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'Scuse me while I kiss this pile

Who are the winners in the Jimi Hendrix estate case - fans, family or fat cats? Harry Shapiro reports, while below, Jim White ponders rock's litigious past

Jim White
Monday 07 August 1995 23:02 BST

A bitter two-year court battle ended in Seattle last week when Jimi Hendrix's father Al wrested back control of his son's legacy from the former estate lawyer Leo Branton. At stake was the Hendrix industry valued at around $80m comprising copyrights on Hendrix's entire recorded output, unreleased tapes, music publishing rights, photos, films, videos, the right to exploit the image of Jimi Hendrix, the works.

But when Hendrix died, 25 years ago next month, it was a different story. His then manager, the late and very shady Mike Jeffrey, told Al Hendrix there was only $20,000 in the account to deal with a mountain of debts, including back taxes and unpaid bills for the construction of Hendrix's New York studio Electric Ladyland. Enter a feisty Los Angeles lawyer Leo Branton who represented Nat King Cole and convinced an all-white jury to acquit Black Panther activist Angela Davis. He took control of the estate, saw off Hendrix's existing lawyers by threatening (ironically as we shall see) conflict of interest suits and clawed back sufficient royalties and rights to take care of Al Hendrix's modest needs for the rest of his life.

In 1974, on Branton's advice, Al signed papers which effectively sold the entire legacy to a Panamanian company represented by Branton called Presentaciones Musicales SA. Under this agreement, Al's lifetime income was further secured and even increased.

Soon after, the rights were passed onto two offshore companies - Elber BV, a Dutch company that licensed Hendrix's recordings to Warner Brothers in the US, and Interlit, in the British Virgin Islands, dealing with Polygram which had distribution rights for all territories outside the US. Within the States, Bella Godiva Music handled the publishing. Elber, Interlit and Bella Godiva were all represented by Leo Branton who also acted for yet another Hendrix-related company Are You Experienced Ltd run by Alan Douglas.

Douglas was a record producer who had worked with Lenny Bruce and John McLaughlin among others and who met Jimi during the last two years of his life. When Jimi died, Douglas approached Mike Jeffrey with a view to taking artistic control of the catalogue. Jeffrey refused, but when Jeffrey died in an air crash in 1973, Douglas met with more success dealing with the new estate authority Leo Branton who knew an awful lot about business but nothing about the music. For the next twenty years, until last week, not a single item of legitimate Hendrix product was released without Douglas's say-so.

All appeared sweetness and light until 1993 when Al Hendrix read that negotiations were under way for the sale of his son's legacy. Discussions were being held between Douglas and many of the world's major record companies including Polygram and BMG. Significantly, Douglas was also approached by Paul Allen, the millionaire co-founder with Bill Gates of the Microsoft computer empire. Allen is a very big Hendrix fan and and was able to put in a heavyweight bid, but apparently wanted to deal with a small US label rather than one of the multinationals, which Douglas thought essential for proper worldwide marketing and distribution. Eventually the US catalogue rights were sold to MCA, owned by the Japanese multi-national Matshuita.

The Hendrix family, led by Al's daughter Janie, hit the roof because, as Al claimed, he was never made aware that he was signing away actual ownership of all the rights: he thought all these deals were simply licensing arrangements - "rental" as he put it. The family was anxious to sue, but it is doubtful if they would have had the financial wherewithal had Paul Allen not stepped in. No doubt still smarting from Douglas's rebuff, he bankrolled what was shaping up to be a very acrimonious and protracted, multi-million dollar lawsuit. Battle was joined.

In the music business, litigation is run of the mill; no self-respecting rock 'n' roll lawyer would consider the day was properly underway until he's threatened to sue somebody. Recent history is awash with clashes between artists and record companies, former managers and publishers, mainly over Mickey Mouse contracts and royalty statements. Elton John, The Who, Sting and Bruce Springsteen all came out ahead of the game. George Michael is still licking his wounds. The Hendrix case was different; the fundamental and far-reaching issue at stake was "who actually owned the music of Jimi Hendrix, the greatest rock guitarist the world has ever seen?"

