When he was alive, Hendrix took a cavalier approach to bank accounts and royalty statements. "The more money you make, the more you can sing the blues," he told TV talk-show host Dick Cavett in late 1969. At the time of his death in 1970, he was at the height of his career, but his financial situation was in shambles. Despite the success of five top-selling albums and stadium-capacity concert gigs, Hendrix owed large loan payments to his record company, faced a number of potentially expensive lawsuits and was being regularly ripped off by his manager at the time, Michael Jeffrey.
Believed to have perished in a 1973 plane collision over France, Jeffrey was every bit as enigmatic as his superstar client. A mysterious and elusive figure with a quick wit, Jeffrey reportedly had links to the British intelligence agency MI5, as well as to the Mafia. He was known to wear a .38-caliber pistol in an ankle holster and jump from country to country carrying suitcases stuffed with cash.
Originally the manager of the British blues-rock band the Animals, Jeffrey later became partners managing Hendrix with Animals bassist Chandler – who "discovered" the guitarist in New York's Greenwich Village. Though Jeffrey was credited with making some landmark business deals for Hendrix, his real genius was stashing the money away so that no one could find it.
"He was a crook – there's no question about that," says Chandler, who claims Jeffrey robbed him of profits from their joint management venture. "Mike was the most immoral, amoral person you could ever meet. He was totally charming, great fun, and he would steal from me grandmother. But you've got to give the devil his due: He was very clever in terms of how he managed to get away with it and for fooling so many of us for so long."
Hendrix's management deal was through a company Jeffrey had cofounded called Yameta. Based in the Bahamas, Yameta was a confusing maze of holding companies handled by frontmen, money-juggling bankers, political power brokers and other slippery sorts. Under his arrangement with Yameta, Hendrix surrendered a whopping forty percent of his gross income to the offshore company.
"All of the money from the early days went to this company in the Bahamas, which was owned by another company called Caicos Trust, which was in care of the Bank of New Providence, in care of the Bank of Nova Scotia, and in care of whoever," says Redding, who has spent more than two decades trying to figure out what happened. "It's impossible to find out about these little offshore companies. They're just places where people send money, and then it disappears."
"The [early] royalties we made apparently went into Yameta," says Mitchell, who signed away the bulk of his rights in the Seventies for a reported $300,000. "But there are no detailed financial records, and for damn sure I never saw anything from Yameta."
Hendrix himself lived from hand to mouth, apparently surviving on cash handouts from Jeffrey. "When Jimi wanted money, he'd just phone up the office or the accountants, and it was there for him," says Mitchell. "He didn't bother about bread," agrees Redding. "If he wanted a car, they'd give him a car and he'd be happy."
Hendrix openly acknowledged his financial apathy, explaining all he really cared about was making music, exploring his mind, getting in touch with more spiritual pursuits. "I don't have no value on money at all," he told one interviewer. "That's my only fault. I just get things that I see and want and try to put it into music."
A woman outside of London claims she once dropped Jimi Hendrix off at a lawyer's office to draft his will, but after the guitarist's death, no such document ever surfaced. Consequently, his father obtained a court decision naming him sole beneficiary of the estate.
Al Hendrix, a Seattle gardener and landscaper who lived on modest means, was told early on by Jimi's advisers that the only money he could immediately expect was around $20,000. Al soon became suspicious of Jimi's New York lawyer and estate administrator, Henry Steingarten. Later, Al learned that Steingarten's partner was representing the affairs of Jeffrey – raising questions about a conflict of interest. Above all, says Hendrix, he found Steingarten's "attitude" off-putting.
"One time the attorney said there wasn't much [money], and the next time he said there was plenty – he was kind of wishy-washy," says Al Hendrix, who decided he needed a lawyer he could trust. While in Los Angeles in 1971 to attend a Grammy ceremony – his late son was nominated for an award – Hendrix was introduced to Leo Branton Jr. The two men discussed the problems in recovering money from Jimi's various business deals and made a gentlemen's agreement.
"We shook hands on it," recalls Hendrix. "He told me, 'If I can't get anything, you don't owe me anything. If I do, I'll probably be your attorney for life.' I said, 'That's okay with me.'"
Branton, who had never met Jimi Hendrix, was now empowered with enforcing the late guitarist's legal rights. It was a new challenge for the shrewd attorney, who had previously helped Miles Davis with drug busts and also handled matters for Nat "King" Cole. But Branton's best-known case had nothing to do with music. As a crusading civil-rights advocate who had counseled members of the Black Panthers, Branton successfully defended political activist Angela Davis against kidnapping, murder and conspiracy charges in 1972. It was a stunning victory, and Branton performed at the proceedings with the same kind of startling bravura that characterized Jimi Hendrix's fieriest solos.
Initially, Branton began making some strategic moves for the Hendrix estate, selling off Jimi's stake in New York's Electric Lady recording studios and sorting out a stack of lawsuits. He decided to avoid digging into the Yameta mess and, armed mostly with righteous indignation, forged ahead with other plans. After Branton wrested back all of the estate's assets, its holdings included the remainder of the Warner Bros. recording contract, music-publishing copyrights and rights to all unmastered tapes. Packaging these elements together, Branton brokered their sale to Presentaciones Musicales S.A., a Panamanian corporation originally founded as a holding company for his late client Nat Cole and jazz producer Norman Granz.
Among other ventures, PMSA promoted overseas concerts, produced movies and held rights to Werner Erhard's est self-help program. The company agreed to pay Al Hendrix an undisclosed amount for the assets in a deal Branton refers to as a "lifetime annuity." People close to the Hendrix legacy, however, wonder if, in retrospect, the sale was a wise move. "I've heard that they've basically given him a nice house and a small allowance," says Redding. Unofficial estimates of the deal peg it up to $10,000 a month, with perhaps profit-sharing points as well. Neither Branton nor Hendrix will reveal the specific arrangements.
"I'm well satisfied," says Hendrix, speaking recently at his home in a quiet middle-class neighborhood about twenty minutes from downtown Seattle. The house itself is clean and comfortable; a room downstairs is stuffed with photos, posters, cardboard stand-up figures and other mementos honoring his late son. There's nothing extravagant about Al Hendrix's life; he likes wearing casual polyester outfits and enjoys nothing more than a good ten frames at the bowling lanes. "I mean, with Leo, whatever I ask for, they give to me," says Al. "He probably wouldn't want me to tell you too much on that. But I'm well taken care of and so's the family . . . I don't never check on it or see what's going on, what the royalties are like. Everything is satisfactory to me."
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