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.

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