Record labels vie for rights to the late guitarist's music

By Fred Goodman
Updated January 29, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

The more money you make, the more you can sing the blues,” Jimi Hendrix told talk-show host Dick Cavett dismissively in 1969. The groundbreaking guitarist with the legendarily laissez-faire attitude about finances lived mostly hand-to-mouth even at the height of his short career, which ended with his death from a drug overdose at 27 in 1970. Yet because of the skyrocketing popularity of his music during the past decade, Hendrix is, in effect, now looking to seal a multimillion-dollar deal — 22 years after his death. If he were living, Jimi Hendrix would be able to ”sing the blues” like never before.

As new fans in growing numbers have discovered the psychedelic pleasures of ”All Along the Watchtower” and ”Purple Haze,” the resurrection of Jimi Hendrix has assumed nearly miraculous proportions:

*Sales of Hendrix videos and albums — containing previously released material as well as songs never heard before publicly — are now generating an estimated $2 million to $4 million a year in royalties. Three to 4 million Hendrix albums are sold worldwide each year; nearly 1 million were sold in the U.S. alone in 1992, meaning that the Hendrix catalog outperformed the Spin Doctors, Jon Secada, and Alice In Chains.

*Next month, Hendrix will posthumously receive a Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys.

*This spring, the highly anticipated ”Jimi Hendrix Exhibition” of photographs and artwork inspired by the guitarist will launch a five-city U.S. tour starting in New York, after hugely successful runs in Australia and Europe.

*Most astonishing of all, the entire body of Hendrix’s work, including recordings and music-publishing and licensing rights, is this month being put up for sale, with an asking price believed to be well in excess of $30 million.

All those big figures would surely have startled the perennially broke Hendrix. This month’s extraordinary sale, in fact, may be one legacy of his carelessness.

The sale is being overseen by a Los Angeles-based production company, Are You Experienced? Ltd., formed in 1983 by record producer Alan Douglas and attorney Leo Branton Jr. Branton had taken over management of the guitarist’s recording, music-publishing, and licensing deals after Hendrix’s death for his father, Al Hendrix. Branton, who had managed the affairs of Nat ”King” Cole, cleared up the thicket of debts and lawsuits Hendrix had left behind and secured the rights to the remainder of his Warner Bros. recording contract, his publishing copyrights, and the rights to all his unmastered tapes. Branton then sold what by that point constituted the entire Hendrix estate to PMSA, a Panamanian holding company, in 1972.

Branton has continued to act as agent for a series of owners since then. The Hendrix assets, Branton says, now belong to two ”offshore” companies: Elbar B.V., based in the Netherlands (which controls U.S. rights), and Interlit, based in the British Virgin Islands (which controls rights for the rest of the world). Branton won’t discuss the companies’ ownership. ”Who the owners are doesn’t make any difference,” he has said. ”Who are the owners of General Motors? Who are the owners of IBM?”

For Elbar and Interlit, Are You Experienced? brokered licensing deals for Hendrix recordings with Warner Bros., for the U.S., and PolyGram, for the rest of the world. Elbar’s deal with Warner expired on Dec. 31, however, and the company wants to sell its rights for good. PolyGram, whose contract with Interlit runs through October 1995, seems likely to be a serious bidder. Warner Bros., which refused to comment and referred all calls to Are You Experienced?, is not expected to make an offer, apparently because of the anticipated price.

Yet even $30 million-plus, given Hendrix’s renewed popularity, the CD explosion, and the wealth of still-unreleased Hendrix material, could end up being a bargain. In addition to Warner Bros.’ $50 boxed set from last year, Stages (featuring recordings of four complete Hendrix concerts from 1967 through 1970), there is a treasure trove of other recently released riches: tapes of the entire 1967 Monterey Pop Festival performance, a concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Auditorium, and radio appearances, including a notable BBC show. Are You Experienced? is preparing an album of unreleased blues material.