The Catholic Club
Helena, AR

St. Mary's Parish in Helena, AR
Photo courtesy the Diocese of Little Rock

Helena, Arkansas is located about 65 miles southwest, downriver and across the Mississippi from Memphis, Tennessee. St. Mary's Church in Helena was built in 1936, about 6 blocks from the location of the first Catholic Church in Helena that was bounded by Columbia, Franklin, Porter and Perry Streets and was built in 1854 and burned down in 1856. It is a large red brick medieval type of building.

Sonny Boy Williamson, KFFA owner Sam Anderson and Robert Lockwood Jr. - ca.1940's
Photo by Ivey Gladin © Ole Miss courtesy LevyNagy's Weblog

In 1941, Sam Anderson opened and operated Station KFFA AM on the second floor of the Floyd Truck Lines building in Helena.  Two days before the station opened, then 14 year old John William Payne (aka. Sunshine Sonny Payne) started work there part time as a janitor and errand boy.   

On November 21st of that year KFFA broadcast the King Biscuit Time radio program for the first time. The show featured Sonny Boy Williamson (actually Aleck "Rice" Miller) and Robert Lockwood Jr. (or Robert Junior Lockwood as he was called because of his association with Robert Johnson) performing live from the studio. Sponsored locally by the Interstate Grocery Company and named for the product it was intended to promote, King Biscuit Flour, the show was broadcast daily at noon to a target audience of the Delta field hands at lunchtime. The IGC felt they could push more sacks of their flour with Miller posing as Chicago harmonica player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, who rarely toured in the South. Miller's vocal and harmonica style was in no way derivative of him, and when John Lee was murdered in Chicago in 1948, Miller became "the original Sonny Boy."

Sonny Boy Corn Meal (featuring photo by Ivey Gladin)
Photo courtesy Harmonica Master Class

King Biscuit Time was an immediate hit, prompting IGC to introduce Sonny Boy Corn Meal, complete with a likeness of Williamson on the front of the package. By mid 1942, Sonny Payne had began reading on air commercials for the corn meal at the station before going off to join the war later that December after his 16th birthday.

The KFFA studio band, the King Biscuit Entertainers, among others, often included pianist Pinetop Perkins and James Peck Curtis on drums playing five days a week at the station and then traveled to evening engagements in the region. King Biscuit Time was the first regular radio show to feature blues, and would influence four generations of Delta blues artists.

St. Mary's Parish Center in Helena, AR
Photo © James V. Roy

In 1949, St. Mary's built a parish center on the property adjacent to their church.  The building housed a gymnasium and stage. In addition to the church's use, the building, also referred to as the Catholic Club, was also used for many activities by the neighboring Sacred Heart Academy, and also for banquets, meetings and dances by various civic organizations in the community.

Sacred Heart Academy School Play at the Parish Center - 1950
Photo (by Ivey Gladin?) from Mary Ann Kettler Sauer courtesy St. Mary's

By 1951, Sonny Payne had returned to Helena and began working as an announcer for KFFA and hosting the King Biscuit Time program, always opening the show with the phrase "pass the biscuits, cause it's King Biscuit Time."

Sacred Heart Academy Choral Group at the Parish Center - 1950
Photo (by Ivey Gladin?) from Mary Ann Kettler Sauer courtesy St. Mary's

On December 2, 1954, Elvis, Scotty and Bill made their first appearance in Helena. Sonny Payne, and Larry Parker booked Elvis for the show.1  Payne recalled that Elvis first approached Parker, his KFFA co-worker about playing a gig in Helena and he was directed to St. Mary's parish hall.  In something that seems very out of character for Elvis, Payne said, "he had on an old T-shirt and a cigar in his mouth. He didn't impress me one bit. When you’re in show business, you have to look like a show person, and you can’t do it in T-shirts or blue jeans." 2

Payne said Elvis auditioned for Parker, who then told Payne, "'He's not bad.'" So Payne and Parker approached Father Thomas Keller for permission to rent the Catholic Club. The cost was $15 for three hours. According to Payne, he and Parker each borrowed $7.50 to come up with the fee because Elvis did not have it and promised to pay them back after the show, which he did. 2

ad for Elvis at the Catholic Club - 1954
courtesy Lee Cotten's "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown?"

Lee Cotten wrote that in addition to Jim Ed and Maxine Brown sharing the bill, it's possible that the Louvin Brothers along with Bob Neal also performed.  From the ad, he got the length of the "two hour" show and a capacity of five hundred tickets available at Model Pharmacy at a cost of 75-cents each.3 Model's was located in Helena at 329 Cherry St.

