Flower Power

Syndicated radio history is a hot sell these days. Simply thumb through the pages of Goldmine, Discoveries or any other publication geared toward the avid audiophile, for that matter, and the ads alone attest to that. Certain musty installments of shows like American Top 40 and Flashback command serious dollars, depending on the featured artist or event. It's a clear violation of copyright law to sell these programs, originally produced for promotional and airplay purposes only, without authorization, but that's meant little to the serious collector and his suppliers. Countless bootlegs are openly sold at record and CD conventions nationwide. For that matter, have a look at the import sections at most finer retail outlets; as often as not, "import" is merely a euphemism for "bootleg."

In the eyes of many fans, the choicest among these deceased series is the King Biscuit Flower Hour. A weekly radio show featuring live concerts by both established acts and up-and-comers, Biscuit concerts are coveted for many reasons, not the least of which are their excellent sound quality and top-flight performances. Of course, there's also the nostalgia factor: Just about anyone glued to rock radio in the '70s and '80s had access to the King Biscuit Flower Hour. The show was a Sunday tradition -- and reruns are still aired on close to 200 stations nationwide.

It might not seem all that revolutionary today, but in 1973 the King Biscuit Flower Hour was a pipe dream come true. And though the name sounds like nonsense pulled from air dense with pot smoke, it was actually a tribute to the long-running radio show King Biscuit Time. Broadcasting out of Helena, Arkansas, King Biscuit Time began as a live-in-the-studio program back in 1941. As was typical in the early days of radio, the show got its name from its sponsor, King Biscuit Flour. Up until 1969, the daily show featured regular in-person performances from the likes of Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins and Little Walter. And though King Biscuit Time continues today, it no longer features live music.

When New Yorkers Bob Meyrowitz and Peter Kauff co-opted the King Biscuit moniker for their own show, network radio as a force had been dead for almost 20 years. Localism was the trend, with its homegrown loyalties and talent. But that didn't stop Meyrowitz and Kauff from producing their weekly live-to-tape rock concert, which was first delivered to radio stations on vinyl and later on CD. Meyrowitz claims the inspiration for the taped concert format rose from their shock over the violence in the Rolling Stones live concert flick, Gimme Shelter. He saw King Biscuit as a way to bring the concert experience into the home -- sans the hassles, overpriced sustenance and smoke.

Although the concept was admirable, King Biscuit's beginnings were not without their setbacks. The show's debut concert was supposed to feature soul/rock road warriors the J. Geils Band, but this was well before the '80s triumph of Freeze-Frame, and the group had scored only a single Top 40 hit. As a result, the show failed to capture the attention of enough radio programmers to make an initial go of the series. So, a bit later, Meyrowitz and Kauff returned with a triple-bill to make Bill Graham proud: Blood, Sweat and Tears, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and a singer, still a few years shy from stardom, named Bruce Springsteen. This lineup had the appeal radio PDs were looking for, and King Biscuit Flower Hour was off and running soon after its February 1973 debut.

From there, King Biscuit quickly became both a national and international forum for rock acts. Aimed directly at the FM format, the program once reached somewhere in the neighborhood of three to five million listeners each week via more than 300 frequencies.

Rod Stewart commented that performing on the Flower Hour was tantamount to playing to the world, a suitably advantageous scenario that attracted some of the most important names in rock and roll, including the Beach Boys, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, the Who, David Bowie, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton. Over the years, newer artists also saw in King Biscuit an opportunity to flaunt their wares: The Police, U2, 10,000 Maniacs and Elvis Costello were all featured pre-platinum. And if King Biscuit appealed to major acts, its artist mix remained diverse: Humble Pie, Bob Marley, Blondie, Linda Ronstadt, Devo, Genesis, Aerosmith, Roxy Music, the Clash, Frank Zappa and even the Monty Python cast made appearances on King Biscuit.

The show spawned a European counterpart dubbed Silver Eagle Cross Country Radio Show. The King Biscuit Entertainment Group also expanded with a weekly syndicated Beatles program, comedy shows, various non-Biscuit live performances and one-time radio events. The pipe dream grew bigger than anyone had ever envisioned. Yet, as successful as KBEG was, the skyrocketing costs of producing live concerts eventually became prohibitive, and the recording of new concerts ceased in the mid '90s.

But what a substantive booty those few decades had wrought. During its 20-plus-year run, King Biscuit broadcast over 700 concerts, while its sister program, the Silver Eagle Cross Country Radio Show, ran another 200 or more. Also collecting dust in the vaults are numerous interviews and recorded concerts that were never aired. Many acts were recorded on multiple nights, and a lot of that music never made it on the air. All in all, sitting in the East Coast vaults of the King Biscuit Entertainment Group are over 21,000 master tapes.

Because collectors have already been purchasing many of the more well-known episodes on the sly -- meaning, of course, that neither KBEG nor the artists receive any royalties -- going legit makes perfect sense. But there's also a catch: Though the folks at King Biscuit Entertainment Group own the master tapes and their broadcast rights, in most cases they do not own the rights to release the material to the consumer. For any recording KBEG seeks to put out there, it must negotiate with whomever owns the artist's recordings (usually the band or label). The downside is two-fold. First, record companies usually prefer not to saturate the marketplace, particularly with products they don't own and won't see profits from. Second, major rock outfits aren't always keen on releasing live CDs, since the concerts, though excellently recorded, represent the band as is, mistakes and all. So, though KBEG owns performances by David Bowie, the Who and the Stones, the likelihood of the company getting the go-ahead to release them is not great.

Despite such obstacles, KBEG moved forward with the idea of starting a label in 1995, releasing its first set of full-length concerts featuring America, 10cc, Greg Lake and Triumph. For the most part, the series was well received, with critics noting the strength of the performances and the exceptional sound quality. That success has led to more reissues of shows by Renaissance, Rick Wakeman, the Who's John Entwistle and others.

But problems continue to thwart King Biscuit's attempts to release top-level acts. To date, KBEG has been able to clear only one live CD with Emerson, Lake and Palmer's handlers. That means fans of bigger artists must still scour the black market for their favorite King Biscuit performances.

Just as the success of the King Biscuit Flower Hour led to Europe's Silver Eagle spinoff, the success of the King Biscuit concert CD series has spawned other imprints. Last year, the Silver Eagle sister label released performances by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

Another spinoff company, Pet Rock (formerly Mausoleum Classix), is putting out recordings once hopelessly out of print -- Who drummer Keith Moon's solo outing Two Sides of the Moon and Renaissance's Songs from Renaissance Days among them. Pet Rock also plans to reissue a long-lost Rodney Dangerfield album this year (God help us).

King Biscuit's third subsidiary is Oxygen Records, which focuses on new studio albums -- mostly from classic-rock dinosaurs such as Supertramp. These offshoots are not, however, thriving at the expense of the King: This year will see the release of live Flower Hour concerts by B.B. King, Kim Carnes and several others.

The whole KBEG reissue frenzy has had a welcome side effect: It's revitalized the radio show. Plans are now in the works to record new performances for the King Biscuit radio series, taking it out of rerun limbo in September. Thus, a dormant radio concert series turned retro record label has dragged its predecessor out of seemingly certain retirement. Figure that one out. Better yet, don't; just enjoy your weekend. It's starting to look better already.

King Biscuit Flower Hour reruns air Saturdays at midnight on KKRW/93.7 FM (The Arrow). Check out the King Biscuit Entertainment Group web site at www.king-biscuit.com.

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Paul J. MacArthur