EXCLUSIVE Jimi by Leon Hendrix: Inside a Voodoo Childhood
Jimi Hendrix’s younger brother Leon watched his older brother survive a tough childhood and become a superstar. For Leon it meant “free pussy”, backstage passes and an inside take on Jimi’s decline. In London this week to promote the documentary Jimi Hendrix The Guitar Hero (narrated by Slash) Jimi’s younger brother Leon gives Classic Rock his first exclusive UK interview.
Words: Max Bell
Dressed in black, wearing a 1967 Jimi tee and cowboy boots, Leon Hendrix cuts a charismatic figure. With his high cheekbones and hair swept back into a ponytail he looks younger than his 65 years. “Me and Jimi got our looks from mom Lucille,” he explains. “Our dad, Al, was a little guy whereas we’re tall. Jimi used to rib him – you ain’t my real dad, and we found out later he wasn’t, but he brought us up and I guess he tried his best.”
Leon remembers childhood in the Seattle projects where the Hendrix family loved before moving to a small house in Renton as “a happy life except for when our parents used alcohol and started arguing. Then Jimi and me would go into the bedroom and lock us in the closet. Things started off nice and mellow. There’d be a couple of friends over and there was laughter and the chink of ice in glasses then it got loud and edgy and bad. Dad drank beer and Seagram’s 7. Later on Jimi used to take the gold tassels off the bottles and tie them to his guitar. In his younger bands he used to put Indian feathers in the neck but the other guys didn’t like that so he stuck to the tassels.”
Life was tough for the Hendrix boys. “Jimi was in charge of me and he sheltered me from the realisation that we were poor folks. It was a struggle. When mom left dad wanted to enlist on the GI programme and go to electronic school but when he passed his exams they wouldn’t give him a job ‘cos he was black. So he did gardening and odd jobs and me and Jimi were looked after by an extended family of relations and friends, particularly Aunty Dolores and the Jewish lady across the street Mrs Weinstein who fed us kosher food and Mrs Mitchell who gave us fried chicken and washed our clothes. I only remember one good Christmas in 1955 when Jimi got his first bike and I got a toy wagon and that year mom came home. It’s my most happy family memory.”
With their father constantly in trouble for drunkenness, Jimi and Leon weren’t allowed to open the door in case the social welfare van came to take them away. “Dad told us, ‘You see that wagon with the Welfare stencil on it, you run away or hide’. One day he came home real drunk and Mrs Mitchell shouted at him, ‘I got your kids here, get out the street or go back to jail and you can have ‘em back tomorrow’.”
Every Saturday morning Jimi took Leon to the cinema to watch Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon. “Those fifteen minute films were his earliest inspiration. He started calling himself Buster and the name stuck for a while. He was fascinated by everything to do with space travel. Finally the welfare people got me when I was 10 and we’d been playing war games in the woods.”
Jimi wrote about that in the deeply autobiographical song Castles Made of Sand (‘A little Indian brave who before he was ten/Played war games in the wood with his Indian friends’) that also describes in heartbreaking detail the disgrace he felt at his parents’ public behaviour.
“It was what it was,” sighs Leon. “Jimi was my surrogate parent because I saw him – Buster – more than I did my dad. We used to sneak off to mom’s house all the time and she’d make dinner which was better than home because dad would just cook a pot of spaghetti or a tongue and that’s all you ate for the week.”
Leon disputes the story that his older brother began using a broom handle as a mock up guitar while he was at Horace Mann Elementary School. “Later he did when he was emulating Chuck Berry’s duck walk but when we were much younger it was sports. He made Little League and I made Pee Wee and we played football and baseball all the time. Before he was known as Buster, Jimi actually called himself Johnny until he was five years old but dad didn’t like that because mom’s boyfriend was called Johnny so he changed his name to James Marshall and told him that’s who you are from now on. He wouldn’t answer to James or Jimmy for a while so then he settled on Buster and everyone was happy to call him that.”
Johnny/Buster/Jimi was famously introverted. “He was very excited by science and nature but he was also incredibly shy. Dad yelled at him for so many stupid reasons: for playing guitar all the time, for being left-handed, for being pigeon-toed. The left-handed thing was considered evil to dad so he bullied Jimi a lot. But my brother was an artist and a thinker. He used to sculpt clay models of imaginary cars and send ‘em to Ford Motors. He was a genius in many ways, other than music. He could have been an awesome scientist if he’d been allowed to go to college because he was smart if not academic.”