Bill E. Burke wrote that for the show, Elvis came out in an all-pink outfit and white shoes, then, as Doris Smith remembers it, "changed costumes from one set to another." Thirteen at the time, Smith was coached by the older girls she had arrived with on how to act during the concert, "but when Elvis started wiggling, I started wiggling and nearly fell out of my chair.” 1 Elvis reportedly received $12.00 for the show.3

Scotty, Elvis and Bill in Texarkana, Arkansas - April or May, 1955
Photo courtesy Steve Bonner

After the show, Elvis invited Evelyn Jacks, an usherette, to have dinner with him. They drove in his pink Cadillac to Papa Nick’s Café where they dined with about six others.* Driving her home, she said she and Elvis talked about religion and he talked about his mother. At one point, he stopped the car and swung from the low-hanging limb of a tree like a monkey.1

Bob Leuken, in charge of the concession stands that night, said Elvis came up and asked for a Coke, got it and started walking away. “Hey, you owe me for that Coke!" Leuken shouted at Elvis. Penniless at the time, as he oft-times was throughout life, Elvis had someone else pay for it. Unimpressed, Leuken told fellow workers, "This guy will never make it." 1

St. Mary's Parish Center in Helena, AR
Photo © James V. Roy

The boys made their second appearance at the Catholic Club on January 13, 1955, the second night of two weeks of touring with Jim Ed and Maxine Brown that had started the previous day in Clarksdale. According to Lee Cotten,  appearing also was Howard Serratt, a local performer, and it had also been determined that Sonny Trammell and Leon Post appeared on this show.3 This was reputedly the second and last time Payne and (Larry) Parker booked them for a show in Helena. Payne said Elvis asked if he could pay them back later, but he never did.2

On the same day of the January show in Helena, Scotty had received a letter of rejection from the Colonel's man, Tom Diskin, and their Chicago office though plans were already in the works for them to start booking dates for them. 

By March 8th, they were back for their third appearance at the Catholic Club in Helena. It was an 8:00 p.m. show in which they shared a bill with Betty Amos and Jimmy Work.3

Scotty, Elvis and Bill in Texarkana, Arkansas - May 27, 1955
Photo courtesy Steve Bonner

St. Mary's parishioner Nick Brocato said he worked the concession stand when Elvis performed at the Catholic Club and he shared Payne's view.  "I wasn't a fan of his at all," he said. "You have to keep in mind that he was just starting out when he came here. He wasn't an overnight success." Brocato said he doesn't remember a lot about the shows except when Elvis "did that little dance on the stage with that shuffling of his feet the girls went wild." 2

Lynne Von Kanel said, "The guys didn't like it, but the girls sure did," and admits she was one of those girls. Oh, I went wild," she said. "I was one of those girls screaming and hollering." The Sacred Heart graduate said she first heard Elvis perform at the Catholic Club as the opening act for Jim Ed and Maxine Brown. She saw him perform at least two other times at the club. "His voice and his actions; we'd never seen anything like that before," she said. "This new rock 'n roll was what the teenagers in my group were really eatin' up. We really loved it.  We would all go backstage and talk and visit and get autographs. He was very congenial, very nice," Von Kanel said. "The guys hated him. Looking back I don't see anything that was obscene or really bad about it, it was just that we weren't used to that," she added.2

Helena resident Billie Jo Moore graduated from Barton Public School in 1956 and she said she remembers seeing them at the club twice. The first time she went with girlfriends and they had to sit in the bleachers because all the chairs on the floor were full. "Kids from all the county schools went." "He was an electrifying entertainer, but different from anything any of us had ever seen," Moore said. "The shock value was just tremendous." She said she wouldn't call what he did indecent or inappropriate, but "it was a stretch bordering on vulgar." 2

St. Mary's Parish Center in Helena, AR
Photo courtesy Google Streetview

Nancy Norman, a 1956 Elaine High School graduate, first heard them at the Jim Ed and Maxine Brown show also.  "My mother wouldn't let me go unless my Daddy went," she said so Norman, her father and five or six girlfriends went and were "amazed" by what they saw.  "I thought he was an awfully nice young man," she said.  Norman said she, her father and friends went backstage to introduce themselves after the show and invited Elvis to eat dinner at the In Between, a former popular restaurant and hang out. "He was so conscious of his hair," she said. "He combed his hair more than anybody I ever saw in my life." "Then we followed him all over the countryside," she said. Norman saw Elvis in shows in Earl, Wynne, Barton, Marianna and even Memphis, eight times in all from 1955-56, with three of these at the Catholic Club in Helena.2

