Monthly Archives: September 2017

BB King and the feuding family he left behind (Classic Rock magazine feature, December 2015)


In the hours before the late Riley ‘B.B’ King was finally laid to rest, there were rumblings of discontent from on high. Steady rain fell outside, and the original plan for a pair of white horses to accompany the casket on its two-mile journey to its final resting place had to be abandoned as the thunder was unsettling the animals. Yet during the service, the scene inside the church was a perfectly dignified one. Around 500 mourners filed into the building and turned past King’s open casket, flanked by two of his trademark Gibson Lucille guitars, then took their seats.

King on stage in February 2014

Yet some of those present did well to keep their feelings under control. Because sitting on adjacent pews in the front row at the Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church, on BB King Road just outside his birthplace of Indianola, Mississippi, were several of King’s sons and daughters, a few feet from Mr King’s business manager and personal assistant, LaVerne Tony and Myron Johnson. In the days and weeks either side of the great man’s death, an unholy row had been blowing up between the two parties, with startling accusations being made of everything from burglary to abuse to defamation to outright murder.

The till is gone: BB and the ‘missing’ millions

It was a storm that had been brewing for quite a while. In October of last year, the 89-year-old King of the Blues had been forced to cancel the remaining eight dates of a US tour, after being taken ill during a show in Chicago, suffering from dehydration and exhaustion. At the end of April this year, with the great man in ever-worsening health back home in Vegas, Patty King lodged a complaint against Toney, who had power of attorney over her ailing father. She and her half-sisters Karen Williams and Rita Washington were applying for guardian control over their father, along with power of attorney to execute his will.

Patty King claimed that Toney and her assistant Myron Johnson had stolen $20-30 million from their boss, withheld his medications on tour and stolen Rolex watches and jewellery worth $250,000

Patty alleged that her father needed hospital care as he was refusing to eat and his urine was orange, but Toney insisted that he would be fine under her care, and BB himself insisted he preferred to be at home. In the end the authorities decided that King did indeed require hospitalisation, paramedics were called, and after doctors found that he had suffered a mild heart attack, Patty took a photo of her father on his hospital bed and posted it online, by way of supporting her view that he wasn’t being cared for properly. However, Toney insisted he be returned home shortly afterwards.

It soon emerged that five months earlier, King’s daughter Patty and her boyfriend had filed a police report accusing Toney of elder abuse and burglary. The latter accusation was based on Patty’s claim that Toney and her assistant Myron Johnson had stolen $20-30 million from their boss, withheld his medications on tour and stolen Rolex watches and jewellery worth $250,000. Police and social services, however, found no evidence to back up her claims on either occasion.

There were also other grievances mentioned in the family members’ petition. It alleged that Toney was blocking them and also King’s friends — including musicians Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton — from visiting him. It also accused Toney of putting her family members on King’s payroll, and alleged that large amounts of money had ‘disappeared’ from King’s bank accounts.

“The family has been unable to account for what is reported to be in excess of $1 million,” the court document read.

Toney and Johnson’s attorney, Brent Bryson, called the theft allegation “almost laughable,” and said all of King’s spending was legitimate and accounted for.

Clark County Family Court Hearing Master Jon Norheim agreed, pointing out that police and social services investigations had found no grounds of abuse or theft, nor reason to take power of attorney from Toney, a right given to her in a will BB made in January 2007.Norheim said he also could not consider the petition to take over as King’s guardian until all of King’s children and grandchildren were legally notified.

Death in Vegas

At the time, the three daughters vowed to do just that. “We lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war,” Karen Williams said after their case was thrown out of court on May 8. However, at that point it didn’t look as if their point of view was shared by the rest of the King clan. “I’m not too sure things are right,” said BB’s eldest daughter Shirley King, then based in Chicago. “But my dad would never want this.”

However, on May 14, BB King died at home in Las Vegas. His death was reported to be the result of ‘diabetes-related illness’, a condition he had suffered for over 25 years.

It didn’t take long for the resentments simmering within the family to boil over. The night of his death, the previously diplomatic Shirley King ranted on her Facebook page, accusing Toney and Johnson of “not letting the family or me see my father before he left this mean old world”.

“I need all my friends and fans to help me fight,” she went on. “They did something and was (sic) hiding something… They should have took the money and thing and let me saw (sic) my father for the last time. That was all I asked.”

“Shirley knows my number. She can see her father. I’m not stopping her.”

But Toney insisted that she had not barred any family member from seeing King, and had spoken to Shirley a few days previously.

“I don’t have a problem with Shirley,” she told Mail Online the morning after King’s death. “We spoke a few days ago and I haven’t heard from her since. She hasn’t called me at all today and she knows my number. She can see her father. I’m not stopping her.”

With the great Blues guitarist’s body still not in the ground, the world’s attention was being drawn not to his towering achievements as an artist – his 15 Grammys, his influence on generations of musicians ( calls him “the single most important electric guitarist of the last half of the 20th century”), but to the squabble over his care and, more tellingly you suspect, his will.

So what was really going on behind the headlines?

