Editor's note: The following story is an RFT Web Extra written by former Riverfront Times staff writer Mike Seely, now managing editor at our sister paper, Seattle Weekly. We're also featuring an accompanying sidebar, also written by Seely, entitled, "He Ain't Not Heavy: Exploring the phenomenon of the lesser showbiz brother."
On November 6, several famous guitarists — Buddy Guy, Mike McCready, Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd among them — took the stage at the opulent Paramount Theatre, trading porn licks in front of a sold-out crowd. The concert marked the Seattle stop of an annual Jimi Hendrix tribute tour organized by Janie Hendrix, who controls a large share of her late stepbrother's estate through an enterprise called Experience Hendrix.
Conspicuously absent from the concert, which also featured former Hendrix collaborators Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, was Jimi's younger brother, Leon. As the show began, Leon could be found rehearsing with his band in a small practice space underneath the Red Door in Fremont. Leon wasn't invited to the Paramount gig, as he's been on the outs with Janie for years, the result of an epic legal struggle over the rights to Jimi's lucrative legacy — a struggle that's found Leon on the losing end time and again.
A week earlier, on Halloween: Leon and his band are sharing a bill at the Imperial Dragon, a cavernous restaurant-lounge in Tacoma, with a group fronted by Goldy McJohn, the former keyboard player for Steppenwolf and the Mynah Birds. McJohn lives in Burien, and was once tight with both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who died within days of one another in 1970.
Despite its emphasis on Asian fare, tonight the Palace is offering a $2 hot dog special in the banquet room where Leon and McJohn are to perform. In the lounge, there's another stage, where a classic-rock cover band is playing to a sparse crowd. The banquet room is slightly more crowded, albeit mostly with members of the bands and a handful of groupies.
The promoter of the gig is a large man in a bejeweled cowboy hat named Jim Nelson. Back when he was "three-quarters fucked up and had a beautiful blond wife," Nelson claims, he performed regularly at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he sang his "road song, 'Johnny B. Goode.'" Tonight, he says, he'll be performing that song with Leon's band.
"Have you seen the flyer? Have you seen it?" Nelson asks excitedly. "The flyer" is Nelson's main method for promoting this Halloween show. He claims he's handed them out and plastered them all over town, as well as at a pair of nearby military bases. He believes flyers are more effective than newspaper advertising and just about any other promotional tactic. "People keep them," he says. "That's how I promote my bands."
Judging from the lackluster crowd that's assembled shortly before Leon and his band take the stage, however, the flyer appears not to have worked as Nelson had hoped. McJohn, for one, is incensed that Nelson has promoted his Steppenwolf cover band (in which McJohn's the only original member), Goldy McJohn & Friendz, as the actual Steppenwolf. "[Nelson] is full of shit," says McJohn. "Steppenwolf would never play a room like this." McJohn, who speaks deliberately and boasts a long, gray mane of hair, hands over a self-released solo CD entitled Fugue in D, which he describes — aptly, it turns out — as "59 minutes and 23 seconds of backwards, forwards, pure, uninterrupted psychedelia."
Leon is rail-thin, with stringy hair and massive hands to rival Jimi's, and wears tinted spectacles at all times. He is dressed in a long leopard-print robe, open to reveal a T-shirt bearing his brother's likeness that he designed himself. He and his band, a four-piece, take the stage and launch into "Red House," followed by a string of hard-rock originals from the band's lone release, Keeper of the Flame. After finishing a track entitled "Voodoo River," Leon points to the sky and exclaims, "Thank you, Jimi. What's up, brother?"
The band plays a handful of other Jimi covers, including "All Along the Watchtower" and "Hey, Jimi," a lyric-tweaked interpretation of "Hey, Joe." Leon mainly plays rhythm guitar, but occasionally trades solos with Stefen Isaac, the band's competent lead guitarist. Like his brother, Leon, who sings lead, is not the greatest vocalist, his gravelly voice spitting out lyrics at such a frantic rate that they're often unintelligible. As a guitarist, however, he shows flashes of ingenuity, but mostly defers to Isaac.