Carl Perkins and his brothers - 1955 or 1956
Photo courtesy Colin Escott's "Good Rockin' Tonight"

On December 15, 1955, they performed at the Club in Helena for the last time.  On this appearance they shared the bill with Carl Perkins and according to Peter Guralnick, all five hundred tickets for the show were sold out two days in advance.4  Bill E. Burk wrote that the priest of the parish then asked that Elvis never again be invited back to the Catholic Club.1 Brocato said he was there the night Presley was asked to leave the club, but he didn't actually see what happened. He only saw the crowd of girls rush on the stage after the performance. Von Kanel said, "I saw him autograph a girl's leg. She hiked her skirt up and he autographed her thigh," she said.2

Neither of them, however, saw or heard the exchange with Father Keller.2 Regardless, by this point in Elvis' career the venue would be too small for them.  Elvis had signed with RCA, and would make his national television debut in just over a month.

St. Mary's Parish Center in Helena, AR
Photo courtesy Microsoft EarthData

Due to the lowered demands for a boarding school, dwindling enrollment and increased costs of maintaining the building grounds, Sacred Heart Academy closed in May of 1968 after more than 100 years of service to the community.  The building was  razed in 1973 and the Sisters of Charity donated to St. Mary's Parish the land that is currently used as the church parking lot.

St. Mary's Parish Center and Church in Helena, AR
Photo courtesy Google Streetview

According to Pat Truemper, a 10th grader at Sacred Heart Academy at the time Elvis performed there, the gymnasium and stage no longer exists in the hall as it was back in 1955.  The building has been renovated due to a fire back in the early 70's.  A parochial school, under the Sacred Heart Academy name, operated until 1973 in St. Mary's Parish Hall.

On August 15, 1999, the cornerstone originally placed on the Sacred Heart Academy grounds in 1917, and secured by local parishioners of St. Mary's as the building was being razed, was placed on the grounds in front of the Parish Hall with a befitting Italian marble statue of the Sacred Heart. The site was selected because of the many Academy functions that took place in the building.

"Sunshine" Sonny Payne, KFFA 1360, Helena, AR - Oct.  2008
Photo courtesy c8132

In the '60s KFFA moved from the Floyd Truck Lines Building to the top floor of the Helena National Bank Building. Sonny Boy Williamson left the show in 1944 and returned to Helena and the program in 1965, before dying that year.  In 1986 Helena held the first annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, today called the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival.  Robert Lockwood Jr. passed away on November 21, 2006, 65 years to the day from the first broadcast of King Biscuit Time.

Payne and Brocato both said in later years they grew to enjoy Elvis' music. Of the $15 that he was owed Payne said, "Before he went into the Army I called and, got, 'Oh man, I'm gonna get it to you,' but after two or three calls I said, 'Well, forget it.'"  Payne did eventually get his money, 50 years later. The Helena Chamber of Commerce contacted the Elvis Presley estate about the debt and presented Payne with a $15 check at the annual chamber banquet in February 2005. "I felt about this high," Payne said holding his hand a foot off the floor. "I was thoroughly embarrassed." 2

"Sunshine" Sonny Payne, KFFA 1360, Helena, AR
Photo courtesy Kees Wielemaker

Today, the King Biscuit Time program is still broadcast daily, now from the studio at the Delta Cultural Center, located at 95 Missouri Street in Helena.  58 years later, Sunshine Sonny Payne is still its host and "passing the biscuits." 5

page added November 6, 2009

*Most of the history of St. Mary's, the parish hall and Scared Heart Academy presented here is courtesy the Sacred Heart Academy Homepage.  The history of KFFA, King Biscuit Time and its participants and performers were collected from various sources on the web, not the least of which is the KFFA and King Biscuit Time websites and the NPS site "Trail of the Hell Hound." It should be noted that some of the recollections may be misremembered. For one, Elvis did not have a pink Cadillac at the time of their first appearance, or first several for that matter.

1 excerpt from "Early Elvis: The Sun Years" by Bill E. Burk
2 excerpt from "Tales still alive of Elvis' performances at Helena parish hall" by Tara Little, Arkansas Catholic - Oct. 21, 2006
3 according to "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown?" by Lee Cotten
4 according to Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen in Elvis Day By Day
5 according to "Voice of Helena's King Biscuit Time Still Going Strong" by Pete Thompson, KARK 4 News - July 27, 2009


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