Who Owns Jimi's Music -- Father Believes He Was Cheated Out Of Millions
It was an incredible offer. Sign your name and get $1 million. But the letter from "Uncle Leo" seemed a little suspicious, so Janie Hendrix-Wright got herself a lawyer who asked questions.
Then billionaire Paul Allen got involved, and thus began an intense battle for control of an appreciating gold mine known as Jimi Hendrix - the Garfield High School dropout, star of psychedelic rock, composer and cult figure whose grave in Renton attracts pilgrims from around the world. The copyrights to his music begin expiring this year.
What happened to Jimi's music after his death in 1970 is the substance of a lawsuit filed in federal court here by Al Hendrix, the musician's father and Hendrix-Wright's adoptive father. He accuses his longtime lawyer, Leo Branton, and others of engaging in a conspiracy that cheated him out of untold millions of dollars.
The story is a great Seattle drama involving two of the city's best-known celebrities, an illegitimate child, a divided family, a kindly old man and an army of lawyers.
The suit says Branton, a prominent Los Angeles lawyer, gained control over Al Hendrix, an unsophisticated seventh-grade dropout. Jimi's father was tricked, the suit says, into selling cheap his son's musical legacy to foreign companies controlled by Branton and others. The letter to Hendrix-Wright, she says, was aimed at extending the scheme by trying to get Al Hendrix's children to sell their future claims.
Branton and the other defendants deny the allegations, saying Al Hendrix was fully informed, well-paid and ethically represented.
"The motive behind this is G-R-E-E-D," says Branton, spelling the word.
Whatever Al Hendrix's motive, he probably could not have launched such a fierce court battle without $5 million in backing from Paul Allen, a rock 'n' roll hobbyist and Jimi Hendrix fan since high school.
Allen plans to open the Jimi Hendrix Museum in Seattle in 1997. He says he's helping Al Hendrix right a wrong, but Allen's museum stands to benefit if the Hendrix music falls into friendly hands. He needs the music owner's permission to create interactive exhibits, a key ingredient of the new museum.
Much more than the museum is at stake, however.
Jimi Hendrix, who would have turned 52 today, is one of a handful of rock musicians who makes more money dead than alive. This year, Jimi Hendrix even outsold Elvis, according to SoundScan, a trade publication. There is no reliable estimate of the overall value of the Hendrix legacy, but sales are brisk: $3 million a year in album royalties, $1 million a year in merchandise sales and $500,000 a year in sales of sheet music and other printed material. At least three Hendrix films are said to be in development, plus two albums for release next year. An entertainment conglomerate has offered more than $30 million for the music rights alone.
Of this, Al Hendrix has received at least $2 million over the years, both parties in the case agree. Judging by his surroundings, though, he hasn't spent much on himself. He lives in a modest home in Skyway that is decorated with drawings and paintings of his famous son. Some gold records are on the wall, but they're replicas. The originals, like so much left by the son, were stolen.
When his son died, Al Hendrix as sole heir was warned to expect little from the estate, which faced claims from his son's ex-girlfriends with babies, managers, the IRS and other creditors. The estate teetered on bankruptcy.
Al Hendrix then earned a meager $4,000 a year as a gardener. He knew virtually nothing about business, cared little about details and is a trusting, easygoing personality, say people who know him.
A friend of Jimi's recommended that Al see Branton, thus beginning a close professional association that would span more than two decades and bring the families together in friendship. Al Hendrix's grandchildren called Branton "uncle" and thought of his wife as a grandmother. The families exchanged gifts on holidays, and the Brantons hosted Hendrix-Wright and her husband, accountant Troy Wright, at their vacation home in Mexico.
Hendrix had every reason to trust Branton, who had blazed a path in law for other African Americans and who donated time to various causes. His clients included activist Angela Davis, musician Nat King Cole, witnesses called in the 1950s before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and various individuals who had been imprisoned in the South during the civil-rights movement.
