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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.