MCA Music Entertainment Group has delayed a multimillion-dollar purchase of Jimi Hendrix’s recording and publishing copyrights after the late rock star’s father protested the sale.
The multimedia deal--estimated by sources to exceed $30 million--was scheduled to be signed this week, but was put on hold, sources said, after objections were raised in a letter Monday from Al Hendrix, the 73-year-old father and the sole heir to the estate of the most influential guitarist in the history of rock.
“I am so angry about this (sale),” Hendrix said in a phone interview from his Seattle home, speaking publicly for the first time about his complaints. “Nobody ever informed me that the rights to my son’s music were up for sale. If it’s true, I think it’s a total rip-off.”
Hendrix’s concern is part of a wider questioning of the way his son’s business affairs have been handled since his 1970 death.
Hendrix acknowledged he sold the rights to distribute the music to a foreign corporation in 1974, but said that didn’t include the ownership of the copyrights--and thus, he argues, he retains veto power over any proposed sale of the catalogue.
“I do not believe I ever signed away the rights to my son’s music,” Hendrix said. “I was assured from the start by my attorney that I was granting only the right to use the tapes. If this sale can go ahead without my consent then I have been deceived.”
Worldwide sales of Hendrix albums and videos reportedly now generate in excess of $3 million a year in royalties. In addition, more than $1 million worth of garments, posters and paraphernalia bearing his name and likeness are sold each year. (MCA-owned Winterland Productions has owned those rights since 1985.) Hendrix declined to discuss finances, but sources said the former gardener has been paid less than $2 million in the past 20 years.
Hendrix’s catalogue has been operated since 1974 by two offshore investment corporations--Bureau Voor Muziekrechten Elber B.V. (Elber), based in the Netherlands, and Interlit, based in the British Virgin Islands--under deals negotiated by Leo Branton Jr., Al Hendrix’s attorney for 22 years.
Concerned over the handling of his affairs, Hendrix fired Branton in February and hired Seattle attorney Yale Lewis Jr., who applauded MCA’s delay this week in response to his client’s concerns as “conscientious.”
“MCA expressed to me a deep interest in Jimi Hendrix and his family,” Lewis said. “The company said they had been assured by the people with whom they were negotiating that Mr. Hendrix had no interest in the sale.”
MCA declined to comment on the latest wrinkle in the sale. But Los Angeles entertainment attorney Michael Rosenfeld, who represents Interlit and Elber, said he believes the agreement will move forward.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my clients hold the ownership rights,” Rosenfeld said. “I believe this agreement will be concluded shortly.
Branton acknowledged that he was terminated, but angrily denied wrongdoing.
“I brought Mr. Hendix back from a position of having nothing to a point where he is a millionaire many times over,” Branton said Wednesday. “Neither he nor his attorney has ever given me any reason why they claim I have failed.
“I feel that Mr. Hendrix is being misled by someone into thinking that he still owns all the Hendrix rights, which he knows were sold many years ago.”
Rumors of the pending sale surfaced in January when Elber began quietly negotiating terms with several record companies for the North American ownership rights to Hendrix’s recording and publishing catalogues, sources said. An option to purchase international rights to the recordings was also said to be up for grabs when Dutch-owned PolyGram Records’ license to distribute the material expires in 1995.
Sources close to the talks said MCA, which is owned by Japanese electronics giant Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. Ltd., offered a substantially higher bid than Bertelsmann Music Group, Sony Music, PolyGram and Warner Music, whose 26-year license to distribute the psychedelic icon’s music expired on Dec. 31.
“When I came onto this case, the Jimi Hendrix estate was completely worthless,” Branton recalled. “The main reason for Hendrix’s current success is the tremendous amount of money that (the foreign corporations) and its successors pumped into the various projects.”
At the time of his death, the 27-year-old rocker reportedly owed thousands of dollars in advanced royalty payments to his record company and personal manager. Following a series of bad investments and bitter litigation battles that nearly drove the estate into bankruptcy, Hendrix’s father hired Branton, a prominent civil rights attorney, in 1971 to manage his business affairs.
Branton restructured the assets, settled all pending litigation and quickly re-established control over most of Hendrix’s original master tapes. He hired Alan Douglas, owner of Hollywood-based Are You Experienced?, Ltd., as a consultant to edit and prepare unreleased Hendrix material for the pop market.
In February, 1974, Al Hendrix reportedly signed a document that relinquished all rights to his son’s “unmastered” tapes for $50,000 to Presentaciones Musicales SA (PMSA), a Panamanian corporation. The sale did not include the right to receive income from tapes that had already been mastered.
One month later, Hendrix reportedly signed another document that transferred all his stock in Bella Godiva--a publishing company founded in 1967 by Jimi Hendrix--to PMSA for $500,000, which was to be paid out over a 10-year period.
Hendrix’s money-making potential multiplied in the early ‘80s and Branton negotiated an additional agreement in 1983 between PMSA, Interlit and Elber that extended Al Hendrix’s $50,000-a-year stipend for life.
The deal also provided that a six-figure sum should accrue annually for Hendrix until 1993 in the account of an unknown foreign corporation. Payments to Hendrix from the account--which sources speculate now contains more than $2 million--were scheduled to begin next year.
But Hendrix said he had no proof that such an account exists. Even if Hendrix cannot legally claim ownership of his son’s catalogue, some legal experts speculate that he or the guitarist’s siblings--Leon and Janey Hendrix--may be able to re-establish control over the music in the year 2009.
Under the section of the U.S. Copyright Act that provides for termination of transfers and licenses, the heirs of a recording artist have the right to terminate any licensing agreement 35 years after the day it was signed.