THINGS HAVE NEVER BEEN EASY FOR Patty Elizabeth King. The youngest of legendary blues guitarist B.B. King’s eight children, she has spent most of her life facing the loneliness of having a famous father always on the road. “When I was 5 years old and my daddy was coming in [to Gainesville, Fla.], my mother dressed me in this beautiful crinoline dress,” she remembers. “She would allow me to stand in front of the big picture window. And I would wait and wait. And then I would hear the bus coming. And I would get so excited, my little heart would just pound because I hadn’t seen him for a while. He’d come maybe four or five times a year, whenever he was performing in the area.”
Patty’s heart was pounding again recently as her father prepared to mount a makeshift stage in the yard of a Gainesville prison. For the tireless King, this was the 69th prison concert of his career, one more hour of music played for people in trouble. But this time was different. Patty, 36, was sitting in a front-row folding chair. Serving time for cocaine trafficking and parole violation, she is the only member of his family to attend one of his prison performances as an inmate.
The 67-year-old musician, who calls Las Vegas home—though with 300 performances a year, he is rarely there—paused to hug and kiss his daughter before joining his eight-piece band. Alter the show, B.B. stayed for less than an hour, visiting with Patty and her four children, ages 3 to 20. Then, as always, it was back on the road and his next gig. “It made me cry,” says Patty, a few days later. “I felt proud. And I wished it could have been longer. I miss him. I long for my dad.”
Patty, now serving the second of nine years at the Gainesville Community Correctional Center, has been in trouble with the law for more than a decade. “Patty King grew up as not only an attractive woman,” says Stephen Bernstein, her court-appointed lawyer, “but as B.B. King’s daughter. A lot of people wanted to associate with her—including drug dealers.” Patty agrees, though she never blames her father. “It’s kinda rough sometimes, being B.B. King’s daughter. I had a lot of opportunities to do so many-things, and here I am.”
The saga began in the early ’50s when B.B. King (also known as Riley B. King) played Gainesville’s Blue Note, a nightclub owned by Essie Willams. He and Essie fell in love. A few years later, Essie—who had two children from a previous marriage—gave birth to Patty. B.B. never married Essie, who resigned herself to his occasional visits and financial support, never taking another man into her life. “She understood him wantin’ to pursue his career,” Patty says.
After finishing high school in 1974, Patty worked as a receptionist for her father in Las Vegas. By 1979 she had returned to Gainesville, the mother of two daughters, Katina and Sylvia, born out of wedlock. In that same year, she met and married Leroy Walton, who had a rap sheet for theft and robbery. “We were doing all the wrong things,” says Patty. “It was a bad marriage, and I didn’t know anything about his record until it was too late.”
Too late, in this case, means after they forged $857 worth of checks. Patty received probation, but she violated it with a marijuana-possession charge two years later, receiving a sentence of two consecutive five-year terms. She served four years. “I still hadn’t got a good look at life,” says Patty, whose mother died in 1982. “I thought being in prison at that lime was like a game.” She divorced Walton in 1984.
In 1988 she married Alvin McHellon, who had served time for robbery. Two years later they were arrested for cocaine trafficking. Though an informant testified she sold her marijuana and cocaine, Patty claims to have been only peripherally involved, blaming her current conviction on McHellon, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The couple’s two children, Alvin Jr. 5, and Alton, 3, are being eared for by the grandmother of their half sister Sylvia, now 14.
According to her father and friends, Patty seems to have changed. They say she has decided what’s important in her life—family and religion (she is a born-again Christian). “From time to time, I thought something was going on with her,” says B.B., recalling his daughter’s troubled early years. “I talked to her, and she denied it. The next time I talked to her she’d been arrested. Well, there’s nothin’ to do but support her. I love her, and I don’t turn my back on a person when they’re down. She’s my daughter, so doubly so.” B.B. and Patty now talk about once or twice a month. He also sends money to her kids.
Patty is eligible for parole in 1995 but is appealing for an earlier release. She says this time she’ll be ready for freedom. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes that I wish I could go back and change, but I can’t,” she says. Still, says B.B., “even from where she is, she tries to direct her kids’ lives away from what hers has been.” Says Patty: “I’ve asked my children to forgive me. So I have to be strong for them. I just have to look forward to being out and spending the rest of my life with my kids, trying to be a good mother to them.”
MEG GRANT in Gainesville