In the song “Castles Made of Sand,” Jimi Hendrix sang about a “little Indian brave” who dreamed of growing up to be a fearless warrior. “I was surprised to find myself the main character in the second verse,” recalls Leon Hendrix, the late guitarist’s kid brother, who is now 64.
The younger Hendrix has just published a book, Jimi Hendrix: A Brother’s Story, which recounts a childhood with the lanky daydreamer who would go on to revolutionize the electric guitar. Shut out of the Hendrix estate in a dispute with his half-sister, Leon Hendrix won rights to his brother’s name and likeness in a 2011 ruling, and lately he has found an audience in Europe with his own familiar-sounding music.
How long have you had this kind of reception in Europe?
It’s unbelievable. All our concerts sell out, and we broke the record in Krakow, Poland, with 7800 guitars [playing at once for a Guiness Book of World Records attempt]. I was the main host. There were, like, 20,000 people there. This whole country has set up a Jimi Hendrix thank-you tour. I mostly play in Italy and Germany. It’s awesome, because we never got any money from the Jimi Hendrix estate, which is run by my Japanese sister. Jimi’s looking out for me, buddy. ‘Cause I can’t get a job at McDonald’s [laughs].
You’ve got stories about Jimi that nobody else has.
Exactly, and I’ve still got more. But I have to be coaxed into remembering them.
Tell me about the nickname “Buster.” That’s all you called him, right?
Yeah, because he was born Johnny Allen Hendrix. Everyone called him Little Johnny – “Hey, Johnny. Come, Johnny.” He bonded with Johnny. Then our father came home [from the military] five years later – he’d never seen the kid – and he picked him up and said, “I’m gonna change your name.” Daddy, why? “Because that’s the name of your mother’s boyfriend.”
Jimi would never answer to James. When we lived in the projects, there was a field house where every Saturday, if you brought a nickel, you could watch 15 minutes of Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon. So one day he came home, put a cape on and said, “My name is Buster.” We’ve been calling him Buster all our lives.
All that stuff about him loving Flash Gordon and flying saucers – it seems obvious where his personality came from. He definitely had that kind of innocence and gentle, inquisitive spirit as an adult.
You know Ancient Aliens? They should read some of Jimi’s lyrics if they want real proof of the intervention of aliens. He used to tell me these stories when I was a little kid. They’re real. I saw an unidentified flying object myself. There’s definitely a connection somewhere.
In the book you recall the time when Jimi took apart your father’s radio and said, “I’m looking for the music.” That’s a great story.
We lost the screwdriver behind the bed and he couldn’t put the radio back together. Otherwise my dad would have never known. We got a whuppin’ for that.
And the story about when you were cleaning out a woman’s garage and found a ukulele, his first instrument.
True. Also the story where he didn’t have an amp? He was a genius. He took an old Decca record player and rewired it so the speakers would produce sound. He said, “Leon, hold these wires together!” He was so active playing the guitar – “Hold those wires together!”
You write about your travels with him from Seattle to L.A. after he began recording. That seems like a compressed period – maybe a month or so?
I actually don’t remember, but I remember all the shows. Before that we went to Canada and Spokane. We drove. And then Jimi said, “Here’s some money. Come to L.A.” He wanted me to work with him. He was starting a record company, and he wanted his old management out. He wanted me to be his personal assistant, to watch for people stealing from him. He could catch a guy redhanded and he couldn’t say nothing. But me, as a street kid, I’d say, “Dude, get out – you’re fired!” It was crazy – they’d go to the box office with a gun and collect the money. The guy would give us each 50 bucks and I’d go, “Dude, I just saw you collect $90,000. And we’re on a budget?”
Where did Jimi’s voice come from? It was so unique, so mellow.
That’s because he was always told to shut up when he was a kid. My dad always said “children should be seen and not heard.” Jimi was always introverted. My dad didn’t like him playing music, and that hurt his feelings. He went inside with his art and music. But when he got onstage, that was his time to say “Fuck you, motherfuckers.” That was his escape.