"Johnny B. Goode" is the band's finale, and Nelson, as promised, strides to the stage. Leon reluctantly cedes the microphone to the promoter, who hunches and sways from left to right as he sings. After a verse and a chorus, an unimpressed Leon pushes Nelson off the stage and finishes the song himself.
"That was a bullshit thing, I'm tellin' you," says Nelson, reflecting on the incident weeks later. "Leon's a great singer, but he doesn't sing that song worth a shit. He's a class act, but he's not a rock-and-roll singer." That said, adds Nelson, "His brother's name gives him the inside track, and the guy's good."
Leon says his band received "a check for $18" for performing that night. Nelson chalks this up in part to the fact that the musicians were signing drinks to his tab without permission, and concedes, "I don't think they got paid shit."
Now 61, Leon's become accustomed to getting the short end of the stick. A former drug addict and small-time crook, Leon was famously cut out of his father's will — and in turn, Jimi's estate — before Al Hendrix's death in 2002. A costly legal battle, in which Leon claimed his stepsister Janie coerced a sickly Al into shunning him financially, ensued. It was a battle Leon would ultimately lose in 2004, and subsequent attempts to profit from his brother's legacy have been quashed in court as well.
While Leon says he's "tired of all the family stuff," there's always a chance he'll continue his quixotic quest to carve out a slice of Jimi's fortune. For now, he's left with only his music, a career he reluctantly took up a little over a decade ago, when he claims his brother encouraged him to pick up a guitar in a drug-fueled hallucination.
"This is all I've got," says Leon of his music. "This is the only way I can take care of my children and my grandchildren."
That leaves Leon trying to make a go of it in a field where his deceased brother is considered a deity. As Charles Cross, author of the 2005 Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors, puts it: "If you were Van Gogh's brother, would you paint sunflowers?"
The afternoon of the big-name Paramount concert, Leon rides the #28 Metro bus to band practice in Fremont. He's seated alone, near the front, and nobody recognizes him.
Leon has lived in Seattle almost his entire life, but spends most of his time these days at his girlfriend's place in Los Angeles. When he's in town, where the rest of his band resides, he stays in West Seattle at the Seattle West Inn & Suites, a budget motel around the corner from a bar called the Redline, where he occasionally plays impromptu gigs.
The Hendrix brothers grew up dirt-poor in Seattle's Central District. Their parents were both heavy drinkers who divorced when Leon was still a small boy. Their mother, Lucille, died soon after. Al, says Leon, "was abusive and an alcoholic and a motherfucker, but we loved him."
Jimi stayed with Al, but Leon was placed in foster care. "My dad always put me in foster homes like two blocks away, because he loved me," says Leon, five years younger than Jimi.
Leon and Jimi remained close into adulthood. Leon recalls one time when Jimi called him from London. "He played 'Purple Haze,' and I told him it was the stupidest song I'd ever heard," says Leon, cracking up over a glass of white wine at the Red Door. "He was such a mild-mannered guy. He was my brother, my father and my friend."
When Leon was in his late teens, he hit the road with Jimi, often serving as the "gatekeeper" for females in romantic pursuit of his older brother. But by the time Jimi died, Leon was making a name for himself as a small-time criminal. In the three decades that followed, Leon developed a mile-long — albeit relatively softcore — rap sheet and a serious crack-cocaine addiction.
He occasionally found employment as a delivery driver, and sold some of his artwork to help support his now-estranged wife and six children. Leon was also able to set up trust funds for each of his kids through a deal in which he relinquished to Al all future claims to Jimi-related copyrights in exchange for $1 million. Al gained control of Jimi's copyrights in 1995 after a costly legal battle of his own; that same year he formed Experience Hendrix and tapped Janie to run it, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that, among other ventures, controls Jimi's catalogue and all associated commercial releases (many of which are sold through EH's retail arm, Authentic Hendrix).
But Leon quickly pissed away his share of the loot, due in large part to his debauched, hustler lifestyle. "Leon has wasted more money than most people make in their lifetime," says Cross.
Leon has completed rehab, and his daughter, Tina, says he's made great strides as a father since cleaning up his act. But with his recent focus on his fledgling music career, he's repeating the absentee-patriarch cycle that permeated his youth.