Unhappy family (from left): Willie King, Tanya Deckard, Patty King, Karen Williams, Barbara King Winfree and Rita Washington after a private family viewing of B.B. King’s body, in Las Vegas

Well, one thing we can probably agree on is that the most sensational headlines that followed King’s death are not to be taken seriously.

On May 26, Karen Wiliams and Patty King announced that they believed BB had a second will hidden somewhere, and furthermore, they had now signed affidavits including the following statements: “I believe my father was poisoned and that he was administered foreign substances to induce his premature death. I believe my father was murdered.”

A shocking claim. But one that hardly sounded plausible, even before the full autopsy results were announced.

Poison tongues

“B.B. King trusted LaVerne Toney more than he trusted anyone else,” says Charles Sawyer, author of BB King’s authorized biography The Arrival Of BB King, who had been a close friend and confidant since the late 1960s.

“She won that trust by nearly 40 years of loyal service. For Patty King to accuse her of complicity in murdering B.B. King is beyond disgusting. B.B. would be horrified.”

“[The sisters] lost credibility because they accused her of poisoning him,” says Jon Brewer, director of the 2012 documentary The Life Of Riley, who spent long periods on tour with his subject. “She had 39 years to kill him, so to choose that time when he was obviously dying anyway would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it?”

BB King with biographer Charles Sawyer in 1980

BB’s son Willie also dismissed the allegations in more diplomatic language. “There are always – I don’t want to call them this, but — there’s always a rotten apple in the barrel,” Willie told The Guardian. “And I think out of the anger of losing their dad, they went to the extreme… and they attacked the wrong person.”

In a Facebook post from May 26, Shirley King suggested she simply didn’t know who to believe, but knew that all this public wrangling was no good for her dad’s reputation. She suggested all parties get together to take lie detector tests.

No one took her up on that suggestion, but in any case, the poisoning claims were disproved by the results of a full autopsy report published on July 13, which found that King’s death was the result of Alzheimer’s complicated by coronary artery atherosclerosis, type II diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and cerebrovascular disease.

By that time, Judge Gloria Sturman had denied King’s daughters the right to challenge the 2007 will, accepting that Toney was following a protocol requested by King regarding visits, and dismissing claims of theft after Brent Bryson had shown Toney had transferred the missing monies to a trust account for distribution after his death.

But while the murder claims can comfortably be dismissed, accounts of the situation at BB’s home before his death are conflicting, and still a little troubling.

“I guess that’s the way they can grieve, by bringing litigation on another person”

Claudette King, BB’s youngest daughter, performs a tribute act to her father, as ‘The Bluz Queen’ , and she has since told me that in contrast to Shirley King’s claims, she was able to see her father before he died.

Claudette ‘The Bluz Queen’ King

“I didn’t have that problem… I’ve been watching on from the side [at the dispute]. I loved my dad but I didn’t have as close a relationship with him as some of [the other children]… As a family member I guess that’s the way they can grieve, by bringing litigation on another person.”

King’s long-time drummer Tony Coleman was one of those close to King who managed to see the great man in the days and weeks before he died, but he backs up the impression that access to King was being limited by Toney and Johnson.

“I asked to see him five times and was told he wasn’t to be bothered,” he says. Then when I went to see him a few weeks before he died, we had to get in there in a secret manner. Me and the trumpet player were going to the funeral of [King’s] old horn player, Melvin Jackson (in January 2015), and we got a call from his daughter (Patty King) who said that BB couldn’t make it to the funeral but he wondered if any of us guys wanted to see him. And when he saw us his eyes lit up like a christmas tree. ‘Heyyyy Tony Cole-maaaan, how ya doin’?!’ He was happy to see us.

‘He said, ‘I wanted to go to the funeral, but I just didn’t feel good, and if I’d have went, I probably would have left with Melvin!’’

And I’ll tell you this: what I saw made me sad. If he was my family member — and I felt like he was, because I’d known him 30-something years and that’s how he regarded his band — I’d have had him in a more comfortable state than I saw. I saw a very sickly, skinny-looking man who didn’t look like he was being properly cared for.”

‘He should have been off the road five years before’

Then again, wouldn’t you expect a seriously ill man to look, well, pretty under the weather? And the nature of King’s medical condition meant that it was perhaps understandable that he wasn’t receiving many visitors towards the end.

“He had a long series of very small strokes,” says Charles Sawyer, “and this resulted in a gradual incremental decline in his faculties.

“My picture is that his brain was being shot full of holes. I’m sure there were people who hoped to drop in on him but were told that it wouldn’t be appropriate – not because Laverne Toney had him locked up at home – that’s nothing like the case. I just don’t think he would have wanted people to see him like that too much.”

But Coleman’s first-hand impressions back up Patty King and her sisters’ complaints about a man not receiving the best care available.

“ I saw a man in his pyjamas too big for him, not in a bed that was comfortable-looking. His daughter told me, ‘we need to get a bigger toilet seat for my daddy so he can sit down comfortably,’ and then he had dental problems – his teeth were coming out and gums bleeding, yet they said they couldn’t get him to a dentist. Are you telling me they couldn’t get a dentist to come to the house?!”