"He has an outstanding reputation as a trial lawyer and is revered by the lawyers who know him," says George Mallory, past president of the Langston Bar Association, a Los Angeles group of 900 African-American lawyers.
Branton sorted through the various claims on Jimi's estate and arranged a series of deals beginning in 1974 in which Al Hendrix received promises of money in exchange for transferring rights to his son's music and other assets to a Panamanian company. Al Hendrix came away with payments of $50,000 a year for 10 years, plus big sums that were promised for a Hendrix family trust. By 1983, the value of Jimi Hendrix's music had so grown, Branton says, that he got the $50,000 payments to Al Hendrix extended for life.
The first deals were a windfall for Al Hendrix, Branton says, because no one in the music industry thought a dead artist would have lasting value. Live performances were considered critical to selling albums. Shortly after Jimi Hendrix's death, an album scraped together from unreleased tapes was rejected by a record distributor as worthless, he says.
In 1983, Branton arranged for the Panamanian company to transfer its rights to Jimi Hendrix tapes and recordings to a British Virgin Islands corporation, and its stock in Bella Godiva Music, which held the copyrights to Jimi Hendrix songs, to a company in the Netherlands.
The lawsuit contends those foreign companies are sham entities set up by Branton to disguise money funneled to him. Branton says he gets nothing from them.
Those entities now claim ownership of the Hendrix assets. In 1992, they quietly offered the assets for sale. Paul Allen expressed an interest in buying the assets, but the sellers instead chose MCA Entertainment Group, in a deal worth at least $30 million.
The offer from MCA led Branton to bring one more deal to the Hendrix family.
Branton sent Janie Hendrix-Wright and her brother, Leon Hendrix, a document that would have paid them $1 million for selling to Al Hendrix any future rights to Hendrix assets. As presumed heirs to Al Hendrix, they stood to inherit rights to Jimi Hendrix's music. Under copyright law, rights to a song revert to the artist or his heirs after 28 years.
In an interview, Branton says the purpose of the documents sent to Janie and Leon was to clear any legal uncertainties over the MCA deal. He says he advised both Janie and Leon to get another lawyer's advice.
Hendrix-Wright, 33, is close to Al Hendrix. Photos of her children are displayed in his home. A Kent resident, she feels a close kinship to Jimi Hendrix, even though she only had three brief contacts with him, the last in 1970. She fondly remembers how he held her hand and sat around the house, being nice to everyone. Later, when she heard at school that Jimi Hendrix was dead, she insisted it was a lie. It was years before she was able to even talk about his death, she says.
The family wild card is Leon Hendrix, who did time in prison for burglary and is estranged from Al and Janie. His whereabouts are unknown to the family. Ironically, it was Leon Hendrix who first raised doubts about Branton's handling of the Hendrix legacy, but his father disregarded the warnings.
Nonetheless, Leon accepted Branton's offer. Al Hendrix and his daughter did not. If MCA was offering $30 million, why were they getting so little? And didn't they still own the Hendrix music? Encouraged by his daughter, Al Hendrix decided to sue his old friend.
Leo Branton is 72. Al Hendrix is 75. They are now locked in a courtroom combat that has generated 400,000 pages of documents. For a case filed in early 1993, that's an amount that astonished the lawyers in the case. Branton says he has already run up $700,000 in legal fees defending himself. The case goes to trial in June.
Al Hendrix has received $4 million to $5 million over the past 20 years, Branton says. But Al Hendrix says he doesn't know how much he has received. He says he has never paid a lot of attention to money, so long as there was enough to pay the bills. Much of his money has gone to relatives and friends, he says. The court file describes a $15,000 loan Al Hendrix made to a family friend that was never paid back.
Al Hendrix says he did not understand that he was selling the rights to his son's music and that Branton did not disclose he had made himself a partner in various ventures using Hendrix's rights. His lawsuit says it is impossible to trace how much money Branton and others pocketed because of the myriad of transactions between entities for which there is no accounting and at best sketchy corporate records.
Branton counters that every deal he made with Al Hendrix was above board and with his client fully informed. Branton says he's done an accounting that is under seal by the court.
