The rights to Jimi Hendrix's music were returned to his family seven years ago, prompting fans to believe that the plundering of his recorded legacy would end and legendary unreleased tapes would finally see the light of day. Today, however, it is clear that the Hendrix family is not one that plays together.
Following the death of Al Hendrix (Jimi's father) in April, the survivors are playing out a battle scenario with million-dollar stakes. Brother Leon Hendrix, 54, sued the estate in August, claiming that he was denied his rightful inheritance and seeking to wrest control of the estate from Janie Hendrix, 41, who is president of Experience Hendrix, the company that owns and controls Jimi Hendrix's music and image.
Janie Hendrix, however, says she is only carrying out Al Hendrix's wishes. "It's too bad they couldn't have settled their differences," she told Rolling Stone. "Leon and Dad were very different people and, as Dad would say, they never saw eye to eye. I was surprised at Dad's will (where he only left Leon one gold record), but it was his money and he decided where it should go."
In preparation to strike a better royalty deal of his own, Al requested that Leon sign over his rights to the music in 1992, and Leon complied. However, according to Leon's attorneys, the document granting those rights -- for which Leon was paid $1 million -- was not a relinquishment of all of his rights.
On October 9th, Leon slapped Janie with an additional defamation suit for her alleged claim that Leon and Jimi were only half brothers. As refutation, Leon pulls out a copy of his birth certificate listing Al as his father. "He was my dad," Leon says. "And he never said or thought any different until Janie put that into his head." Experience Hendrix's The Jimi Hendrix Experience box set, released in 2000, fanned the flames, as the liner notes refer to Leon as Jimi's "troubled half-brother."
Even if the degree of Leon's relationship to Jimi can be argued, Janie's is clear: She is an adopted stepsister with no blood relationship to any member of the Hendrix family. "Janie is family in the legal sense," says attorney David Huber, who represents Leon. "But actual blood relatives deserve a share of this money."
Leon's latest suit also accuses Janie of defrauding the public by her claims that that Experience Hendrix was a "family company" intent on winning rights back for musicians. "Leon and other family members were not allowed to participate in the company's function or operation, or to receive the benefits of those operations," the suit states.
Should the court rule in Leon's favor, he would be granted control over Jimi Hendrix's archival tapes and videos. Aside from allocating funds to the "real Hendrix" bloodline, he claims he would give back to the community and pay the musicians their due.
The two bass players who shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix during his fame have very different perceptions of the power struggle. Billy Cox, Jimi's army buddy who dominated during the latter part of his career, says he is "very proud of how Janie's handled Jimi's legacy. She's done it all in a very professional manner. I did the San Diego Street Scene for her, and was paid very handsomely. I like Leon, he's good people, but I stay away from controversy. This bickering, this stress is killing a lot of people."
Noel Redding, who played on Hendrix's three studio albums, is less charitable. He said he relinquished his rights for $100,000 in 1973 when he was told there were no more recordings forthcoming. He has spent the subsequent years trying to recoup some of the money earned by the estate.
Redding says he helped Janie gain control of the estate from previous owners Alan Douglas and Leo Branton with the understanding that he would receive back royalties, which he claims now total more than $20 million per his original contract. Seven years later, Redding says he is still waiting, adding that he did not receive a penny for the box set. "I got a letter saying that I wasn't getting any money," he says, "and then they sent me a copy of the box set C.O.D." Experience Hendrix catalog manager John McDermott refutes the latter claim: "We've never sent anything out C.O.D. Mr. Redding has received each release issued by Experience Hendrix at no charge to him."
Since 1997, Experience Hendrix has released a steady stream of CDs. Most are reissues or expanded versions of what was once available, aside from the four-disc The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which featured rare material. However, spurned on by talk of hundreds of lost tapes, many fans have expected more.
"[Janie has] promised a lot of things that haven't materialized," said Steven Roby, a former Experience Hendrix employee and author of Black Gold: The Lost Archives of Jimi Hendrix. "But the fans aren't too happy with her. Aside from putting out an occasional disc for collectors, we get things like golf balls, furniture, boxer shorts. It's pretty embarrassing." Adds filmmaker David Kramer, who is preparing a Beatles Anthology-style Jimi Hendrix documentary (although without any material licensed by Experience Hendrix), "If Leon was in charge, he wouldn't put Jimi on a cushion so you could sit on his face."
McDermott disputes the depth of Hendrix's lost catalog. "If one considers the total amount of concert, demo and studio recordings in the entire Hendrix tape library, the statement [that there are hundreds of unreleased tapes] is simply absurd," he says. He does acknowledge that substantial material exists in the vaults, enough for one album of unreleased or updated material annually for the next fifteen years. Hendrix's former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham ruefully backs up the more modest estimate. "I know there aren't a lot of unreleased tapes," she says, "because I personally threw a lot of them in the dustbin. We had no idea that they would ever be worth anything."
Of the legendary "holy grail" recordings, McDermott states that Hendrix and Miles Davis never recorded together. Also, the recently recovered "Black Gold" tape may be something less than what fans make it out to be. "It's wonderful music," says McDermott. "But it doesn't solve the Hendrix riddle. It won't make you put away your copy of Are You Experienced? It just reminds you that his life was cut short, and indicates what he would have done had he lived."
While Experience Hendrix promises one new album a year, at least one aspect of Hendrix's recording legacy will not yet get a proper release. Craig Dieffenbach, a forty-one-year-old Seattle real estate developer and Leon Hendrix's business manager, secured rights to the "PPX Tapes," sixty-six titles recorded between 1965 and 1967 for PPX Enterprises that feature Jimi Hendrix backing singer Curtis Knight. While first promising a release of all the tapes, Dieffenbach now says he may release fourteen of the songs on a "nonexclusive" album once certain licensing and copyright issues are cleared up. Hendrix himself was no fan of these recordings, going so far as to take legal action to block their initial release.
The final Hendrix battle is the one over Jimi's image. Leon still sees his late brother as a free spirit who embodied the drug use and casual sex of the times, and claims that Janie, a devout Christian, has actively suppressed that image.
"The people who are running Experience Hendrix are just trying to whitewash history," Leon says. Adds Etchingham, who has aligned herself with Leon and Redding. "Janie is offended by Jimi's lifestyle. So she doesn't like Leon's lifestyle, and won't allow Hendrix music to be used in any context that suggests sex or drugs . . . Janie doesn't want people to see the truth about Jimi."
[Editor's Note: This is a revised version of a story that was first posted on October 25, 2002, before Rolling Stone was able to speak with Experience Hendrix]