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.
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, 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, Williamson's 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 Williamson's 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 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.