By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
Groeper also helped soothe the residual tension between Leon and Jimmy Williams. "Leon knows I'm working with Jimmy, and Jimmy knows I'm working with Leon," he says. "Having me in between them has seemed to make a very big difference in their relationship. Leon could basically be the spokesperson for the foundation and use the band to create awareness and funding for the foundation. And the foundation can provide Leon with the necessary legal cover he needs to make sure that Janie doesn't go chasing his ass down the road ever again."
Adds Groeper: "I believe truly that there are a lot of things [Leon] has done that he would not have done were it not for the influence of some unscrupulous people. Yes, he's blessed with having Jimi as his brother, because that cuts through a lot of the muck and gives him an audience. But as a visual artist, he's very talented — and nobody pays attention to that. They just want to use him to market vodka or coffee or condoms or whatever. I'm just trying to convince him that he has to make it with what God gave him, not what other people give him."
Isaac first met Leon a few years ago, shortly after Leon began performing live, at a Venice Beach bar called Scruffy O'Shea's where Leon was scheduled to play. "He was scared shitless," recalls Isaac. Leon aborted his set before Isaac had a chance to join him onstage, but the pair cemented a relationship that night, and Isaac eventually joined Leon's band.
"At first, [Leon] didn't believe in himself, and has at times been afraid to play," seconds Neil Kirkland, the band's drummer and keyboardist since 2002. "But then he got good."
Good, but not great — and Jimi was arguably the best there ever was. "I have a psychological impediment being Jimi's brother," Leon concedes. But he got over this hump shortly after one of his clients came to him looking to score dope. She didn't have any money, but had an old guitar in tow, so Leon agreed to a swap. Later, while loaded, he says, he nodded off. Shortly thereafter, he claims, "Jimi came and the guitar started vibrating, making noise by itself. The guitar started to talk to me, and it was compelling."
"[Leon is] a natural musician," says Williams. "He's not Jimi — nobody is. But he's done a lot in ten years. He's mastered the guitar and has a band and he's great."
"He's way better than I expected," seconds Cross. "The problem is his brother is the most famous guitarist who's ever lived. So for Leon, it's absolutely nuts for Jimi Hendrix's brother to even think he could be a guitar player. It's suicidal, almost. You have to, to a degree, admire that."
Al sure didn't. According to Cross's book, he frowned upon his boys taking up music as a career, with Jimi often practicing in secret to avoid his father's ire. Only when Jimi made it big did his dad embrace his talent. But this only served to strengthen Al's resolve when it came to Leon.
"My dad forbade me to play after Jimi," Leon says.
For years, Leon honored his father's wishes. But when he finally went against Al's will, "his attempt at music helped get him edged out of the estate," says Cross.
Local musician-producer Brin Addison was the one who gave Leon guitar lessons on Dieffenbach's recommendation. Addison remembers the Hendrix clan being less than receptive to Leon's six-string pursuit. "I recorded countless hours of music that [Leon] could present to Al in the hopes of being accepted back into the family. Janie didn't like that idea and pretty much poisoned Al against him — and eventually he was cut out of the estate altogether," says Addison. "In the end, Al figured he knew Leon too well and didn't see music as a turning point. I'm not sure playing guitar was a direct reason for him being cut out, but it may have contributed in some way or other."
To this, Janie again denies having had any involvement in removing Leon from the will, saying only, "As far as his music career, I wish him happiness; I wish him peace; I wish him healing. If his music makes him happy, I applaud him for that."
For every gig like the one in Tacoma on Halloween, there are at least two others where Leon is treated as rock royalty — where he's not only the closest people are going to get to Jimi Hendrix, but the closest they're going to get to celebrity, period. To wit, at a working-class bar in Everett called the Doghouse, a fiftysomething Iraqi soldier on leave lit up at the mere mention that Jimi Hendrix's younger brother was playing a venue down the road. That show, a white-linen affair at Club Broadway in commemoration of what would have been Jimi's 66th birthday, ended up selling out. The crowd was receptive to the band even though Leon seemed a little off his game, understandable since he'd come straight from the airport after playing a similar birthday affair at B.B.'s in Manhattan the night before.