Tony Coleman: “What I saw made me sad”

Nonetheless, social services concluded on more than one occasion that he was being cared for properly. Yet Tony Coleman has misgivings about how his former boss was handled professionally as well as personally, and it’s this that he believes was more damaging to the great man’s reputation than the recent controversies. Coleman quit BB’s band in disgust not long before his last gig, because, he says, he was unhappy with the way management were allowing him to keep touring despite poor health.

“In my opinion, he should have been off the road five years before,” Coleman says. “He couldn’t play good because he had arthritic hands. He couldn’t remember songs, so he did a lot of talking at shows, but no one comes to hear BB King talk! It became pretty sad to me. I cried on stage three times behind him, because people were beginning to heckle and boo, and I got very angry, because in this day and age you can video what’s going on with your phone and put it on the internet, and I didn’t think it was right to have the world see this guy, who was always a very dynamic, dedicated performer, reduced to this.”

Then again, it may well have been BB himself who wanted to carry on playing. Which may well have been part of the problem, as Jon Brewer admits.

“Eric Clapton said to me, ‘whatever happens, Jon, don’t let him stop working, because when he does he’ll die.’ And that’s pretty much what happened. But then do you let him go up on stage and make a fool of himself? Because he really didn’t know where he was sometimes.”

“the children and grandchildren don’t like the fact he’s leaving them $3,000 and $5,000 each and then leaving the rest to his lineage for education”

Meanwhile, of course, there are evidently other motivations behind some of the family’s grievances with Toney’s handling of their late patriarch’s affairs.

“My guess is the children and grandchildren don’t like the fact he’s leaving them $3,000 and $5,000 each and then leaving the rest to his lineage for education,” Toney’s lawyer Brent Bryson told the New York Daily News. “B.B. did not have a very high formal education, and he wanted to have his lineage go to college, so he set up a trust that would pay for college and other expenses.”

Self-educated: BB in 1955

This view is backed up by Charles Sawyer: “He had this lifelong determination to remedy his own ignorance. So education was very important to him.”

Jon Brewer also suspects that money is at the heart of the dispute: “[The surviving children] all thought they’d be getting 100,000 or a quarter of a million, so they went berserk. And who do they attack but Laverne, who worked as BB’s housekeeper, his PA, his confidant. She came close to tears when I filmed her, admitting she dreaded the day he passed away. And maybe that was because she knew the family would cause trouble.

“Sooner or later in his final year, I think she basically said to the family, ‘You’re not in control, I am.’”

“I didn’t discuss what plans he made, but I know for a fact he had a will that will stand up in court, and he reiterated that those were his express wishes.”

To put all this into its proper context, it’s worth understanding the relationship BB King had with his family, and the children and grandchildren who were dotted around the US. Although he virtually lived on the road at times, playing (according to Sawyer’s estimate) 18,000 shows during his lifetime, he supported his family financially, along with many others around him.

“He told me around 2010, ‘I probably give away $30-40,000 a year in individual requests to people’,” says Sawyer.

“He gave money to everyone like you would give pigeons some bread,” remembers Coleman.

“When I was on tour with them,” Jon Brewer recalls, “wherever he’d play there would be family members waiting outside the bus, basically with their hands out, and he would send someone out with these envelopes, with thousands of dollars in.”

And since he always insisted on being paid half his fee in cash before every show, the wads of notes were never in short supply.

Thanks for the memorabilia

One of the grievances rumoured to be among those of the family is that BB gave away valuable guitars and memorabilia to people in his organisation, who subsequently passed them on to others who sold them on for profit. An inevitable by-product of such extravagant generosity, you might argue, but understandably annoying, perhaps, for family who felt they hadn’t been as well looked after as they anticipated.

“A few things might have gone missing, but all I’ll say is, If you  charge of the hen house, you might find I took home two or three chickens,” admits Coleman with a chuckle. “But as for actual stealing of the kind that’s been talked about, I never saw that. Then again, it didn’t all seem ‘on the square’, if you understand what I’m saying…”

Meanwhile, while Laverne Toney has been the focus of much of the family’s ire, other insiders have suggested that she is probably the least likely to have been guilty of any wrongdoing, and it may have been others whose behaviour was more suspect.

Jon Brewer recalls being asked by a member of BB’s team at a UK festival to ‘use your influence’ go and obtain free t-shirts that BB could sign, in order that they be sold on behind his back – not a great sign that people weren’t on the make behind the scenes.

“The paternity of his 15 children is questionable. But the important thing is that he himself would never question that”

With writs still flying about left, right and centre – Myron Johnson, for instance, is quite understandably suing Patty King and Karen Williams for defamation over the murder accusations – we’re not about to case aspersions on particular individuals, but perhaps inevitably some people took advantage of King in his later years. Whether that goes beyond the equivalent of half-inching stationery from your office has yet to be proven, and probably never will be.

The ultimate irony of all this, however, is that there are serious doubts if BB King’s family are, technically speaking, family at all, as Charles Sawyer explains: “He actually told me in 1978 that when he was trying to have children with his second wife (which would have been in the early 1960s), he did a fertility test. And the medical verdict was that his sperm count was too low to conceive.

