When bluesman B.B. King died last year, he bequeathed to the world a body of work spanning six decades that brought joy and comfort to millions. The crooner of “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Sweet Sixteen” transformed American music, inspiring such rockers as Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy. King was 89 when he succumbed to congestive heart failure in his Las Vegas home and died peacefully in his sleep on May 14, 2015.
The year since then has been decidedly less peaceful. While neither of King’s two marriages resulted in children, he managed to leave behind a vast family: 15 kids from 15 women. If that family history weren’t complex enough, King’s authorized biographer Charles Sawyer wrote in his book, The Arrival of BB King, that doctors found the musician’s sperm count too low to conceive children. In 2015, Sawyer told The Guardian that he had given King the option to remove the reference and that King declined. Either way, King claimed 15 kids as his own — never disputing his paternity — and of the 11 who survive, many now are fighting with King’s appointed trustee over his estate, a fortune that family members tell THR could be worth between $30 million and $40 million when royalties, asset sales and rights are taken into account. Many of the kids point to a 2007 will and trust that they claim grant them generous allowances. But King’s longtime business manager, LaVerne Toney, who is now the legal trustee of King’s estate, asserts that she merely is following a 2014 trust, which names the children but doesn’t provide for them with specific monetary gifts. According to the trustee’s own legal filings in Nevada, King’s estate also is far smaller than the children allege: $5 million and change spread across a few Wells Fargo bank accounts. But the kids have assembled teams of lawyers to fight the estate’s guardians. The litigation could continue for years.
While the value of King’s estate is the subject of great contention, observers say it hardly is a case like Michael Jackson’s estate, which has gone up in value roughly $1 billion since the enigmatic singer’s death. In King’s case, he wrote few of his hits, sold records for decades to a segregated America and made deals at a time in which black artists were hardly paid handsomely. According to analysis conducted for this story by Billboard, King’s publishing and recording assets — including his catalog — are valued at roughly $7 million to $8 million, based on Nielsen Music data and consultation with a financial executive who buys publishing and master recording catalogs.
Members of King’s family, from left: Willie King, Tanya Deckard, Patty King, Karen Williams, Barbara King and Rita Washington after a family viewing at a Las Vegas funeral home on May 21, 2015.
By all accounts, King loved each of his kids dearly and, while alive, generously offered financial help. He bankrolled college tuitions, visited children in prison and set up trust funds. But the equilibrium he maintained in his family, balancing a frantic touring schedule — he often played upward of 200 gigs a year — with the needs of his clan, collapsed when he died. THR has learned that since his death, three more people have surfaced, claiming King was their father, too. “My dad told us, ‘Even when I’m gone, I’m gonna take care of you.’ But we haven’t received a dime since he died,” says Riley B. King, B.B.’s son, 67. “We got a lawyer, and we are trying to fight and get what belongs to us.”
The legal fight began within weeks of King’s death. Then a few children went public with a stunning allegation: Toney and King’s personal assistant, Myron Johnson, had fatally poisoned King. The accusers had no hard evidence, but investigators ordered an autopsy report. Police found nothing to support the allegations, and the suit was dismissed. Johnson then sued the accusing family members (including his own sister, Karen Williams) for defamation; the outcome still is pending. These accusations split the family, one side fueling toxic innuendo about King’s fate, the other wincing at the resulting tabloid headlines. Since then, several children have pursued lawsuits targeting King’s music estate, which remains in dispute. “I saw him work all his life to take care of the family, and that’s what it should have stayed like,” says Shirley King, his eldest daughter. “It got really bad before he left this earth, and then it just went totally haywire.”
The son of sharecroppers, King was raised by his grandmother on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Miss. His career was extraordinary — he won 15 Grammys, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and sang for President Obama at the White House. Yet the so-called King of the Blues maintained a modest lifestyle, traveling on a tour bus and staying at inexpensive hotels.