"This was the second Christmas without him," says Tina, a music producer herself. (Her Hendrix Dynasty Records has produced Bay Area rapper Sam Quinn and the guitarist BluMeadows.) "He hasn't even seen two of his grandkids. I know you have dreams, but they just want to play chess with you. He gave a lot of energy to his kids and grandkids before, so he'd be well received if he came around. He's trying to get rich for us, but we don't care about that. When he was a drug addict, we fed him."
Yet Tina, who lives just south of town in a house off Rainier Avenue, admires her father's verve. "He's living his dream, traveling the world, and he's over 60 years old." While Tina feels her dad has chops, she considers his band's sound to be "a little dated," and says he "needs a real producer." To this end, she notes, "I would love to work with him."
"We're building a new legacy for a new time," says Tina, whose brother, Jimi II (currently doing time in Phoenix on a weapons charge), is an aspiring rapper. "We're always gonna respect [Uncle] Jimi. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be doing this. He was the first Barack Obama."
Prior to Al Hendrix's death, Janie and Leon held comparable shares of the estate, according to a September 2004 article by Cross for Tracks magazine. At the time, Janie told Cross she was surprised Leon had been excluded entirely from Al's final will.
"I can't answer for what my father was thinking," she says today. "He tried to instill his morals and his values into all of us. And I often did hear my father say that Leon didn't get it. [Al] was a gardener who often worked from six in the morning to nine at night. He was an avid golfer, and he said, 'There're no gimmes.'"
"You look at Jimi, he had his own studio," continues Janie. "[Jimi] recorded around the clock, laid down for a little while, got up, and wanted to work again. Consequently, we probably still have another ten years of unreleased material, which is incredible for an artist who really functioned for only four years. Why? His work ethic."
Janie also states that Leon was offered a design job at Experience Hendrix, but turned it down — a claim Leon disputes. "When we were in front of my dad, [Janie] said, 'Yeah, Leon can work here,'" Leon recalls. "But when I got out of treatment a year or so later, it was a different story. Every time I tried to go down there and say, 'Okay, give me the job now,' there was always an excuse. If she offered me a job now, I'd take it. She's committed genocide on my family. We got no insurance; we got nothin'."
Bankrolled to the tune of $3.5 million in legal fees by a wealthy real-estate developer named Craig Dieffenbach, who doubled as Leon's manager at the time, Leon filed suit in King County Superior Court after his father's death. He claimed his stepsister, who only met Jimi a handful of times in her youth, had manipulated an elderly, infirm Al into rewriting a will that did not represent his true interests. In court, Janie's lawyers portrayed Al's action as tough love — after Leon had squandered multiple opportunities to prove himself a worthy recipient of his brother's fortune. In 2004, the judge ruled in favor of Janie.
"Whatever the will said, Leon was the single closest person to Jimi during the course of his life," observes Cross, who attended much of the trial. "Should he have been included? Positively, yes. There's the law, and then there's what's right."
Counters Janie: "First of all, the closest person to Jimi was Dad. As far as Leon goes, it is sad and unfortunate, but Leon received more than two million dollars in his lifetime when my father was taking care of him. And Leon had already sold his rights to various people. If he'd gotten any money, it wouldn't come to him, it would come to the people he'd sold his rights to."
Not long after the verdict, Dieffenbach came out with Hendrix Electric Vodka. After Dieffenbach hosted a star-studded launch party for the hooch that was chronicled in the Los Angeles Times, Experience Hendrix sued, alleging trademark infringement. Dieffenbach countered that Janie only held the rights to Jimi's music. Janie once again prevailed in court, and last month a settlement was announced wherein Dieffenbach and Electric Hendrix, LLC will pay Experience Hendrix $3.2 million for the infraction. Bottles of the vodka will also be removed from store shelves. (It's worth noting that Experience Hendrix has pushed its share of tacky Hendrix-related products as well, including a rocking chair, golf balls and a nonalcoholic red wine. "The Jimi Hendrix rocking chair is one of the dumbest ideas ever marketed in rock and roll," says Cross.)
