BB King was born into poverty in Jim Crow Mississippi and raised on a cotton plantation before becoming a street busker then finding fame and fortune as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. But the “King of the Blues” also had a far from conventional private life, fathering 15 children, many of whom reportedly squabbled over his multimillion-dollar estate after his death in 2015.
But they could not have been his biological children because he was sterile due to illness and an accident, a forthcoming biography claims.
Its author, Daniel de Visé, a Pulitzer prize–winner, told the Observer: “The people in his inner circle told me over and over again that they didn’t believe he had any biological children. I was told this by his loved ones and even his doctor.”
These witnesses included ex-wife Sue, a nephew, and the singer’s doctor, all of whom told the writer that the 15 children could not have been King’s. They told him that King’s ability to have children had been affected by a childhood bout of the mumps, causing an attendant swelling of his testicles, which were also gored by a ram on a farm, while further damage was caused by a sexually transmitted disease contracted in his late teens.
De Visé said: “By the end of BB’s second marriage, he had fathered no children in 16 years of wedlock. Both of his wives had children with other partners.”
He added that BB wanted a family, having lost his infant brother and mother at a young age: “BB’s prolific paternity became a part of his virile-bluesman legend, something to brag about in hundreds of interviews to come, even if it probably wasn’t true.”
Rolling Stone’s list of legendary pop acts that “wouldn’t exist without BB King” range from Jimi Hendrix to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, with Eric Clapton describing him as “the most important artist the blues has ever produced”.
The research into his children will feature in the biography, titled King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of BB King, published by Grove Press UK on 14 October.
De Visé writes: “In later years, BB would weave an elaborate fiction of fatherhood, acknowledging his low sperm count even as he claimed to have sired several children … The truth – that BB probably never stood a chance to father children – remained a closely guarded secret to the end.”
He details King’s accident, aged 12, while playing with a ram: “When the boy bent over, the ram saw his moment and charged … A horn smashed into [King’s] testicles. No doctor could be found, and the mangled organs were left to mend on their own.”
King’s close friend Charles Sawyer told the Observer: “BB told me about his negative fertility test during his second marriage. In 2008, he told me: ‘Nowadays it would be easy to test for paternity, but we didn’t know about that back then. I have accepted these children and now they are my family. I would never think to test that now’. Also, he left strict instructions that there was to be no DNA testing upon his death.”
King, whose most famous songs include the haunting The Thrill is Gone, once likened the blues to a “problem child that you may have had in the family”, but who is loved all the same.
He helped the children financially, but it was a troubled relationship. De Visé writes that, in 1996, King hosted a family reunion, in an effort to stop them fighting: “A few of BB’s children had arrived with a list of other children they wanted him to disown. They challenged him to draw a line between the real children and the pretenders.
“At a sprawling family dinner, BB confronted them. ‘Since there seems to be an issue with some of y’all over who is and who’s not,’ he said, ‘I’d like to do a DNA test, if you all agree.’”
He continued. “The room fell to a hush. BB explained that he would not require any of his children to prove their parentage: he would provide for them in any case. But BB was not going to allow them to turn on each other. ‘So, if you want to do a DNA test,’ he said, ‘that’s fine with me.’
“No one did. The insurrection was over.”
Sawyer published BB’s authorised biography in 1980 and he will release hundreds of his photographs in BB King: From Indianola to Icon, to be published next spring. Having read De Visé’s biography, he said: “It’s nothing short of extraordinary.”
But Ronald Lebow, a manager of the BB King Music Company on behalf of the estate and the family, said: “The family is not in support of this unauthorised biography. We wish to make no comment related to this publication.”