That this estate battle has descended into chaos might partly be because of King’s broad concept of family. Humble and full of good cheer, not to mention talented and famous, King had no shortage of female companions. “That was a good-looking man,” says Shirley. “You spend that much time being that good-looking, you can get any woman you want.” Thousands of gigs over the years led to countless dalliances from which his children — or people who claimed to be his children — sprang. “Every time my dad got more famous, I found out about a new sister,” says Shirley. “I was happy at first, and then nobody gets along, and I stopped being happy.” B.B.’s youngest daughter, Barbara, a hairdresser in Texas who says she’s “between 40 and 60,” says her mother hooked up with King when he was passing through Shreveport, La., for a gig: “He was coming through town, and here I am.”
King’s longtime business manager, Toney (center), entered a Las Vegas courtroom shortly before King’s death in May 2015.
Most of the children’s parenthood stories resemble this. If a woman told him a child was his, King took her word for it and never looked back. He remained friendly with many of his children’s mothers. “It didn’t matter how we got to be a family, it was that we were a family,” says Barbara. “He made sure we knew he loved us.”
Spread thin between his work and his dispersed family, King still made time for his children. His son and namesake Riley B. King, who did a five-year stint in prison during the early 2000s for dealing drugs, says B.B. visited him three times behind bars. When the two met, father and son would always kiss on the lips. “People looked at us strange, two men kissing,” says Riley, “But he’d say, ‘I love you.’ He never missed a birthday. He never missed a Christmas. We were tight.” Barbara King remembers a hard-working but fun-loving dad who loved watching Westerns, eating soul food and cheating at his favorite card game, spades. Even children who saw him intermittently, like Claudette Robinson King, a singer herself, recall B.B. as being generous with his finances and his good name. “He said, ‘Show the gift that God has given you and remember you’re B.B King’s daughter,’ ” she says. “The name means a lot; it opens doors for me.”
As King got older and his health deteriorated, he began to moderate his generosity, according to his grandson Christopher, a former Marine who now works as a motivational speaker and entrepreneur. As a kid, he remembers watching King count out $180,000 in cash on a hotel bed, some of which he then doled out to family members who needed it. Christopher says that King wasn’t immune to the pain that bickering within the family caused him. “It upset him sometimes,” he says. “He would say: ‘It’s family, son, period. We gotta take care of the family.’ “
Rita Washington (left), one of King’s 15 children, left his funeral on May 23, 2015.
A diabetic, King began to suffer from hypertension and arthritis. In 2007, he signed over control of his medical care to Toney, who’d worked by his side for 40 years. Four years later, he gave Toney control over his business affairs and power of attorney. To Christopher, King began to worry more about his musical estate’s future. “There’ve been times when he told me, ‘Those that have eaten while I live will not eat when I’m gone,’ ” says Christopher. “He was cutting things off little by little as he got older; he knew he wanted his estate to be flourishing after he was gone.”
Exactly how King wanted his estate divided now is the subject of ongoing lawsuits. Shortly before his death, Karen Williams filed a motion in a Las Vegas court to have herself named as her father’s legal guardian, replacing Toney. In her suit, Williams alleged that Toney and Myron Johnson had abused their positions as King’s confidants, resulting in King’s diminished physical condition, the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars and the theft of personal belongings from one of King’s storage facilities. A suit brought by Williams asserted that Toney had been “taking Mr. King’s assets for her own use or for the use of her family,” according to publicly available documents. The suit also alleged that Toney was neglecting King medically, stealing money from his accounts and preventing family from seeing King. The allegations resulted in two investigations, by the Las Vegas Police Department and the city’s Aging and Disability Services Division. Both found no such wrongdoing and rejected Williams’ claims outright.
Half sisters Patty King (left) and Karen Williams hired attorney Benjamin Crump (center) and made allegations that their father had been poisoned.
Meanwhile, Eric Brent Bryson, an attorney representing Toney, uncovered a publicly available birth certificate showing that Williams was not biologically related to King at all. (Williams didn’t respond to requests for an interview.) And Myron Johnson signed a sworn affidavit in support of Toney and against his sister’s allegations. According to court documents, Johnson told the court that he had “personal knowledge that Karen Williams personally has previously manipulated Mr. King into giving her money.” In court, Bryson produced affidavits from King’s personal physician and dentist stating that Toney and Johnson always looked out for King’s best interests. “LaVerne denies any type of wrongdoing, and the children were never able to prove any type of wrongdoing,” says Bryson. As for the allegation about goods stolen out of King’s storage facility, Toney conceded that there was a theft but told the court that King had insisted she not file a police report because he thought members of his family might have been responsible.
