By Jeff Balke
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While Leon says he's "tired of all the family stuff," there's always a chance he'll continue his quixotic quest to carve out a slice of Jimi's fortune. For now, he's left with only his music, a career he reluctantly took up a little over a decade ago, when he claims his brother encouraged him to pick up a guitar in a drug-fueled hallucination.
"This is all I've got," says Leon of his music. "This is the only way I can take care of my children and my grandchildren."
That leaves Leon trying to make a go of it in a field where his deceased brother is considered a deity. As Charles Cross, author of the 2005 Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors, puts it: "If you were Van Gogh's brother, would you paint sunflowers?"
The afternoon of the big-name Paramount concert, Leon rides the #28 Metro bus to band practice in Fremont. He's seated alone, near the front, and nobody recognizes him.
Leon has lived in Seattle almost his entire life, but spends most of his time these days at his girlfriend's place in Los Angeles. When he's in town, where the rest of his band resides, he stays in West Seattle at the Seattle West Inn & Suites, a budget motel around the corner from a bar called the Redline, where he occasionally plays impromptu gigs.
The Hendrix brothers grew up dirt-poor in Seattle's Central District. Their parents were both heavy drinkers who divorced when Leon was still a small boy. Their mother, Lucille, died soon after. Al, says Leon, "was abusive and an alcoholic and a motherfucker, but we loved him."
Jimi stayed with Al, but Leon was placed in foster care. "My dad always put me in foster homes like two blocks away, because he loved me," says Leon, five years younger than Jimi.
Leon and Jimi remained close into adulthood. Leon recalls one time when Jimi called him from London. "He played 'Purple Haze,' and I told him it was the stupidest song I'd ever heard," says Leon, cracking up over a glass of white wine at the Red Door. "He was such a mild-mannered guy. He was my brother, my father and my friend."
When Leon was in his late teens, he hit the road with Jimi, often serving as the "gatekeeper" for females in romantic pursuit of his older brother. But by the time Jimi died, Leon was making a name for himself as a small-time criminal. In the three decades that followed, Leon developed a mile-long — albeit relatively softcore — rap sheet and a serious crack-cocaine addiction.
He occasionally found employment as a delivery driver, and sold some of his artwork to help support his now-estranged wife and six children. Leon was also able to set up trust funds for each of his kids through a deal in which he relinquished to Al all future claims to Jimi-related copyrights in exchange for $1 million. Al gained control of Jimi's copyrights in 1995 after a costly legal battle of his own; that same year he formed Experience Hendrix and tapped Janie to run it, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that, among other ventures, controls Jimi's catalogue and all associated commercial releases (many of which are sold through EH's retail arm, Authentic Hendrix).
But Leon quickly pissed away his share of the loot, due in large part to his debauched, hustler lifestyle. "Leon has wasted more money than most people make in their lifetime," says Cross.
Leon has completed rehab, and his daughter, Tina, says he's made great strides as a father since cleaning up his act. But with his recent focus on his fledgling music career, he's repeating the absentee-patriarch cycle that permeated his youth.
"This was the second Christmas without him," says Tina, a music producer herself. (Her Hendrix Dynasty Records has produced Bay Area rapper Sam Quinn and the guitarist BluMeadows.) "He hasn't even seen two of his grandkids. I know you have dreams, but they just want to play chess with you. He gave a lot of energy to his kids and grandkids before, so he'd be well received if he came around. He's trying to get rich for us, but we don't care about that. When he was a drug addict, we fed him."
Yet Tina, who lives just south of town in a house off Rainier Avenue, admires her father's verve. "He's living his dream, traveling the world, and he's over 60 years old." While Tina feels her dad has chops, she considers his band's sound to be "a little dated," and says he "needs a real producer." To this end, she notes, "I would love to work with him."
"We're building a new legacy for a new time," says Tina, whose brother, Jimi II (currently doing time in Phoenix on a weapons charge), is an aspiring rapper. "We're always gonna respect [Uncle] Jimi. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be doing this. He was the first Barack Obama."
Prior to Al Hendrix's death, Janie and Leon held comparable shares of the estate, according to a September 2004 article by Cross for Tracks magazine. At the time, Janie told Cross she was surprised Leon had been excluded entirely from Al's final will.