Inconceivable?: BB in the 1970s with Lucille

“So I think the paternity of his 15 children is questionable. But the important thing is that he himself would never question that – in 2008 he told me ‘I know nowadays the question of paternity could be readily settled without a big deal. But I would never think to do that. These are my children, I accepted them and I wouldn’t think to revisit that.”

He repeated these sentiments to Jon Brewer, as the documentary maker recalls: “I said, ‘B, how do you know if they’re your kids?’ He said, John, if a woman has respect enough for me to share my bed, I have respect enough for her to accept her child as my child. That’s my philosophy; that’s the way I am.”

A victim of his own generosity

This incredibly charitable attitude is a mark of the man. I mean, how many other wealthy musicians can you imagine being so relaxed about paternity claims? According to Charles Sawyer, King saw his role as a musician responsible for numerous people’s livelihoods as that of a benevolent plantation owner, as peculiar as that may sound.

“BB said that he saw his career and his business very much like the plantation owner that he worked for as a boy – Johnson Barrett, a farmer in Mississippi who provided employment for many, many people. Barrett was very paternal, would carry his tenants on credit and sometimes forgive their debts, and BB took him as a model for his own organisation.”

An admirable approach, even if in part, it was undoubtedly this very generosity that ultimately led to the unsavoury situation that has followed his death. But however it all pans out, and whatever negative headlines contain his name in the near future, that very same generosity and drive to spread his music far and wide is the reason we’re still playing his records and he is remembered so fondly.

People can squabble over his financial legacy as long as they see fit. But his musical legacy will never be in doubt.

In defence of diving (FourFourTwo magazine opinion piece, May 2017)


Who can blame him?

Who can blame him?

Lovers of the beautiful game rejoice! Finally the authorities have seen sense! Justice for all decent, honest, upstanding, honest, decent, decent, honest, upstanding football fans! And players! And managers!

I refer, of course, to the FA’s announcement that from next season, diving offences will be punished with a retrospective two-game ban.

“The best thing to happen in football since the back pass to the goalkeeper rule,” said Bob B. on Twitter this week, echoing the received opinions spouted by many millions of other easily outraged keyboard warriors.

Jurgen Klopp, Tony Pulis and others have also expressed approval, while Leicester’s Robert Huth tweeted “Great news, add pretending to be injured and crying when you lose and we are really getting somewhere!” His condemnation of teammate Jamie Vardy’s numerous dubious tumbles last season presumably got lost in cyberspace.

But at the risk of being decried as an enemy of common sense, can I make a modest and reasonable defence of the heinous crime that is ‘simulation’, aka diving, aka CHEATING, dragging the game into the gutter, dancing on the corpse of Sir Bobby Moore and sticking two fingers up at the gods of the beautiful game? Dare I?

I don’t deny that in an ideal world, simulating fouls and deceiving the ref would not take place. And maybe, when all players wear computer chips and robo-refs spot every single rule infringement accurately, there’ll be no need for it. But when ranking sporting crimes, I feel strongly that diving is pretty far down the list compared to what else occurs regularly on a football pitch with barely a whiff of protest or punishment.

It’s the emphasis on the word ‘cheat’ that sticks in my craw like Marouane Fellaini’s elbow. It’s routinely used to condemn players that make the most of being fouled, but rarely, if ever, used about the many hundreds of players across all levels of football whose game is built around pushing, pulling, kicking, nudging, tripping, clattering, clobbering, thumping and, given the chance, half-crippling more skillful opponents.

Refereeeee! Why do they try to hurt me so?

Refereeeee! Why do they try to hurt me so?

If you google ‘most fouled’ players, the Premier League list (topped at the time of writing by Zaha and Hazard) is almost entirely populated by skillful forwards, tricky wingers and playmaking midfielders – the very players that are the biggest box office attractions in the game, the ones who do the most to create and finish chances, and the ones whose absence would surely make football an infinitely less engaging spectacle.

But are their protests at said fouls ever backed up by supportive howls of indignation from the fans, pundits or managers? Not outside their home stadia they aren’t.

How often do you think world class talents such as Ronaldo or Messi are kicked in each game by ‘good, honest professionals’ (c. Martin Keown)? I know, I know, they’re crying all the way to the bank, no doubt. Yet when such stellar talents leap out of the way to avoid an obliterated metatarsal or shattered pelvis, and fall to the ground once more with feeling so the ref might just take notice, I think they’re within their rights to appeal for a pen. And after seeing so many such batterings go unpunished, can you blame them for taking advantage of the odd innocuous challenge by claiming it’s something more? They’re only redressing the balance, surely? And it’s still scant consolation for being hoofed, elbowed, stud-sliced and toe-squashed 53 times every 90 minutes, .

Eden Hazard, shortly after being grievously assaulted. Probably.

Eden Hazard, shortly after being grievously assaulted. Probably.

