Jimi Hendrix: The Legacy

Two decades later, the late guitarist's estate woes are far from solved

Jimi Hendrix
Ed Caraeff/Getty Images
Jimi Hendrix performing at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in Monterey, California.
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Once you're dead, you've got it made," said Jimi Hendrix, and he wasn't joking. Since the visionary guitarist's death in 1970, eighteen albums of newly unearthed and recycled Hendrix music have been officially released in the U.S., and his is one of the biggest-selling catalogs in Warner Bros. Records' extensive library. Although precise figures are closely guarded, it's estimated that Hendrix will sell more than 3 million albums internationally this year; additional millions of dollars will be generated by publishing royalties, home-video sales, T-shirt merchandising and other deals.

Last November, the enduring commercial legacy of Jimi Hendrix was apparent when the late guitar god finally received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A press announcement given to reporters at the ceremony not only included the requisite biographical information but also noted each album's catalog number and highest chart position. Hendrix himself probably would have been amused by all the hoopla at the event, which coincided with the release of a new four-CD box set called Stages.

Jimi Hendrix: The Man and the Music

"If he's watching these proceedings, he'd be laughing with us," said longtime friend and studio engineer Eddie Kramer as he observed the scene. "Jimi did have a very perverse sense of humor."

The bittersweet tribute attracted more than a hundred fans to the seedy corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee Avenue, near the spot where the $4800 pavement pentagram – sponsored and paid for by Warner Bros. Records – was unveiled by the district's chamber of commerce. "Today we have the pleasure of honoring one of rock's groovy legendary artists," said showbiz old-timer Johnny Grant, the buffoonish "honorary mayor" of Hollywood who hosted the ceremony.

The day was not entirely without poignancy. Perhaps the most touching moment occurred when Jimi's seventy-two-year-old father, Al Hendrix, accepted the sidewalk star with a brief, emotional "Thank you." Watching him closely from the sidelines was Leo Branton Jr., a respected civil-rights attorney. Dressed in a conservative business suit, Branton appeared out of place among the audience of mostly young kids and aging hippies. But he could hardly have been in a more appropriate place. The tough-minded lawyer for Al Hendrix, Branton helped untangle the complex legal mess that followed Jimi's death. Today, Branton serves as president of Are You Experienced? Ltd., a production company that oversees the dead rock star's worldwide recording, publishing and licensing deals for the two foreign firms that now own the assets of the Jimi Hendrix estate. Running the day-to-day business of Are You Experienced? is longtime record man Alan Douglas, who called the sidewalk ceremony "degrading" and decided not to attend.

Following the brief ceremony, Warner Bros. hosted an intimate VIP reception at the retro-hip Roosevelt Hotel. Besides Al Hendrix and Leo Branton, another honored guest was Al's son Leon, an ex-con who served time for grand larceny. With a lean, youthful appearance that belied his forty-three years, Leon nevertheless looked nervous and intensely anguished. He said he was upset over continuing false allegations that Jimi, his older brother, was a junkie, and he was also miffed about the millions of dollars that he believes slipped through his family's fingers. (Although Al Hendrix has been compensated for the rights to Jimi's music, the exact amount has never been disclosed.)

"What I really want to know," said Leon, "is why my father was the sole beneficiary to Jimi's estate and he's getting a mere pittance?"

Leon isn't the only one questioning the trail of the Hendrix fortune. Across the Atlantic, a trio of men who once played integral roles in Jimi's artistic development – comanager and producer Chas Chandler, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell – also feel like they've been cut out of the guitarist's amazing musical afterlife. Mostly, they complain how they've been denied creative input into newly released recordings, yet they also talk about not getting their fair share of the posthumous financial windfall.

