'Always a rotten apple': BB King, poison and the daughters of an infertile legend

As a blues man is laid to rest in the Mississippi Delta, questions linger about how he died. Between the white horses and the family intrigue, the thrill is never gone

BB King always slept with the light on, even as an old man, because he’d never shaken his fear of the dark. One summer night when he was a boy, a tornado howled across the Delta and deposited small fish in the cotton fields and left him in his mother’s arms in a cabin without a roof.

This Friday, with another storm drenching Mississippi, King lay in his coffin between two of his guitars. The lights were on and his eyes were closed as admirers walked past for a final glimpse. Nearby, in an auxiliary building at the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, board member Allan Hammons was telling a story. He’d been with King at a funeral a few years earlier, and he said King had told him: “I want you to pay special attention to the lyrics of the lead song on my new album.”

King’s favorite bluesman was Blind Lemon Jefferson, who sang a song called See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. On his last studio album, King made that song the opening track. To Hammons, the meaning was clear: in the language of the blues, BB King had given instructions for his own funeral.

He wanted two white horses in a line, a grave dug with a silver spade. “Let me down with a golden chain,” he sang. Hammons intended to honor these requests, if he could only figure out how. The aftermath of King’s death had already gotten complicated, if not downright strange.

bb king daughters
Karen Williams (center) and Patty King (right) bid farewell to BB King. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Ten days after King died at age 89, five days before he returned to the Delta, two of his daughters signed affidavits saying they believed he was murdered. The controversy went back to last year, when five of King’s children petitioned a court for more influence in their father’s affairs. Karen Williams and Patty King didn’t trust his longtime business manager, LaVerne Toney, who had power of attorney and controlled his finances and medical care.

Nevertheless, two separate investigations found nothing wrong with King’s medical care. A Nevada guardianship commissioner denied the petition one week before King’s death. The local coroner said he’d died of multi-infarct dementia after a series of small strokes; the daughters said they thought he’d been poisoned.

“I’m absolutely sure it’s absolutely false,” King’s biographer Charles Sawyer told the Guardian at King’s wake on Friday afternoon. “LaVerne Toney had BB King’s power of attorney because he trusted her as much as he could trust any human being.”

As for the children, King dedicated his autobiography to them: Shirley Ann, Patty, Ruby, Rita, Michele, Claudette, Riletta, Karen, Big Barbara, Little Barbara, Gloria, Robert, Willie, Leonard and Riley Jr. He’d met a lot of women playing 300 shows per year, and he had a saying, according to Sawyer: “If a woman is pregnant, and she says you’re the father, the only question to ask is: ‘Is it possible?’ And if it’s possible, it’s yours.”

But Sawyer, the biographer, said King also told him something else, a second piece of information that seemed to contradict the first. This assertion had long been forgotten in his portrait of a blues legend now stalked by family intrigue: King and his second wife couldn’t have children, and he took a fertility test that showed his sperm count was too low to conceive. Sawyer said he published this in his book, The Arrival of BB King, an authorized biography that is now out of print. Sawyer said King read the manuscript and could have removed that statement from the book, but he left it in.

In any case, King took responsibility for 15 children, including Patty Elizabeth King, who later went to prison for cocaine trafficking. (She is one of the two making accusations against King’s business manager; their attorney, Larissa Drohobyczer, told the Guardian: “They have the right to know how their father died.”)

“There are always – I don’t want to call them this, but – there’s always a rotten apple in the barrel,” King’s son Willie said in an interview Friday afternoon. “And sometimes you can take hurt, and turn it into something that it should not be. And I think out of the anger of losing their dad, they went to the extreme.

“I pray that the public don’t really accept them as an angry person like that, because being my sisters, they are not like that. But sometimes you just don’t know how to express yourself. And you jump out at the nearest person. And they attacked the wrong person.”

Further on up the road

bb king statue
‘Death is a cold chill, frightening beyond reason,’ King wrote in his autobiography. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

On Saturday outside of the BB King museum, a crew from Wilbert Funeral Services laid down straw to cover the mud by the namesake’s empty grave. No silver spade could have done the job. A county official said there was asphalt under the dirt, the remnant of a forgotten road, and so they dug his grave with a backhoe.

