists, songwriters, and future music business executives to formally learn the industry he loved so dearly. His vision grew to become the world-renowned Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business in Nashville, Tenn., where Scaife had lived since the late 1960s.
An educational scholarship in Payne’s name will be awarded by the Cecil Scaife Music Business Scholarship Endowment to a student studying music or music industry business in the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. Previous recipients of the Cecil Scaife Visionary Award are music industry leader and philanthropist, Mike Curb; famed record producer and Elvis band member, Tony Brown; recording artist Wynonna Judd; Elvis band members and legendary record producers David Briggs and Norbert Putnam; recording artist Amy Grant; longtime music industry icon and Country Music Hall of Fame member, Jo Walker-Meador; and, music industry advocate, U. S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. The events have been held on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the Tennessee Governor’s Mansion, RCA Studio A, and the Musicians Hall of Fame. This marks the first time the award has been given outside of Nashville.
Born on Nov. 29, 1925, in Helena, John William “Sonny” Payne began working for KFFA Radio shortly after the station opened in November 1941. He started as a janitor mere days before the station began broadcasting. His first announcing opportunity came in July 1942 when Sam Anderson, station manager and King Biscuit Time announcer, stepped out of the control room for a few minutes too long and Sonny had to quickly read the live commercial. Although not a perfect delivery, he was given the chance soon after and delivered without a hitch. A radio career had been born. But it wouldn’t happen immediately.
Payne joined the military in late 1942, and was shipped overseas to assist in setting up communications at the battle lines. He left military service in 1948 and began touring as a bass player. By 1951, Sonny was tired of being on the road and decided to return to Helena. He was welcomed back to KFFA Radio and began his new career as permanent host of King Biscuit Time, which he still broadcasts weekdays at 12:15 p.m. from the Delta Cultural Center in downtown historic Helena.
King Biscuit Time is the longest-running daily blues radio show in the nation and possibly the world. The legendary show began in November 1941 when Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr. approached Helena’s new radio station, KFFA, with the idea for a live blues program. After finding a sponsor for the program, King Biscuit Flour, the blues show took to the airwaves and became an instant hit.
Musical legends such as B.B. King and Arkansas Delta native Levon Helm have named “Sunshine” Sonny Payne and King Biscuit Time as influences in their music careers. Music greats Robert Plant and Elvis Costello have made the trek to Helena to visit Sonny on the set of King Biscuit Time. He is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, an inductee of the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award. Payne and King Biscuit Time were awarded the George Foster Peabody Award, considered by many the “Pulitzer for Media,” in 1992. In May 2014, King Biscuit Time celebrated the 17,000th show.
Cecil Scaife, a native of Phillips County, Ark., started his career in the music business working at KFFA Radio, alongside Payne. He went on to work for legendary producer Sam Phillips and was the first Marking/Promotion Manager at Sun Records during the early years, working to promote the budding careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and the entire Sun roster of artists. Scaife later became a Nashville recording industry executive. He was a founder of the Gospel Music Association, served as president of the Nashville chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and was founder of Music, Inc.
For more information on the event honoring “Sunshine” Sonny Payne or to RSVP for the event, email Pamela Davis Needham at PDN@NATIVEentertainmentGroup.