Fans, players and pundits alike have got their priorities seriously back-to-front on this issue. For every youtube compilation of players diving there are precisely, well, zero compilations of defenders’ sly digs, secret stud-rakes, casual stamps, stray elbows and passing bone-scrapers. That’s not just because it’s way harder to catch on camera. It’s also because it’s invariably the work of those universally admired defenders, the Robert Huth type who would sneer at their victims’ complaints as the kind of cry-baby ‘play-acting’ they most abhor. But how are these transgressions of the rules – which are infinitely more likely to end a player’s career or contribute to their physical decline – so much less serious than trying to take advantage of a defending side’s malicious intent by drawing a foul?

And since the FA are now making such a major statement about ‘simulation’, there’s another issue they might want to consider – cracking down on fouls that don’t result in a player falling to the floor. Because players collapse when they get a kick for good reason – if they didn’t, no one would notice any foul had been committed. How often have you seen a penalty given for a non-handball foul when the player has stayed on his feet? Barely ever. And are you telling me that there aren’t a considerable number of unseen contacts that should technically warrant a penalty under the letter of the law? But of course the referee would never dare give them, as everyone watching would insist nothing serious had gone on and demonise them as a whistle-happy jobsworth who shouldn’t be allowed near a professional football pitch. Yet if refs cracked down on actual foul play half as keenly as they’re being asked to get tough with ‘simulation’, then you might find there was less need for players to suddenly lose their footing in order to highlight an offence.

I’m not saying all dives are justified. But few happen in a vacuum. You may remember Joey Barton’s blatant attempt to get a Lincoln player sent off in the FA Cup a few months back, an offence curiously ignored by his manager Sean Dyche, who had previously been vocal in calling for diving bans. But even Barton would doubtless claim that Lincoln’s players had spent much of the match trying to wind him up (well, it’s Joey Barton, you would, wouldn’t you?), kick him and generally get him to react and cause the referee to issue a card or two. If you were in Barton’s position, having suffered what you considered numerous unpunished wrongs against a lower-division side employing shamelessly physical tactics, wouldn’t you feel justified in using underhand methods to even the score?

The increasing focus on simulation at the expense of real foul play also has a negative effect in other ways.  It’s pretty much routine for players to miss games now as a result of a ‘knock’ from a previous game, and do you think that ‘knock’ came from one of their own players, or clattering into an advertising hoarding? No, it was just a routine foul from the opposition, which may well have gone unnoticed because they didn’t make a big deal of it, and resisted the temptation to exaggerate their pain or go to ground.

Meanwhile, we bemoan creative, attacking foul-magnets ‘losing a yard of pace’ as they get older, or their youthful promise fading after a string of injuries. Does this result from too much leaping to the ground under minimal contact? Or is it more like death by a thousand cuts, bruises, stitches and oft-ignored assaults?

The diving issue is also a stick that is routinely used to beat our game by those who have never loved it and never will, yet we seem only too happy to bend over and take six of the best from footyphobes everywhere.

On your side, Joe

On your side, Joe

Whenever you hear non-fans or casual observers talk about what puts them off football, they’ll say ‘all the diving and cheating and rolling around pretending to be injured’. Rugby types are particularly prone to look down at footy for its supposed dishonesty in this area. Yet rarely do they condemn the considerably more serious cheating in their own game – crushing each other’s nads in the scrum, eye-gouging, ear-chewing, probably pancreas-twisting and willy-slicing if they could find a way to do it without carrying weapons – all these are dismissed by rugby fans with a smug smile as ‘the dark arts of the scrum’, something to be acknowledged and kept under wraps with a nod and a wink, like police corruption or election expenses. No, they’re inexcusable – considerably more so than feigning injury or going down too quickly to get a free-kick. At least no one gets their facial features permanently disfigured, their brains damaged or their ability to have children permanently harmed by a bit of footy play-acting. So you can shove your ‘game for thugs played by gentlemen’ where the sun don’t shine – the same place a tough, ‘honest’, no-nonsense second row forward will put their fingers in the ruck if he thinks it’ll give him an advantage.

But I digress. If we truly value attacking football and the flair players that deliver it, they deserve more than just being labelled cheats every time they take advantage of the fact that half their opponents are trying to disable them.

Sure, it’s textbook moral relativism to claim that diving is justified compared to the greater evils elsewhere. But in an imperfect game, we have to pick our battles. And I’d argue the battle to clean up serious foul play, reduce injury and free up flair players to perform without fear of being maimed, is a way more important one than some spurious campaign to reduce simulation.



Dolly Parton – rise of a country icon, 1946-1969 (Country Music magazine special edition, 2017)

How a dirt-poor sharecropper’s daughter survived poverty, injury, bullying and bedwetting siblings to redefine the term ‘Dumb Blonde’ for a new generation of country fans

Dolly Parton at the turn of the 1970s

Dolly Parton at the turn of the 1970s

Once upon a time, in the very same proud southern states where one day Obamacare would later be decried as a form of communism, another future American icon had her own issues with the US healthcare system.

It was a bitterly cold January day in East Tennessee in 1946 and Avie Lee Parton was about to give birth to her fourth child. Only trouble was, they couldn’t afford to pay the doctor who had come to deliver her. The best they could do was offer him a sack of cornmeal by way of compensation.