During 1994, this question was put to both Branton and Douglas: "who owns the secretive Alber and Interlit?" They said they didn't know. Judicial jaws dropped in disbelief. But what Hendrix lawyer Yale Lewis called "a very strong case" was building up against Leo Branton: allegations of conflict of interest, breach of trust and prosecution claims of a tax scam. Faced by a cripplingly expensive trial which they almost certainly would have lost, Branton and his co-defendants accepted an 11th- hour mediated settlement. Not surprisingly, Yale Lewis declares himself well- satisfied with the result: "We have 100 per cent of the legacy including some rights that the defendants claimed they had acquired independent of Mr Hendrix." Branton and Douglas don't go away empty handed, however; the terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but, says Lewis, they will get a payment, though it is "quite modest relative to the value of the legacy".

There is now intense speculation as to which record company will handle Jimi's music. Insider views vary. Given the dubious genesis of their ownership, MCA may be pushed out as the US label or conversely may take over worldwide when Polygram's distribution deal with the estate expires in the autumn. Alternatively there may be a bidding war for the whole catalogue. But possibly the biggest loser in all of this is Alan Douglas; for him it was never just about the earning potential of the catalogue. Opinion about Douglas's role as the "keeper of the flame" is very strongly divided. The major league Hendrix collectors, fanzine editors and Jimi convention organisers (disparagingly referred to as "anoraks") and many of the older fans are now dancing on the grave of Douglas's thwarted ambitions. They have never forgiven Douglas (who they affectionately dubbed "After Death") for his first two decisions concerning albums Crash Landing (1975) and Midnight Lightning (1976) for which he stripped out the rhythm tracks featuring original Hendrix musicians and replaced them with contemporary players. Some of the subsequent releases have been barrel-scraping compilations, while he has steadfastly refused to release the only genuine Hendrix album never available on CD, the soundtrack of the film Rainbow Bridge because of his view that it was rubbish. Neither has he ever sanctioned a biopic of Jimi because he felt (with some justification) that with concert footage and the music, who needs a film?

But within the business, there is still strong support. While acknowledging the widespread criticism of Douglas's custodianship, Neil Storey of Partridge Storey, who have been responsible for all Hendrix's publicity outside the US, says his four-year relationship with Douglas has been "fantastic" and that "there is nobody better" to fill the role of Hendrix curator. Chris Griffin of MCA agrees: "Alan has got Jimi Hendrix tattooed on his heart."

During the trial the defendants made much of what was described as Alan Douglas's "creative genius" in developing the value of the catalogue from a point in the mid 1970s when Hendrix was for most young people just another sixties has-been. This was countered by the view that given the eventual nostalgia boom for the Sixties and the rise of the CD, a revival in interest in Hendrix would have happened anyway. But Chris Griffin maintains that without Alan Douglas, there would have been far less money to argue over and is full of praise for Douglas's understanding of the "17- to 24-year- old Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans who still want to buy Jimi Hendrix records and who want to know everything about him. He convinced the record companies to have top quality artwork and twenty four-page booklets which are a big financial undertaking".

In the wake of Douglas's demise, both Storey and Griffin fear that quality control will slip into the hands of some inexperienced junior record company executive. Yale Lewis is adamant that this will not happen, but asked if Al Hendrix would ever ask Alan Douglas to become involved in Hendrix projects again the response was "highly unlikely".

Microsoft's Paul Allen has a genuine love of Hendrix's music. He is a real die-hard fan who is making use of his millions to build a Hendrix museum in Seattle, the city of the great man's birth. Without Allen there might have been no lawsuit. Alan Douglas, it's worth observing, never had any time for "anoraks", convinced his duty was to the broadest possible constituency of Hendrix consumers, both casual and obsessive. Ironic, then, that his downfall should have been engineered by an anorak with enough financial muscle to send the "enemy" scrabbling off into a purple haze.

n Harry Shapiro is author of 'Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy'. The revised edition is published next month by Mandarin.

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