Twenty-five years after the death of Jimi Hendrix, the rock icon's father has regained control over his legacy.
Under a settlement expected to be signed Friday, the rights to the famed '60s psychedelic guitarist's image and music will be returned immediately to James Al Hendrix, the Seattle rock star's 76-year-old father and sole heir to his estate.
As part of the pact, Hendrix agreed to drop a 2-year-old fraud lawsuit against Leo Branton Jr., a prominent Los Angeles civil rights attorney whom the father had accused of selling the rights to the late rock star's catalogue without his consent.
"I feel elated," said Hendrix in a phone interview from his modest Seattle home. "Jimi would feel happy to know we won this thing and got it all back. It's a great day."
Worldwide sales of Hendrix albums 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. The elder Hendrix has been paid less than $2 million in the past 20 years.
Hendrix filed the suit on April 19, 1993, after learning that MCA Music Entertainment was preparing to purchase his son's recording and publishing copyrights, from a pair of international companies that claimed to own them. The MCA deal--estimated to be worth $40 million--was put on hold after objections were raised in a letter to the Universal City-based firm by Hendrix's father.
Branton was not the only party named in the suit. Also named as defendants were producer Alan Douglas and several firms that have profited from Hendrix's catalogue since 1974 under contracts negotiated by Branton: New York-based Bella Godiva Music Inc.; Presentaciones Musicales SA (PMSA), a Panamanian corporation; Bureau Voor Muzeikrechten Elber B. V., based in the Netherlands; and Interlit, based in the British Virgin Islands.
James Marshall Hendrix, born in Seattle on Nov. 27, 1942, redefined the sound of the electric guitar with his first album, "Are You Experienced?" in 1967.
Although he recorded only five albums during his brief career, Hendrix's penchant for loud, dissonant feedback altered the course of American music, influencing such seminal figures as Miles Davis, the Funkadelics and Nirvana.
On the day he died in 1970, however, the 27-year-old rocker owed thousands of dollars in advanced royalty payments to his record company and personal manager.
After a series of bad investments and bitter litigation battles that nearly drove the estate into bankruptcy, Hendrix's father, a retired gardener, hired Branton in 1971 to manage his business affairs.
Branton, who had previously represented such high-profile clients as Angela Davis and Nat King Cole, restructured the assets, settled all pending litigation and quickly re-established control over most of Hendrix's original master tapes. He hired producer Douglas as a consultant to edit and prepare unreleased Hendrix material for the pop market.
Branton negotiated two contracts in early 1974--signed by Al Hendrix--that relinquished all rights to his son's "unmastered" tapes for $50,000 to PMSA and transferred all his stock in Bella Godiva, his son's music publishing company, for $50,000.
Another agreement for additional rights was negotiated by Branton in 1983 between PMSA, ARM, Interlit and Elber that extended Hendrix's $50,000-a-year stipend for life--a deal that the suit maintained Hendrix never approved or signed. According to the suit, Branton also represented Interlit and ARM in the deal.
The 1983 contracts also provided that a six-figure sum should accrue annually for Hendrix until 1993 in the account of an unknown foreign corporation--with payments to Hendrix scheduled to begin next year. But the suit maintained that Hendrix had no evidence that the alleged account existed.
PMSA and the other overseas companies were later discovered to be part of a tax shelter system created by Harry Margolis, a Saratoga attorney whom federal prosecutors charged but never convicted of tax fraud.
The tax shelter plan collapsed after Margolis' death in 1987, and also sparked complaints from the estates of other entertainment clients, including singer Nat King Cole, screenwriter Larry Hauben as well as from followers of New Age philosopher Werner Erhard, who allegedly stashed revenues from his EST enterprise in the foreign account.
"This is a major victory for Jimi's father," said O. Yale Lewis Jr., the Seattle lawyer who represented Hendrix's father in the lawsuit. "Mr. Hendrix got back 100% of the rights without incurring any of the enormous costs or stress of what would have been a three-month trial."
None of the parties involved in the litigation would discuss details of the settlement, but sources said that Hendrix will be required to pay Branton and others between $5 million and $10 million over time to resolve the matter. In addition, the family must repay a $6-million loan to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a Hendrix fan who helped underwrite the legal battle until last fall.
In return, Douglas and other defendants will immediately make payments to Hendrix in excess of $1 million. Douglas and Branton are required to immediately return all of the rock star's properties--including the titles to his songbook and the original master tapes. Although the agreement allows Douglas to complete an album and documentary in progress, he is barred from initiating or participating in any new Hendrix-related projects without prior written consent.
It also maintains that the Jimi Hendrix Foundation, a scholarship fund affiliated with Douglas and not approved by Hendrix's relatives, will also be turned over to the family.
MCA, which currently distributes Hendrix's recordings in the United States under a five-year licensing agreement, is attempting to negotiate a deal with the family to continue distributing the music.
Polygram, whose license to distribute Hendrix's music internationally will expire this year, also is attempting to negotiate global film and music rights to Hendrix.
The film and music rights could be worth as much as $80 million, sources said.
Several major film studios, including Disney, have approached the family about producing a film biography of Hendrix.