To say that Dolly Parton was born into poverty would surely be, by modern standards, a major understatement. Her father Lee, like many others in and around Sevier County, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, made ends meet as a sharecropper – he was given land and lodgings in return for farming the land it stood on, and lived off a share of the produce. If the crops failed, the family would often go hungry. For much of Dolly and her 11 siblings’ early lives, they had no electricity, and as she later joked, “two rooms, a path, and running water, if you were willing to run and get it”– from the outside well.

Dolly’s grandfather Jake Owens once said, “she started singing as soon as she quit crying,” and like so many other future superstars, she would find her singular voice singing in church as a child.

Meanwhile, grandpa Jake and his clan would encourage her musical development. As she would later put it: “My mother’s family, the Owenses, are vagabonds. They live to play music and will let nothing – earning a living, for example – stand in the way of that.”

At the age of just seven Dolly made her own rudimentary stringed instrument from an old mandolin and some bass strings (or piano wire, depending on the version of the story you hear), and not long afterwards her uncle, Bill Owens, a budding songwriter himself, bought her the real thing, having heard her singing while doing the dishes. Meanwhile, when they could afford a battery for the radio they’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry or The Lone Ranger.

Dolly’s unique style of self-presentation was already developing fast, even if she had to learn the hard way that standing out can be a hazardous business for any child.

Her former teacher once told of how she once found Dolly smearing red crayon over her face to try and imitate make-up. Around the same time occurred the famous episode that was recounted in her 1971 hit Coat Of Many Colors: The nine-year-old Dolly didn’t have a winter coat and her family couldn’t afford to buy one, so her mother sewed together a patchwork affair from old rags, and sent her to school in it. Although she was proud of her eye-catching garment, her schoolmates teased her for it and tried to pull it off to prove she wasn’t wearing a blouse underneath it.

Yet Dolly was already bolstered by a steely self-belief that would serve her well in the years ahead: “I knew before I was 10 that I was going to be a star and going to be famous and make money. I did truly,” she is quoted as saying in Stephen Miller’s 2006 biography Smart Blonde.

That process was to begin very soon, as Bill Owens persuaded her, at the age of 10, to audition for The Cas Walker Farm And Home Show, a local TV show broadcast nearby Knoxville, sponsored by the irrepressible host’s supermarket chain. She impressed and began to appear regularly, bringing in much-needed earnings to the Parton household that would soon outstrip those of her own father, even though he had now given up sharecropping to earn a crust at a local sawmill.

Dolly’s success on the show was the result of a determination to succeed in anything she put her mind to, and a country girl’s practical ingenuity, a fact surreally demonstrated when Walker announced a promotion in her hometown of Sevierville at a theatre in which was erected  50-foot pole greased with petroleum jelly. He offered a $250 prize at the top of the pole for anyone who could shin up to the top.

Dolly went outside into the parking lot and rolled around in gravel and sand to allow her a better grip, then duly climbed the pole to climb the prize. With the money, she bought the family their first television so they could watch her on the show.

The next step for Dolly and Bill (who was now acting has her de facto manager) was to get the precocious youngster’s shrill southern voice onto record. Her uncle Henry Owens knew a studio owner in Louisiana and arranged for Dolly to cut her first record, Puppy Love, which Dolly and Bill wrote together.

Only problem was, Dolly was too young to travel that far and Bill couldn’t help. So she begged her grandma Rena Owens (who had once sang rewritten versions of popular songs with Dolly’s name in them to her toddler granddaughter), which she claims inspired her to to accompany her having exhausted options of anyone else to accompany her, and on the 30-hour bus trip she says it smelt of “diesel fuel, Naugahyde, and people who were going places.”

The resulting single, Puppy Love coupled with another Parton/Owens original, Girl Left Alone, was relased on Goldband records in 1959 and ended up receiving quite a bit of local airplay.


The following year she got another taste of the big time – she sang at the Grand Ole Opry on a Friday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, as a guest with Jimmy C. Newman, introduced by none other than Johnny Cash, after bugging Cas Walker show regulars Carl and Pearl Butler to find her a slot. “Johnny Cash brought me out,” she later recalled, “and I sung and I just tore the house down.”

Three encores that night whetted her appetite for performing even further. Although she wouldn’t appear at the Opry again until she was an established star, throughout her early teens, she and Owens kept hustling for a break, and they secured another record deal with Mercury records, with whom the now 16-year-old Dolly cut a single, “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt”, as well as signing a songwriting contract with Tree publishing.


She had by now graduated to using Merthiolate antiseptic oil for lipstick (“and there weren’t nothin’ daddy could do to get that off,” she told Rolling Stone in 1977), but her glamorous extra-curricular life was a cause of resentment back at school.

They made up rumours such as her being gang-raped and also becoming pregnant by a man who worked on the Cas Walker show, and giving birth to Rachel, who the family had passed off as Dolly’s youngest sister. How this pregnancy would have been concealed by a 12-year-old schoolgirl was never adequately explained.

