It's a week after the Walk of Fame dedication, and Leo Branton has just returned from a visit to the dentist. Dressed casually in a green plaid shirt and dark trousers, he gingerly rubs his craggy jaw as he sits behind a desk in his small L.A. law office, located on a nondescript stretch of Wilshire Boulevard. The numbing effects of the Novocain still haven't worn off, but the attorney is more than willing to talk about his involvement with the Hendrix estate. Branton's down-home Arkansas drawl is sugary smooth, and it's easy to understand why jurors have been so captivated by his voice.
One thing he won't discuss, however, is who currently owns the Hendrix musical assets. When a Los Angeles Times reporter called two years ago about the subject, Branton angrily slammed the phone down. Though he's not nearly as gruff in person, it's obvious those kind of questions still get under his skin. Somewhat ambiguously, he explains that the Panamanian corporation PMSA is "long gone" and that ownership rights to Hendrix material have been transferred through "several hands" since then.
"Presently, Warner Bros. licenses its rights from a Dutch company called Elbar B.V., and European rights are licensed to Polydor by a company in the British Virgin Islands called Interlit," Branton says. "How they got there and everything else is a matter that I don't care to discuss, because it involves clients." Although Branton will allow that he's not a director of either company and that Elbar is not owned by Americans, that's about all he's willing to say.
"If you're looking for a road map, I'm not going to give it to you," Branton declares. "You can ask me a hundred thousand different ways and I'm not going to tell you who owns them . . . Who the owners are doesn't make any difference. Who are the owners of General Motors? Who are the owners of IBM? Who are the owners of a lot of these things?"
The attorney waves off suggestions that Al Hendrix may have sold his rights too early or for too little money. Branton argues that, at the time of the initial PMSA sale, Warner was selling a minimal volume of Hendrix catalog items and had even rejected a hodgepodge album of outtakes called Loose Ends. Back then it appeared Jimi's posthumous success was limited, if not completely over. "What you have to realize is that nobody in his wildest imagination would have imagined that Jimi Hendrix would have become what he is now," Branton says. "So, for purposes of the estate, these values given to the assets were understandably very low."
But Branton is adamant that the elderly Hendrix made the right choice. "Mr. Hendrix has not been ripped off," he insists. "Mr. Hendrix is in one thousand times better shape as a result of my representation than he would have been had I not represented him . . . I made a fabulous deal for him – I got him a lifetime annuity, plus other considerations, which I'm not at liberty to say. He's set for life, okay? And it goes beyond his life, what he gets, it goes beyond that."
Before ending the interview with some pleasant chitchat about his interest in theater and future plans for a Hendrix movie biography, Branton makes a request: "One of the things I don't want you to do, please. I don't want you to write in your story that 'I talked to Leo Branton, and he refused to say this, he was secretive about this.' I don't want you to do that. Please, it's not fair to me. People want to know how much income has been made and what his records earn and all these other things. Well, my position is that the internal affairs of clients I represent – and I do represent Elbar and Interlit – are confidential. They're not to be put in either the New York Times or Rolling Stone or the National Enquirer. It's a confidential attorney-client relationship."
Well, maybe not. This year, Elbar and Interlit accountants will likely be busier than ever before, thanks to an ever-growing number of Hendrix-related projects currently in the pipeline, ranging from a box set called The Blues to a traveling art show featuring paintings, photos and videos. The guiding force behind all of these endeavors is Alan Douglas, chief executive officer of Are You Experienced? Ltd. and the guardian of the Hendrix musical archives. "He's the creative authority, the keeper of the flame," says Don Rose, president of the independent Rykodisc label, which released two successful posthumous Hendrix albums, Live at Winterland and Radio One. "He insists on involvement on every step, and we found him to be very straightforward."
Hendrix's former colleagues hold a different view. "He's a parasite," snarls Redding. "What Alan Douglas has done since Jimi's death absolutely sucks," says Mitchell. "But let the public decide."
An engaging and loquacious record-biz vet from Boston who peppers his raps with hipster lingo, Douglas has remained a controversial figure in the Jimi Hendrix saga for more than twenty years. Originally a producer of classic jazz, blues and fusion artists – including John McLaughlin, Muddy Waters, Eric Dolphy and the Lost Poets – Douglas first met Hendrix during the Woodstock era when they lived around the corner from each other in New York. Developing a quick rapport with the young rock superstar, the producer began hanging out as an informal studio advisor, an occasional drug sampler and a frequent musical sounding board. After Hendrix died, manager Jeffrey, engineer Kramer and drummer Mitchell pulled together some studio tracks Hendrix had been working on and, in 1971, released them as The Cry of Love. Then, in 1974, a Warner Bros. Records executive asked Douglas if he'd like the job of overseeing Hendrix's recordings. Douglas made a deal to deliver three "new" albums, and after hooking up with Branton he soon became the primary creative catalyst in Hendrix's resurrected career.
Early on in his work for Warner's, Douglas committed the ultimate sin in the minds of purists when he began remolding Hendrix songs – taking off the original studio musicans and overdubbing session players behind Jimi's guitar and vocals. But he has no regrets about his decision. "It's a platinum album; if it was a bad album, nobody would buy it," he says of his first overdubbed project, Crash Landing, though he acknowledges "stretching for material" on his second studio attempt, Midnight Lightning. Since wrapping his initial Warner Bros. deal in 1981, Douglas has concentrated his efforts on preserving live performances.
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