Early musical memories were of listening to the US Top 40 at Dolores’ house. She ran the YMCA and got Jimi into the Boy Scouts and Leon into the Cubs. “At weekends we worked with dad cleaning out rich folks’ houses. Dad was a junk man who collected glass, copper and aluminium cans and recycled them for little money. One day he found a ukulele in the garbage and that’s how Jimi started. It only had one string but he learned the theme from the TV show Peter Gunn [written by Henry Mancini] in 1958. Then it was old Robert Johnson records and Willie Dixon blues. He’d tighten that uke up a notch for high pitch or vice versa and we’d be over at our grandma’s house when I first heard him almost screaming. ‘I’ve got this stuff in my head!’ Grandma thought he just had ear ache so she cleaned him out with olive oil and cotton buds but he was really hearing music and just didn’t know why or what it was.”
By the time he was 15 Hendrix was the best guitar player in Seattle. “When he was 15 he played with Ray Charles,” Leon recalls. “Ray was living in Seattle at the Penthouse on Pioneer Square and we’d hang around with him eating soul food. A year later aged 16 Jimi had played all the clubs with his young bands like The Rocking Kings, Velvetones, Luther Rabb and His Stags and Thomas ‘Tom Cat’ and his Tom Cats. By the time he got to the Birdland Club there wasn’t nowhere else for him to go but leave town.”
Getting away was a smart move too because Hendrix was often in trouble with the law. “It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t suddenly turn bad like I would,” Leon insists. “His band mates in the Kings burgled the local hardware store and took a bunch of clothes but Jimi returned his stolen jeans the next day and apologised to Mr Wilson and said, ‘You better have these back and I’m real sorry for all the trouble we caused you.’ He became successful in Seattle and he was the only one who did so the others were jealous.”
When James/Jimi went off to join the army, having been given that choice or jail by a judge when he was hauled up for car theft, Leon went into care at the Wheelers’ Foster home. “Even then Jimi would come home every day and throw a football for me. He was a devoted brother. I was incorrigible they said and they ran psychiatric tests on me and I became a street kid which is how I stayed. Even when I got the draft – and by then Jimi was worldwide famous – they didn’t cut me no slack. Didn’t matter that he played the Star Spangled banner they still put me on KP [kitchen patrol]. They told me ‘There’s only one general in this army, and it ain’t you.’”
When Jimi Hendrix returned to the USA as a conquering hero in 1967 he took Leon on the road with him. “This was the Experience, the Are You Experienced time. We hadn’t seen each other for three years and while he was famous I was bad, dealing dope, gangsterising and hustling. He turned up with road manager Gerry Stickells who had a briefcase full of money and sent me fare, told me ‘Come to California next week’. I did and stayed with him everywhere he went. The management, Chas Chandler and Mike Jeffery, hated me being around. They’d give me fifty bucks to go party but I’d say, ‘No’. Those were the times when they went to the box office after the show and walked out with $75,000 in a bag. They collected with heavies carrying guns because there weren’t no TicketMaster. If you didn’t get your dough that night you wouldn’t ever see it again because you’d pack up your shit and by morning the circus is on the road and it’s too late.”
Not surprisingly Leon describes life on the road with the Experience as “awesome. I was backstage every night and I got to fuck his girlfriends. Or rather, the ones he couldn’t handle because there were so many girls trying to get to him. So they fucked me instead and they’d say ‘You be sure tell Jimi that I was good and I was the best pussy’ but he already had a handful what with Carmen Borrero, Devon ‘Dolly Dagger’ Wilson and countless others.”
On that first return Jimi bought Al a new truck and car for his gardening business and gave Leon $10,000 cash. “I fucked it off on dope. Afterwards Jimi would send us money, or so he said. Christmas time would come and he’d say, ‘I just wired you guys $10,000 by Western Union and you didn’t say thanks!’ We never got it. He’d be giving it to some character in New York to deal with and he always got ripped off. Jimi was too timid for financial affairs. He thought it blocked his creativity. So many times I’d be with him and some guy’s dipping in his jacket pocket and taking money and I’d tell him and he’d just say, ‘Oh don’t mind that, there’s not much in there anyway.’”
In between the pussy and the pickpockets, Leon enjoyed being an 18 year-old mingling with superstars in Hollywood clubs. “I met the Rolling Stones, The Who, John Kay [Steppenwolf], The Doors, Eric Burdon. We’d go to Eric’s house and everyone would do a lot of coke. I didn’t because I was still a street kid, not even a hippy. All those white rock stars loved Jimi until he fucked their girlfriends. He did too: Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards. He had a scene with Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, with Linda Keith and a beautiful model, a real pretty little thing, Uschi Obermaier. Jimi was an Alpha Male. The women who thought he was shy were the ones he ended up humping. He didn’t have to do nothing. He got pussy by accident. Every night there was a group of girls fighting over him and if one of them made a mistake or showed any weakness they ended up at the back of the line. When he was playing girls would give him the ‘fuck me’ eyes and he turned into a different man playing with his tongue out and thrusting the guitar. Nice work, you might say, but it caused a lot of trouble.”