At her graduation, each pupil had to stand up and announce their plans for the future, she announced, “I’m going to Nashville to become a star.” The room erupted in laughter.

But as she spoke that Friday evening, her bags were already packed and the following day she was on the bus to the capital of Country music.

The 18-year-old struggled for a while with homesickness, but she at least had the help of Bill Owens, who would drive the pair of them round in a battered old Ford car with one door wired shut with a coat hanger. They would gig tirelessly and hustle for contacts over the next two or three years, making whatever money they could to finance their trips. On one occasion she says Owens stepped in front of a bus in order to get injured just enough to secure an insurance pay-out.

In 1965 Fred Foster, owner of Nashville’s biggest independent label, Monument Records, (home to Roy Orbison among others) offered Dolly a record deal, and signed the 19-year-old and Bill Owens to the label’s publishing wing, Combine.

Initially, though, Foster insisted that Dolly’s piercing, almost childlike voice was best suited to recording pop and rock’n’roll material, meaning I Wasted My Tears, her first record for Monument, was followed by a couple more rather bland cuts, neither of which made a big impression on the listening public. Thankfully, despite his attempts to train her out of employing her distinctive vocal vibrato, she ignored this aspect of his coaching.

Dolly circa 1966

Dolly circa 1966

Dolly and Bill were finding more success with their songwriting. Hank Williams Jr recorded I’m In No Condition, Jan Howard did Your Ole Handy Man, Skeeter Davis had a hit with Fuel To The Flame and Bill Phillips also made the Country Top 10 with The Company You Keep. But it was the Phillips’ recording of Put It Off Til Tomorrow that would prove a turning point for its author, as it was another Country chart hit and was also voted the BMI Song Of The Year for 1966. More significantly still, Dolly’s own striking backing vocal on Phillips’ hit had got many a radio listener asking ‘Who’s that girl?’ This success persuaded Fred Foster to let his young protegee return to the country style she had always been keen to focus on, and also to release Dolly’s debut solo album, Hello, I’m Dolly, which included versions of all five of the above-mentioned hits for other artists


The album, whose title was a deliberate play on the name of the 1964 hit musical Hello, Dolly!, was preceded by her first solo hit. Dumb Blonde, which made No.24 in the country charts, was a fine introductory hit for the 21-year-old, and although it was penned by Green Green Grass Of Home (and later D.I.V.O.R.C.E) songwriter Curly Putman, it seemed to set Dolly’s stall out as a brassy, sassy performer with a sharp wit and the tough attitude of a true country gal.

Dolly later explained the choice of song by saying, “he [Fred] figured it would make people forget about whether my voice was any good or not and just listen to the song.”

As it turned out, the public would quickly embrace not only Dolly’s voice but also her own songs (as she proved when her own composition, Somethin’ Fishy, was another 1967 hit for her) along with as the big personality that was bursting from the seams of both.

This latter attribute was doubtless what helped Dolly make her next major professional breakthrough, when she was picked from a shortlist of several other female performers to become the new female sidekick on his nationally syndicated country music showcase The Porter Wagoner Show.

The Porter Wagoner Show, with the main man bottom left

The Porter Wagoner Show, with the main man bottom left

A peacock-suited, blond-pompadoured, coffin-faced 40-year-old, Wagoner had parted ways with previous onstage partner Norma Jean Beasler after she had left the show to get married (although Wagoner has since admitted they had an affair that accelerated the split), and at first his fans weren’t too welcoming of the new, younger model on Porter’s arm.

On the live dates the pair played Dolly was often heckled off by fans shouting for Norma Jean, and the experience often left her in tears backstage. “It was like murder,” she later admitted. But gradually she won them over, thanks in no small part to regular duets with her new boss, and to capitalise, subsequent solo albums were recorded alternately with a string of albums with Wagoner.

Porter was keen to guide Dolly’s career and promote his own alongside it, and he secured her a deal with his label, the major RCA/Victor, although she had sufficient industry savvy to ensure she kept copyright of her own songs by setting up her own publishing company with Bill Owens, Owepar, even though Wagoner would soon buy Owens out of his share of the company.

Although her appearances on The Porter Wagoner Show sometimes embarrassed Dolly (not least when she was obliged to literally sing the praises of questionable sanitary products and medical miracle cures for the chemical company that sponsored the show), and she fought relentlessly with her stage partner for creative control, the show boosted her profile to the extent that by the end of the decade, she was one of Country music’s biggest new stars.

Three further solo albums followed before the end of the decade, and the last of them, 1969’s My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, saw her debut in the Billboard Top 200. by then, back in Sevierville, there was an annual Dolly Parton Day parade, at which many of the classmates who had once jeered and bullied her would line up to get a glimpse of the town’s most famous daughter. She’d come a long way. But her journey was only just beginning.


Porter Wagoner – his role in her rise

Without Porter Wagoner’s help, it’s a fair bet that Dolly Parton’s career could have been quite different. At the very least, her path to stardom might well have been a more gradual one.

It was the wiry Missourian singer who, in the summer of 1967, picked Dolly from a number of notable candidates to become his new female companion on the hugely popular nationally syndicated music show that bore his name.

