Legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix would have turned 70 years old this week, had he not died decades ago at age 27. We take a look at the controversy still surrounding his estate. (Wikimedia Commons)
Though Jimi Hendrix died more than 40 years ago, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death and the valuable estate he left behind – including reservoirs of unreleased music – means his name has hardly gone out of the news in all the years since.
The last person to see Hendrix alive was Monika Dannemann, a German figure skater and actress who was staying with Hendrix at the Samarkand Hotel in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. Her stories about what happened that night have varied over the years, but the autopsy ruled that Hendrix overdosed on a mixture of red wine and sleeping pills and drowned in his own vomit.
In the aftermath, Dannemann claimed she and Hendrix had been engaged, that he'd planned on leaving his girlfriend of three years, Kathy Etchingham. Thus began what The Independent termed a "26-year cat fight" between Dannemann and Etchingham. Dannemann did tons of media interviews, met Hendrix's family in Seattle, travelled to numerous Hendrix conventions and published a book in 1995 titled The Inner World of Jimi Hendrix: The Real Jimi – and the Truth about His Death – Revealed by His Fiancee.
Meanwhile, Etchingham, who has produced her own memoir, Through Gypsy Eyes, maintains that Dannemann had probably known Hendrix only a few days. She criticized the inconsistencies in Dannemann's accounts about the night Hendrix died, and in 1993 compiled a dossier that raised enough troubling questions to prompt Scotland Yard to re-open the investigation into his death.
An enraged Danneman called Etchingham an "inveterate liar," leading to two libel suits, both of which Dannemann lost. In 1996, two days after the second ruling, she committed suicide inside her Mercedes-Benz.
Etchingham wasn't the only one to question the circumstances surrounding Hendrix's death. As with the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones, conspiracy theories abound. Just last year, James Wright, a former roadie for the Animals, published a book claiming Hendrix's shady manager Mike Jeffery admitted he'd had Hendrix murdered. The book alleges Jeffery was overwhelmed with debt, owned a $2 million insurance policy on Hendrix, and knew his star client was actively seeking new management. The wildest internet theories even suspect COINTELPRO involvement.
Ah, the '60s.
And then there is the battle over the Hendrix estate.
Hendrix left no will. He fathered two children out of wedlock but his own father, Al Hendrix, legally denied them any claims on the estate, to which he became sole heir. A gardener by trade without any knowledge of the music business, Al Hendrix hired a lawyer who in 1974 sold the rights to Jimi's music to a Panamanian tax shelter in a deal that would see the elder Hendrix receive a fixed annual annuity. To complicate matters, rights to Hendrix's likeness were sold to a different company.
Al Hendrix claimed no knowledge of these transactions and sued his lawyer and advisor in 1993 to win back rights to his son's music and image. The litigation was bankrolled by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – an avowed Jimi Hendrix fan, true, but also an interested party who hoped to benefit from Al Hendrix's cooperation in a $60 million Jimi Hendrix museum he was planning. The two men later had a falling out, and the Hendrix museum morphed into a more encompassing institution called the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.
In 1995 a judge returned rights to the music back to Al Hendrix’s company, Experience Hendrix LLC. So everyone was happy, right? Well, at least until Al Hendrix died in 2002. Then it came to light he had rewritten his will to cut Jimi's brother Leon out of the trust. Leon – a former drug addict who now plays guitar in a band called The Leon Hendrix Mysterience – then sued his adoptive sister Janie, who he said had pressured Al to write him out of the will and was mishandling Experience Hendrix finances.
"The sad legacy of Jimi Hendrix," biographer Charles Cross told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year, "is that ever since his first record came out, people have been fighting over the money."
Oh well. At least we’ve still got the music.