"It has distressed me greatly," Branton says of the legal battle. "I was very fond of Al. His family and mine became very close. I busted my butt for him."
But Al Hendrix is the one who feels betrayed.
"You gotta trust somebody," he says. "When you need legal people, your life is in their hands. I felt he was doing everything for me for the best of my interests. I trusted him to the fullest."
Now Al Hendrix is trusting another lawyer, Yale Lewis of Seattle. From time to time, Al Hendrix shows up at court hearings on his case, one time wearing an inexpensive nylon jacket and grass-stained tennis shoes with no socks.
Al Hendrix is also trusting Paul Allen, a man he hardly knows and whose motives are under scrutiny. Allen has tried to keep the spotlight off his involvement in the case. His spokeswoman said she was unaware that he was financing Al Hendrix's suit.
The defendants say Allen is just using Al Hendrix to gain control of his son's music.
Not so, says Lewis. In a statement to the court, Lewis said Allen got involved after Lewis had already begun drafting the lawsuit: "He thought Mr. Hendrix was getting screwed." Allen has acknowledged, however, that he remains interested in buying the rights.
"He said he wanted to help because he wanted to do the museum," Al Hendrix says of Allen.
Allen's interest in Jimi Hendrix began in 1967, when as a high school student he first heard the album "Are You Experienced." Allen was awestruck.
"When I heard the Hendrix album, I thought, wow, this is pretty amazing," Allen told a reporter. "There have been some great electric guitarists, but I believe Jimi represents the pinnacle of creativity in his ability to play guitar."
As a child, Allen studied violin and guitar and might have considered a career in music had he not discovered computers and gone on to launch Microsoft with Bill Gates.
Allen today has all the trappings of fabulous wealth - a waterfront mansion, a private jet and his own sports franchise, the Portland Trailblazers. He has invested in various businesses, including a controlling interest in Ticketmaster, the concert ticketing agency. But he still likes to rock: He and some friends formed The Threads, who play at occasional parties and record themselves in Allen's 72-track studio.
The billionaire is a big spender on Hendrix memorabilia. The museum won't give out details, but Allen is financing an aggressive effort to collect Hendrix items. For example, he is presumed to be the undisclosed buyer who spent $8,800 for a piece of a guitar Hendrix smashed at the Monterey music festival in 1967 and $24,150 for a velvet outfit Hendrix wore on a plane ride after the Isle of Wight concert in 1970.
Allen doesn't seem overly concerned with the money he's spending on the case, according to a deposition:
Lawyer: Do you know how much money you have loaned Mr. Hendrix for the prosecution of this suit?
Allen: No, I don't know.
Lawyer: Do you know within a million dollars?
Lawyer: Must be nice.
Even if Al Hendrix wins against Branton and the others, he faces the claims of a 25-year-old Swedish welfare recipient who says he is the rightful heir to the Jimi Hendrix fortune. The man filed suit in March against Al Hendrix and Branton, accusing them of
fraudulently keeping him from his rights as Jimi's son. The suit was timed to take advantage of the copyrights beginning to expire.
The man, born to Eva Sundquist, legally changed his name to James Hendrix. He has received several thousand dollars from Al Hendrix, has stayed at Al's house and received postcards from Al addressed to "Jimi Jr.," according to the man's Los Angeles lawyer, Lawrence Segal.
A court in Sweden declared in 1976 that the man is Jimi's son, but the ruling is not binding in the U.S. If the Swedish man wins his U.S. case, he could become first in line to claim the Hendrix copyrights.
Al Hendrix says he never addressed a card to the man as Jimi Jr., but did send money and hosted him and his mother in Seattle. Al Hendrix says Jimi once said he had no children. Segal says Al Hendrix has invented that conversation.
Segal sent a photo of his client to Paul Allen, suggesting that if Allen cared about Hendrix he might want to help the son.
But Allen is already involved. He's paying Al Hendrix's bills in that case, too.
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.