Wagoner was then instrumental in persuading guitar legend and RCA producer Chet Atkins to take Dolly onto the his label, to the extent that Wagoner is reputed to have agreed that any losses made from her records would be taken out of the records for his own records.

He was protective of Dolly to a fault when confronted with live audiences noisily demanding the return of her much-loved predecessor, Norma Jean, and once the first duet they released together, the jaunty, harmony-soaked The Last Thing On My Mind, had made the top 10 the pair’s partnership was duly cemented.

As Dolly admitted in her 1994 autobiography: “At the beginning I was like a kid in school… one of those accelerated schools where you have to learn a lot in a hurry.”

She credits Porter with helping her stage craft, her rapport with audiences, even dealing with drunken hecklers. There’s also no doubt that Wagoner influenced Dolly beyond just TV exposure and record deals. His flamboyant dress sense, in dazzling Nudie Cohn designer suits, encouraged her to bring out the colourful, brash side of her image that would turn her into an icon.

In February 1974 they announced a parting of the ways, and it was at that point that she wrote I Will Always Love You by way of a fond farewell. “I played it and he cried,” she said.

A legal battle followed, though, and a frosty relationship resulted for a good few years, time eventually healed the old wounds, and when Porter died at the age of 80 in 2007 Dolly was said to have been at his bedside. “It was like losin’ a piece of me, like losin’ your daddy,” she said.

In terms of recorded output, their duet albums haven’t aged quite as well as Dolly’s solo material, but their 1969 sophomore effort Always, Always is arguably the pick of their early studio sets, although the 1996 compilation The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton does what it says on the cover in terms of an overview of their best moments.


Classic album: Hello, I’m Dolly (Monument Records, 1967)


It was accepted practice for debut albums in the 1960s to be packed full of covers to lure in the punters, so it’s testament to Dolly Parton’s prowess as a songwriter that songs she penned alone and with writing partner Bill Owens make up 10 of the tracks. She has since claimed that even at this early stage – she’d just turned 21 – she had written over 400 songs.

The title surely hoped to catch people’s eye on the basis of its play on the name of the hit musical, but the music, and its performer, could more than stand up for itself.

From the first bars we see an unmistakably tough but smart working class edge to Dolly’s onstage persona. “This dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool,” she chirrups on the Curly Putman-penned opener, then Your Ole Handy Man backs up the same impression, pointing at an errant partner and demanding he raise his game on the domestic chores front.

Then a touch of real menace is introduced, even if its wrapped up in wronged-woman emotional fragility. I Don’t Want To Throw Rice admits “I don’t want to throw rice, I just want to throw rocks at her,” in response to the wedding of a love rival. “Maybe I’m taking this too far,” she sings, “but I feel like tying dynamite to her side of the car.” Slightly shocking at face value, but it also showcases a trademark humour that would prove a key component of her appeal.

Most striking to listeners at the time, though, was Dolly’s voice. Label boss Fred Foster was nervous about how the public would take to it, and tried to train out her trademark vibrato on her first recordings for the label, but here it has rarely sounded more resonant. “It would cut through anything, through the thickest fog – it was perfect for recording” Monument producer Ray Stevens commented.

The album is helped in no small part by some beautifully subtle playing by the session musicians backing Dolly, such as Floyd Cramer’s gentle piano on Fuel To The Flame and The Giving And The Taking. Mystery still surrounds which maestro was responsible for the shimmering, woozy pedal steel that laces the above songs, the uneasy minor chords of I’m In No Condition and the weary melancholy of The Company You Keep; the absence of credits on the sleeve is something of a travesty – we only have label boss Fred Foster’s hazy recollections to help us identify the rest of the band on the credits below.

Monument records promoted the album again towards the end of the year once Dolly secured regular TV exposure on The Porter Wagoner Show, and it earned Foster a belated return on his investment after he had found himself helpless to stop his new star rejecting a new contract and electing to sign to Wagoner’s label RCA Victor. The success for all concerned was well-deserved.

Ultimately, of course, Dolly Parton would make much bigger-selling albums and better-known songs, and develop a far more polished sound, but as a document of a raw singer-songwriting talent, Hello, I’m Dolly is essential listening.



Sounds familiar


Hello, I’m Dolly was a fine ‘howdy do’ to Ms Parton’s public, but in fact they were already acquainted with her songs. Five of the 12 songs on this album were hits for other artists around the same time it was released.

Bill Phillips had made Put It Off Til Tomorrow a Country No.1 in 1966 with Dolly herself on backing vocals (uncredited but far from unnoticed). Yet Dolly’s version on this debut album has a touch more vulnerability to it, as does her take on Phillips’ 1967 hit The Company You Keep. Skeeter Davis’ dreamier, less plaintive reading of Fuel To The Flame is also an intoxicating affair, and Hank Williams’ version of I’m In No Condition imbues it with a brittle male pride. Elsewhere, Jan Howard’s take on Your Ole Handy Man is a touch more mumsy than Dolly’s, but has a similar breezy charm. All of which shows, if a song’s good enough, it can be a hit in anyone’s hands.