While some news reports stated that Leon was involved with the vodka launch, and though court documents identify him as part owner, Leon was never named as a defendant in the suit, and denies any direct involvement with the product. "I had nothing to do with it," he says. "[Dieffenbach] didn't even contact me until two years after he started the company. I came to find out later that he'd put me as an owner when he first started the company. He called it a Hendrix family endeavor in some fancy magazines, so he had to come to me then. He said, 'I'm gonna give you guys [Leon and several of his relatives] some money [2 percent shares of the company, according to Leon],' and we said okay because we didn't have no money. But we haven't seen any money since."
Dieffenbach, who now lives in Beverly Hills, remembers things much differently. "He was in on it from the very fricking beginning," he says of Leon's involvement. "I'm very disappointed in him."
Dieffenbach also disputes Leon's claim that he and family members never received payouts from the vodka endeavor. "At one point, we did a $26,000 distribution, and we'd been paying Leon for years."
Leon first met Dieffenbach in Seattle in the late '90s, shortly after Leon got out of drug treatment. At the time, Dieffenbach, who was instrumental in redeveloping the block where the Columbia City Theater and Tutta Bella Pizzeria now reside, ran a local recording studio, and he says he arranged for Leon to take guitar lessons and helped get his career off the ground. Today the two rarely speak to one another.
Now that he's $6.7 million lighter, does Dieffenbach regret getting involved in the Hendrix family affairs? "No, because there's a lot of help that we were able to bring to a lot of his family members," he insists. "We worked on saving [Jimi and Leon's childhood] house and gave it our best shot. We backed him when he got cut out of the will, but how much can you help somebody? The family's dysfunctional. That whole family has been in an awful way for a long time."
The familial acrimony has also ensnared a seemingly benign branch of the tree: the James Marshall Hendrix Foundation, which Al set up in 1988 as a means to empower Leon to do good deeds on his brother's behalf and help support himself in the process. The foundation is now headed by Jimmy Williams, a boyhood friend of both Hendrix brothers who was also very close to their father.
According to Williams, who lives in a home overlooking Boeing's Renton airstrip, he and Leon "parted company" over the foundation's direction. "Leon and others were trying to commercialize it too much," Williams says. "Janie had that side of the legacy. Al wanted [Leon's foundation] to be a pure charitable organization."
But Williams and Leon began to patch things up in 2006, when, says Williams, "Leon was having issues with people who loaned him money for the 2004 lawsuit. Everybody was broke, and the only way people could think to get the money back was through the foundation, so Leon asked me to watch his back — to take it over."
Around this time, Janie sued to get the foundation to stop using the Hendrix name. But in a rare setback, her claim was dismissed, and Experience Hendrix was ordered to pay the foundation's legal fees.
"A lot of people came aboard to take and mislead and not really help that family," says Williams, who as a boy lived for a spell with the same foster family, the Wheelers, as Leon. "Even with all that money, it hasn't benefited [them] much. My hope is that at some point — and I don't see this happening with Janie and Leon — one of their kids can piece the family back together and share in that legacy."
Despite a life fraught with disappointment, Leon remains upbeat about his future as an entertainer. He's got at least two new albums in the can, he says, with members of Styx and Deep Purple contributing. Furthermore, he's working on a biopic that he says Steven Seagal wants to produce, and has a book proposal that's attracted interest from the "biggest book agent in L.A."
But the problem is that all these projects are, to borrow a favorite phrase of Leon's, "caught up in legal" — an apt metaphor for his entire life.
Of the biopic, Leon says, "Seagal, he's a good friend of mine; he wants to make a movie, but he wants to control it. But all the other people who control a piece of [the film] don't want him to do that." (Seagal's management did not return calls seeking comment.) The book, meanwhile, is something of a mystery, as Leon can't recall the name of that big L.A. agent. As for one of the new albums, currently titled Tricked by the Sun, Leon says, "The people I was involved with, they're blackmailing each other to control it." As for the other, the one purportedly featuring musicians from Styx and Deep Purple, Leon says, "That's in legal too. I just can't believe all the shit I have to go through." (A Styx publicist denies any knowledge of this collaboration.)