Mourners filled the Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church and spilled into a bright and humid afternoon. Some tried to go in after the funeral began, but four musclebound state troopers blocked the front doors. The fire marshal had spoken. There was no more room in the church.

Further up BB King Road, a woman stood in a parking lot and waited for horses. Wanda Clark, the project coordinator for the Mississippi Blues Trail, had taken on the task of finding two white horses in a line.

“White horses just aren’t common around here,” she said. But through friends of friends, she had rounded them up. Now she had a new problem. The funeral was ending ahead of schedule. The horses had not arrived. She got on her phone. The funeral would be extended, with more speakers than originally planned, to make sure the horses could join the procession.

They rolled in just after 2pm: a little stallion named Silver, a Tennessee Walking Horse named Rose. In the third trailer was a spectacular black carriage horse that would carry a saddle draped with two of King’s guitars. The owners unloaded the horses and polished their hooves.

Then, another complication: dark clouds rolled in from the west. BB King would be above ground for one last Delta thunderstorm. No one wanted to scare the horses. The funeral director made a decision. The horses would go back in their trailers. The procession would halt and wait for the storm to pass.

It moved through quickly, bringing white sheets of lightning. The air turned cold. Wind rustled in the pecans and magnolias. Rain fell and thunder cracked. Someone looked at a forecast and saw another storm on the heels of the first. The plan changed again. The horses would ride to the museum in their trailers and then walk a short distance to the field with the grave.

The honor guard led the way, followed by two white horses in a line, followed by the black horse carrying King’s guitars. They were just around the corner from the street where he learned to be a performer. He quickly found that singing about God would earn him a pat on the back. Singing about women would earn him money.

The thunder intensified as the hearse cut in front of the horses. The pallbearers got out and carried King’s casket to the grave.

“Death is a cold chill, frightening beyond reason,” he wrote in his autobiography. Death took his baby brother, and then his mother, and then his grandmother, and he was still a boy, living alone in that sharecropper’s cabin. His aunt Mima had a wind-up Victrola and she let him play records, and he could hear his own pain in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar.

King took that music to Memphis, and then around the world. Death tried to take him young, too, but it missed. One night at a club in Arkansas, two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille when they accidentally set the place on fire. King ran outside, then remembered his Gibson acoustic. He went back and got it just before the building collapsed. He nearly died for that guitar, and then he named it Lucille to remind himself never to do that again. He kept playing for 65 more years, until last October.

“Earth to earth,” the minister said. “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”

Darwin May, the general manager of the funeral company, had never heard of casket straps in a color besides green. But he’d recently gotten a strange request. For a funeral in Indianola, someone wanted another color. And so a worker found a way to dye the straps, and there they were on Saturday afternoon, holding up BB King’s coffin, chain-like and nearly golden, letting him down into the ground.

Thomas Lake in Indianola, Mississippi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
BB King obituary
Self-deprecating but with a magisterial stage presence, King developed a style that was both innovative and rooted in blues history

Tony Russell

15, May, 2015 @6:41 AM

Blake Morgan: iPod music price cuts will hurt struggling artists

Blake Morgan: By cutting the price of tracks sold on iTunes and stripping away copy protection, Apple is sabotaging independent music

Blake Morgan

16, Feb, 2009 @4:00 PM

Article image
Beloved BB King 'Lucille' guitar sells for $280,000 at auction
Auction of items from blues guitarist’s estate totals $1.3m, with prize item a prototype Gibson guitar that was stolen and later returned

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

24, Sep, 2019 @9:19 AM

Article image
BB King: coroner says there is no immediate evidence of poisoning
Police will wait for autopsy results before deciding on homicide investigation as allegations appear to be part of feud between King’s children and attorney

Jessica Glenza in New York and agencies

26, May, 2015 @5:03 PM

Article image
You can tell everybody, this is our son: Elton John becomes a father at 63
Zachary Levon Furnish-John born in California on Christmas Day to surrogate mother, whose identity is being kept secret

Helen Pidd

28, Dec, 2010 @7:58 PM

Article image
Harry and Meghan's ceremony to feature Etta James and Ben E King songs
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s marriage service will feature modern vows, two wedding rings, Vaughan Williams and a gospel choir

Laura Snapes with commentary by Alexis Petridis

19, May, 2018 @5:53 AM