Some siblings are chagrined with Karen’s tactics. “How are you gonna accuse somebody of murder with no proof?” asks Christopher. In recent months, however, others have joined forces to fight Toney because they say King would have wanted his family taken better care of, especially financially. “LaVerne and Myron are controlling everything,” says Shirley. “They’re fighting some of the kids with my dad’s money — how stupid is that?” Adds Barbara: “The poisoning thing? Yeah, that was a rough time, there was a lot of hurt, but that situation will be cleared up in the end. We all support and love each other.” Even Christopher, who says he has no beef with Toney, wants to see the value of the trust revisited. “Five million is nowhere near what he’s worth.”
Williams and Patty King touched their father’s hearse in Memphis on May 27, 2015.
All this chaos has achieved what King apparently tried so hard to avoid: It “split the family,” according to B.B.’s son Riley. One group has banded together into what Riley and others call a “committee” that they formed to fight Toney in court. Riley says there are at least “four factions” fighting with Toney over the estate in various lawsuits (all filed in Nevada). James King, B.B.’s nephew, says that the fight has broken down along geographic lines, with an “L.A. crew” mostly backing Toney against a “Vegas crew” opposing her. Says Riley, “Even though we have different lawyers, they’re corresponding together, working together to put as much paperwork on LaVerne as they can.”
All of which may be a sign that siblings and family members think Toney will have to cede ground. Bryson says that Toney, as the “personal representative” of King’s estate, is dutifully carrying out the orders of his last and final will. Some family members say that King had not one will but two. And of the two recognized trusts, it remains unclear which one will hold sway in a court of law. Estate jurisprudence generally holds that the latest document supersedes earlier versions. But the children say the 2014 trust is flawed because it was finalized when King was nearly blind and suffering from Alzheimer’s-related cognitive impairment and memory loss. They want the earlier documents to be reviewed and, hopefully, honored.
The legal system may now be giving them a chance. Christopher King claims that earlier this year a judge agreed to have the 2007 trust reviewed by a court. “LaVerne got everything,” complains Riley King. “She stole everything.” Bryson insists these claims are bogus. “The children and grandchildren are angry because Mr. King chose not to leave them a bunch of money,” Bryson tells THR. “He gave them a lot of money over the years and wanted whatever he had left [to] go to [having] his great-, great-grandchildren educated.” In any event, adds Bryson, King’s years of hard work resulted in far less of a fortune than the kids hope: “It’s not anywhere close to what some of the relatives are asserting.”
Shirley King performed at a Las Vegas concert honoring her father in May 2015.
Even if the earlier documents are reviewed, some King children may still be unhappy. Only some of his descendants are named in the 2007 trust, according to King’s grandson Christopher, who says he has viewed the 2007 documents. “I think it’s very fair,” he says, without specifying exactly who or how many of the children are entitled to how much. “I want the issue to go away,” adds Christopher. “I want him to be able to really rest in peace and for all of this to be over so we can move on with other things.”
Looking ahead, the possibility of more claimants emerging can’t be ruled out. Some of his kids say that the King family drama is a cautionary tale. “Maybe if there wasn’t so many kids from so many different parents, it would have been different,” says Shirley. “But all of a sudden my dad was just a bank.” Three people have gotten in touch with Shirley in the past few months claiming a familial relation: a 72-year-old man who told Shirley that B.B King had sworn him to silence years ago, a claim she calls preposterous; a much younger woman from Florida; and then a woman from Detroit who showed up unexpectedly at a memorial service last year. The last woman apparently had been trying to contact King for some time, even going so far as to send him some legal paperwork to prove her claim. But she didn’t get far. King had the last word. “He said to send the paperwork back,” recalls Shirley, “He wasn’t taking no more kids on.”
This story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.