One outfit that shares the rights to Leon's music and film projects is Gotham Metro, a production studio with offices in Los Angeles, Portland and Carson City, Nevada. Dave Craddick, one of Leon's many ex-managers, claims he's currently close to wresting control of Tricked by the Sun from the company, where he used to work. Gotham "didn't get its funding and ran into trouble with some other projects," explains Craddick. "As things deteriorated there, I had to take [the album] over and follow it through. I found the rest of the money to pay the producer and studio costs, then I hit a wall financially and haven't been able to hire an attorney to negotiate some of the contracts. But I have been moving forward with some online distribution outlets and some labels that are interested."
As if that weren't convoluted enough, Craddick adds: "I do have a completed master, which I'll release through my production company, Manhattan Entertainment Group. It's ready to go. I just got an e-mail from Gotham Metro saying they'll sign the album over to me. I didn't want to release it and have any loose ends, because that's when people come out of the woodwork."
Gotham Metro CEO Michael Lasky confirms Craddick's account, and classifies a Hendrix-related film project his company has been working on as "on hold." As for his company's current financial bill of health, Lasky concedes they've fallen on hard times, quipping, "If the state of California and federal government are considered solvent, then I guess we are too."
For years, Leon and his bandmates ignored this contractual tornado. But recently Isaac, for one, got fed up. "I personally couldn't take it anymore," says the guitarist, who feels that the band has become "a local Seattle joke." Hence this past August, he enlisted Chicago businessman Greg Groeper, a friend from Isaac's days as a studio engineer in the Windy City, to help apply some business-savvy salve to the band's situation.
The first person Isaac put Groeper in contact with was Williams. Groeper is now the foundation's marketing and charitable gifts coordinator, and has taken charge of the band's affairs as well. "Mark [Stella, the group's bassist] calls me the antiterrorist division," Groeper says of his current role. "He says my job is to keep the assholes away."
Groeper also helped soothe the residual tension between Leon and Jimmy Williams. "Leon knows I'm working with Jimmy, and Jimmy knows I'm working with Leon," he says. "Having me in between them has seemed to make a very big difference in their relationship. Leon could basically be the spokesperson for the foundation and use the band to create awareness and funding for the foundation. And the foundation can provide Leon with the necessary legal cover he needs to make sure that Janie doesn't go chasing his ass down the road ever again."
Adds Groeper: "I believe truly that there are a lot of things [Leon] has done that he would not have done were it not for the influence of some unscrupulous people. Yes, he's blessed with having Jimi as his brother, because that cuts through a lot of the muck and gives him an audience. But as a visual artist, he's very talented — and nobody pays attention to that. They just want to use him to market vodka or coffee or condoms or whatever. I'm just trying to convince him that he has to make it with what God gave him, not what other people give him."
Isaac first met Leon a few years ago, shortly after Leon began performing live, at a Venice Beach bar called Scruffy O'Shea's where Leon was scheduled to play. "He was scared shitless," recalls Isaac. Leon aborted his set before Isaac had a chance to join him onstage, but the pair cemented a relationship that night, and Isaac eventually joined Leon's band.
"At first, [Leon] didn't believe in himself, and has at times been afraid to play," seconds Neil Kirkland, the band's drummer and keyboardist since 2002. "But then he got good."
Good, but not great — and Jimi was arguably the best there ever was. "I have a psychological impediment being Jimi's brother," Leon concedes. But he got over this hump shortly after one of his clients came to him looking to score dope. She didn't have any money, but had an old guitar in tow, so Leon agreed to a swap. Later, while loaded, he says, he nodded off. Shortly thereafter, he claims, "Jimi came and the guitar started vibrating, making noise by itself. The guitar started to talk to me, and it was compelling."
"[Leon is] a natural musician," says Williams. "He's not Jimi — nobody is. But he's done a lot in ten years. He's mastered the guitar and has a band and he's great."
"He's way better than I expected," seconds Cross. "The problem is his brother is the most famous guitarist who's ever lived. So for Leon, it's absolutely nuts for Jimi Hendrix's brother to even think he could be a guitar player. It's suicidal, almost. You have to, to a degree, admire that."