Jimi’s women (clockwise from main image): Hendrix with Devon Wilson, Monika Dannemann, Linda Keith, with Carmen Borrero, Uschi Obermaier, the Mamas and Papas’ Michelle Phillips.
As Hendrix’s fame flew his lifestyle became unbearable. Dictated to by the ridiculous, almost slavish demands made on him by his English managers Chas Chandler and Mike Jeffery he became their cash cow. “His life was get up an hour before show time, do the gig and then be up all night jamming, or recording. He made them so much money. Even after his death I asked Jeffery where it was and he told me it was in offshore accounts and would arrive one day soon. Jimi was naïve. He didn’t even know what ASCAP was. Chandler did some bad stuff and so did Jeffery. At first I thought he was Jimi’s limo driver or some anonymous businessman with a bad Beatle haircut. Those guys made damn sure Jimi were kept from his own family. They wouldn’t let him stay in Seattle or even take a vacation. They had him on the road playing once or twice a night so he didn’t have any time to consider his position. He was exploited in every way. Even by Eddie Kramer, who claimed he helped invent Jimi’s sound on Electric Ladyland. That’s total bullshit. It was Jimi who invented all the panning and the effects. He’d kick Kramer out the studio.”
By 1969 Hendrix was fried. He was exhausted and gullible and usually stoked on drugs. The infamous so-called mob kidnap of him in New York [see CR163] is described by Leon as “a classic ‘Confidence Game’. These young mobsters wanted a piece of him so they staged a kidnap. In reality he was taken to a house where he played guitar for two days and then they ‘rescued’ him. It was a hustle to make him feel safe so they could get his contract. When I saw him that year he was the same except he was very unhappy. He wanted to move on and write symphonies like Wagner. He wanted to evolve because he loved classical music but there was no chance of him being allowed the time.”
Leon and Jimi didn’t see each other much after that episode. “He went to Maui [where the Rainbow Bridge album was recorded]. I was supposed to meet him in New York but I got arrested and didn’t make it. When I got there he’d flown to London because he wanted to clear up his contract, which was coming to an end. He called it his ‘war of attrition’ and he was sick of it.”
After four years of being in the clutches of unrelenting stardom, Hendrix finally saw his exit but he certainly didn’t have any death wish when he spent his last night on earth at the Samarkand hotel in Notting Hill. “There was hanky panky around his death,” says Leon. “The whole thing was too weird. He didn’t leave a suicide note as Eric Burdon claimed [he retracted that opinion later]. That note they found ‘The Story of Life’ was lyrics he’d written in a hotel years before. And there was no way he’d ever consider suicide. He was thinking about new endeavours.”
Hendrix’s cause of death was put down to “inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication” (sleeping tablets he’d taken from girlfriend Monika Dannemann), but due to inconsistencies in Monika’s story his actual death will always remain a mystery (click here for the full story of his death). As Leon points out “he did coke and weed and marijuana but he wasn’t the type to nod out and become vacant. He liked to stay alert. There are so many stories. The government didn’t like him. The CIA had a file on him, which had the same nomenclature you’d find for Osama bin Laden. He was a security risk. Why? Because he was black man with power in a white man’s world. When Jimi was arrested in Toronto the FBI had been following him from America. The files on Jimi were all blanked out.”
On that occasion in the airport Hendrix didn’t even put up a fight to declare his innocence, save for sighing, “I don’t believe this is happening.” Later he maintained “the establishment are hitting back because I want to give money to causes like the Black Panthers.”
Amongst the lurid tales is the one that suggests Mike Jeffery, or someone hired by him, went to the basement apartment at the Samarkand and choked Jimi with red wine (“It was just booze down the windpipe,” said James ‘Tappy’ Wright, a former roadie. “Like in that film Get Carter.)
“He was water boarded with alcohol,” says Leon. “I don’t now why or by whom. I don’t even care any more where all the money went. My half-sister Janie and my dad Al were tricked into forming the Estate and cutting the rest of the family off. You won’t hear anything ever from the rest of my family, least of all disabled brother Joseph or our sisters. They’re not interested in any $100,000,000. What matters to me is that Jimi is still alive in my heart and soul.”
Classic Rock is sitting with Leon on a rooftop in Central London, looking out over the city that helped make Jimi Hendrix’s name, gazing at the iconic buildings that sprang up in the white heat of 1960s technology like the Post Office Tower. Hendrix himself was nothing more or less than a communicator on the airwaves and in the ether. He remains a landmark – 43 years after his death.
Jimi Hendrix’s last interview airs on the Classic Rock Magazine show on TeamRock Radio tonight, 6-9pm.