Leon Hendrix continuing battle over Jimi's estate

Brother started lawsuits against stepsister in April

August 20, 2002|By John Zebrowski | John Zebrowski,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEATTLE - Jimi Hendrix's father wasn't gone a day before his family started fighting over him - or, more precisely, an estate believed to be worth more than $100 million.

On April 17, just hours after James "Al" Hendrix passed away in his sleep, lawyers for Leon Hendrix faxed a letter to lawyers for Janie Hendrix.

Leon is Jimi's 54-year-old brother; Janie his 41-year-old stepsister. Leon, the self-proclaimed black sheep of the family, was worried by what he thought were early maneuverings by Janie over Al's possessions. The letter warned her not to freeze him out.

The next day, Janie's lawyers struck back. "It is regrettable that on the very day James Allen Hendrix died and his family is in mourning, your client has proceeded to threaten legal action," their fax said.

Four months later, the battle has intensified.

Friday, Leon's lawyers filed three separate suits in King County Superior Court with the aim of wresting control of the estate from Janie. The filings contend that Al Hendrix wasn't competent when he signed a trust agreement in 1998 making Janie his primary heir and essentially disowning Leon. Leon's inheritance: one gold Jimi Hendrix record from Al's collection, chosen by Janie. The lawsuit refers to Al as "functionally illiterate," a simple man with a drinking problem who was easily led.

The suit alleges that Janie campaigned to persuade a sick old man to disown his son. This campaign, the lawsuits charge, extended outside the family, interfering with Leon's attempts to become the second Hendrix in the music industry.

Even before the lawsuits were filed, Janie's side responded by painting Leon as a former drug addict and criminal who has freeloaded off Jimi's money his whole life.

Al Hendrix's money was Jimi's money, inherited when the rock star died at age 27 in his London flat in 1970. What was once an estate worth $500,000 is now thought to be one of the biggest estates in rock 'n' roll. Forbes magazine estimated the estate earned $8 million last year.

With the estate under Janie's control, the past seven years have brought a flood of Hendrix products to market. While there have been several well-received new CDs, there have also been Hendrix golf balls, a putter, guitars, rocking chair, coffee table, mugs, even an Audi sports car "designed under the influence of Jimi Hendrix."

There was even a plan to move Jimi's remains, at Greenwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Renton, Wash., to a gleaming new mausoleum. Many die-hard fans fear it's all part of a plan to create a family-friendly Hendrix for the mainstream audience.

Leon said he will concentrate more on the core of Jimi's music if he wins the suits. He also talks about opening a museum that would bring music fans from all over to celebrate Jimi.

Janie didn't return phone calls seeking comment; her lawyer declined to be interviewed. But she previously has defended the direction of the company, saying that "if some people think that some things are distasteful, they really don't have to buy them."

Soon after Jimi died, Al signed a number of contracts on the advice of his attorney, Leo Branton, that essentially gave his rights away. After a nasty battle of his own, Al settled with Branton in 1995 and gained the rights to Jimi's music.

"Everyone was optimistic for the future," said Ray Rae Goldman, a major collector of Hendrix-related documents. "But it didn't last. The whole point was for the money to go back to Al, to his family. Instead, it goes to her family."

Janie was adopted by Al after he married her mother in 1966. To some die-hard fans, she has never been a real Hendrix. She was 9 when Jimi died and had met him only a handful of times.

After the 1995 settlement, Al became chairman of Experience Hendrix, the company that manages Jimi's estate. He named Janie as president. She ran the company and became the public face of the Hendrix family.

Janie insists she is a legitimate heir to Jimi. In an interview with Seattle author Mary Willix, she recounted her 1968 meeting with Jimi, when he returned to Seattle after a decade away. She said she wondered why people were calling her Jimi's stepsister.

"I asked him what that meant," she said. "Step sounded like somebody you step on. And he said, `No, you are my sister. You will always be my sister. You are my only sister.'"

Leon doesn't buy it. Leon and Jimi lived together when they were young - before Jimi ran away to the Army and Leon was placed in foster homes. It was Jimi, Leon said, who helped introduce him to the drugs that would haunt his own life.

"I was a bad boy all my life," Leon said recently, swearing he's drug-free. "But I've got the DNA. I'm the only real Hendrix left."

But by the time he died, Al had publicly questioned whether Leon was really his son.

In a 1978 will, Al wrote, "I have one natural, living child. His name is Leon Morris Hendrix." Twenty-one years later, though, Al had changed his mind. In the book My Son Jimi, Al said, "Leon and Jimmy had the same mother, but Jimmy is my only child."

Leon carries his birth certificate, which has Al's name on the line marked "Father." To Leon, Al's denial of his parentage can only be the work of Janie.

"I know he didn't believe that," said Leon. "Things weren't easy between us. But I made my peace with him."

Charles Cross, who is working on a Hendrix biography, said Jimi's true legacy will be overshadowed as long as people fight over it.

"This is one of the most litigated estates in the history of rock 'n' roll," he said. "It's clearly a very valuable estate. But there's also an important cultural legacy - and that's what's suffering."

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