These days, the three former Hendrix cohorts are trying to break back into the music business with relatively modest new projects: Chandler is producing singer and guitarist Steve Graham in his hometown of Newcastle, England; Mitchell is planning to play some U.S. dates this spring with former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor; and Redding is gigging with his own small combo near his home in West Cork, Ireland, as well as performing with Jimi Hendrix impersonator Randy Hansen. Obviously, the shadow of Hendrix still looms over all three men. "I miss my friend as much today as ever," wrote Mitchell in the dedication to his lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, Jimi Hendrix – Inside the Experience, which was published in 1990. "Sadly, his legacy seemed to be lasting pain for those lives that had touched his, musically," mused Redding in his memoirs, Are You Experienced?, also published in 1990.

The bassist is blunt but essentially correct. While the music they created more than twenty years ago continues to be repackaged and sold in astronomical numbers, Chandler, Mitchell and Redding eke out a living these days with session work, the occasional record deal, the odd gig here and there. It was a lack of experience in business dealings that left all three men without a stake in the current Hendrix bonanza.

"We can't find out the exact figures, but by counting the number of multiplatinum records that the Jimi Hendrix Experience sold, it seems as though we're talking about at least $30 million to $40 million," says Redding, who admits that, out of desperation, he signed away all artist royalties in exchange for a flat $100,000 payment during the Seventies. "It would be nice to know what they did with the money. No one knows where it went."

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."

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."

Case closed.

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.

Are You Experienced, Ltd? opened its doors in 1983, with Douglas acting as point man in charge of everything from new box sets to movie-licensing deals to album-cover designs. On days when he's not running between his cluttered, musty offices on Hollywood Boulevard and the nearby studio where he fine-tunes old tapes, Douglas fields a mountain of business offers and pursues a never-ending search for rare concert reels.

"Jimi Hendrix's music keeps me going," Douglas says. "I've recorded some great people in my life, but when I first heard Jimi, my past was over."

Douglas prefers to talk about music rather than money, shying away from revealing exact catalog figures or dollar unit sales. "Everybody thinks we're all making millions and millions and millions of dollars and there are untold fortunes," he says, shaking his head. "It's not exactly that way. Yes, of course, there's a great deal of income because we're releasing product and the product is successful."

He downplays the veil of secrecy around Interlit and Elbar. "There's no real mystery about it," says Douglas, although he, too, declines to name names. "As far as who it is exactly, it's a group of people who have other interests, and this is probably one of their lesser interests. We can't generate as much income as they can generate on the stock market."

Douglas seems slightly amused by questions about the foreign investors, but his mood quickly changes when Hendrix's disgruntled colleagues are mentioned. Former Hendrix associate Chandler, who possesses sixty-four boxes of original masters and multitracks but won't surrender them, remains a particularly prickly thorn in Douglas's side. "Fuck Chas Chandler, and you can quote me on that," Douglas says, describing his failed attempt to buy the material despite what he calls a generous offer. (Chandler denies that Douglas has ever made such an offer.)

"The truth is that Chas Chandler, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding all bailed out," Douglas says, his voice rising. "They took their money, and they went away, and now everybody's bitchin' and moanin'. I have sympathy for Noel and Mitch. Hey, I've worked with artists all my life. I'd love to see them get some money, but the people in control are accountants and they're not concerned. They have releases and contracts, and they feel, why should they have to pay somebody when they don't have to?"

Noel, Mitch and Chas aren't about to give up easily. Indeed, all three men say they're seriously mulling moves to reopen their claims to the Hendrix legacy. True, both of Jimi's sidemen signed away their rights more than a decade ago, but Redding argues that his agreement didn't anticipate the CD explosion, and Mitchell believes he possibly received inappropriate advice from people with dual interests. As for Chandler, there's still the sixty-four boxes of tapes tucked away in his vault. "They belong to me, and I'll do something with them at the appropriate time," he says.

The men who originally helped create the music may not be satisfied, says Douglas, but the legacy of Hendrix is being fulfilled and the music is reaching the people. "It's worked out for everybody," Douglas says, noting catalog sales are increasing every year and both Interlit and Elbar are happy with the results. "Nobody has any bitches except the people who sold out," he concludes. "There's nobody else to be concerned with. There's myself, Leo Branton, Jimi's father, and that's the game."

This story is from the February 6th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 623: February 6, 1992
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