Al sure didn't. According to Cross's book, he frowned upon his boys taking up music as a career, with Jimi often practicing in secret to avoid his father's ire. Only when Jimi made it big did his dad embrace his talent. But this only served to strengthen Al's resolve when it came to Leon.
"My dad forbade me to play after Jimi," Leon says.
For years, Leon honored his father's wishes. But when he finally went against Al's will, "his attempt at music helped get him edged out of the estate," says Cross.
Local musician-producer Brin Addison was the one who gave Leon guitar lessons on Dieffenbach's recommendation. Addison remembers the Hendrix clan being less than receptive to Leon's six-string pursuit. "I recorded countless hours of music that [Leon] could present to Al in the hopes of being accepted back into the family. Janie didn't like that idea and pretty much poisoned Al against him — and eventually he was cut out of the estate altogether," says Addison. "In the end, Al figured he knew Leon too well and didn't see music as a turning point. I'm not sure playing guitar was a direct reason for him being cut out, but it may have contributed in some way or other."
To this, Janie again denies having had any involvement in removing Leon from the will, saying only, "As far as his music career, I wish him happiness; I wish him peace; I wish him healing. If his music makes him happy, I applaud him for that."
For every gig like the one in Tacoma on Halloween, there are at least two others where Leon is treated as rock royalty — where he's not only the closest people are going to get to Jimi Hendrix, but the closest they're going to get to celebrity, period. To wit, at a working-class bar in Everett called the Doghouse, a fiftysomething Iraqi soldier on leave lit up at the mere mention that Jimi Hendrix's younger brother was playing a venue down the road. That show, a white-linen affair at Club Broadway in commemoration of what would have been Jimi's 66th birthday, ended up selling out. The crowd was receptive to the band even though Leon seemed a little off his game, understandable since he'd come straight from the airport after playing a similar birthday affair at B.B.'s in Manhattan the night before.
Leon had flown to New York unaccompanied by his regular band. Instead he played with what he termed from the stage his "New York band." After Leon opened with the track "Jimi & Me" off Keeper of the Flame, the crowd applauded warmly. To this a self-deprecating Leon responded, "You guys are too kind. That was terrible."
When he moved on to covers of "Foxy Lady" and "Red House," the assembled group of mostly Caucasian tourists became genuinely enthused. "Kind of surreal seeing Jimi's brother," remarked one onlooker.
At gig after gig, Leon's magnetism proves a recurring trait. Glen Bui, the lead guitarist for Goldy McJohn & Friendz, says that "Leon got more attention from the fans than us or Foghat" when the three acts shared a bill at Farragut State Park Amphitheater in Coeur d'Alene this past summer.
Two days after the Paramount gala, at Kennedy's Nightclub in Longview, a workaday town that most Seattleites only stop in for gas en route to Portland, Leon's band is set to share a bill with McJohn and Bui. A poster on the club's window touts Leon's band as "Jimi Hendrix brother Leon Hendrix," and a portion of the evening's proceeds is designated for the families of fallen soldiers.
Leon begins his set with an eloquent tribute to those who've perished in the line of duty, and then launches into "Let's Roll," a driving rocker about United 93. Next the band plays a solid cover of "Sympathy for the Devil," after which Leon passes around a tin bucket and encourages patrons to drop money into it for the show's beneficiaries.
Later the band covers "All Along the Watchtower," during which Leon executes a deft, smoking guitar solo. They close with their usual cover of "Johnny B. Goode," with Leon tweaking the lyrics so that he sings, "Go, Jimi, go!"
Afterwards, as McJohn and Bui haul gear to the stage in advance of their set, Leon nonchalantly sits down at a table with a drink. Mere seconds go by before a crowd gathers around him, where Leon chats with fans and autographs clothing, CDs — even a woman's breasts.
"I'm not in Jimi's shadow," he says. "I'm in the shade." (See "Voodoo Child: He Ain't Not Heavy.")
With reporting from Ben Westhoff in New York as well as Erinn Unger and Kassiopia Rodgers in Seattle.