The Battle Over the Jimi Hendrix Estate

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On September 18, 1970, the world lost the man that Rolling Stone crowned the best guitarist ever. Jimi Hendrix discovered his gift on a $5 acoustic guitar when he was thirteen years old, and despite a lack of formal training and releasing just three albums during his lifetime, he remains one of the most influential musicians of all time. His legendary genius continues through each generation who discovers him. But he also has another, less admirable legacy—a decidedly legal one. Thirty four years after his death, in September of 2004, Jimi Hendrix's estate was still in court.

Although many of the estate's lawsuits involve record companies, recording studios, and royalty rights, the most recent battle kept it in the family. At just 27 years old, Jimi Hendrix died without a will. His estate was then managed by a California attorney for nearly twenty years before Jimi's father, Al, sued for the rights to Jimi's music, which he won in 1995. Under the name of the estate, Al created multiple trusts, partnerships, and corporations, notably Experience Hendrix, L.L.C. based in Seattle. This company, in conjunction with MCA Records, helps allows Jimi to live on through newly released DVDs, videos, CDs of previously-unreleased material, and even the "Jimi Hendrix Red House Tour," a traveling museum of replicas of Hendrix memorabilia.

Things got more complex when Al died in 2002. At the time, the Hendrix estate was worth about $80 million, which went almost entirely to Al's adopted daughter Janie. Al had divorced Jimi's mother in the late 1950s and adopted Janie when he married her mother in 1968. Jimi's brother, Leon, alleged that Janie manipulated Al into writing Leon and his children out of the will, and sued to be written back in. In the same suit, other beneficiaries claimed that they received nothing while Janie and a cousin in charge of the estate grossly mismanaged and abused trust funds.

The nearly three-month trial saw an allegation that Janie spent $1.7 million on her corporate credit card and an insinuation that Leon was a drug addict looking for a free ride. In the end, Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell of the King County Superior Court in Washington handed down small victories for both sides. Ramsdell didn't believe that Janie preyed on Al's weakened state and coerced him to ax Leon from the will. Instead, Ramsdell noted that Leon's drug use, demands for money, and threats of litigation provided reason enough for Al to change his estate plan. Quite simply, according to Judge Ramsdell, "Janie was the family member Al trusted the most."

Interestingly, despite all of the recent interfamilial legal wrangling over the estate, one Hendrix biographer claims that those who had been closest to Hendrix during his life, particularly relatives on his mother's side, never benefited at all from his body of work. Those left out in the cold will have to enjoy Hendrix the way the rest of us do—images and sounds of him playing "Purple Haze" on the guitar behind his head or performances in the famous butterfly costume—while following the latest lawsuit in the news.

The disagreements and accusations will undoubtedly continue ad infinitum among the Hendrix family and associates, but there is one sentiment with which everyone can agree: the court system has played far too big a role in the Hendrix Experience.