The eyes have it: immediately, and strikingly, the same as those staring out from the portrait of Jimi Hendrix on the wall. But of course, this is Leon Hendrix, the younger brother of the greatest guitarist of all time, and in London this weekend, 50 years to the day since Jimi arrived in Britain in 1966 to launch his astonishing career.
Leon Hendrix bounded up the stairs of the house in Brook Street, London W1 â which George Frideric Handel had also occupied two centuries earlier â to the top flat in which Jimi lived in 1968 and 69. It is now beautifully decked out to look exactly as it was, a museum and music centre called Handel & Hendrix in London, where Hendrixâs Little Wing is played on the harpsichord in Handelâs music room.
Later on Saturday evening, Leon â born six years after Jimi â picked up his own guitar to play his brotherâs, and his own, music at the Scotch, the London club to which Jimi was taken on that very first night in England.
Leon is slender, intense, and enjoys the inevitable conversation about his brother rather than himself, in the room which Jimi called âthe first real home of my ownâ.
Everyone knows the Hendrix childhood was hardly that of a model family â a mother who left, and a father who drank more than he cared. âBut Jimi looked after me,â recalls Leon. âFor some reason, I never missed a meal. He looked out for me like an elder-brother-father; he made me what you English call âteaâ and made sure I was OK. And sometimes, we used to sneak off to Momâs for dinner.â
But where did the music come from? âItâs called inspiration,â says Leon, almost scolding. âAs in âspiritâ, as in âin-spirit-ationâ. Itâs in the wind. I was there when Jimi was a boy, and heâd play with a broom, his first guitar. And Pa would come home and see the straw and shit from the broom on the floor, because Jimiâd been doing acrobatics with his his broom-guitar, and Jimiâd get a whuppinâ.â
According to Leonâs book, Jimi Hendrix: A Brotherâs Story, Jimiâs first real instrument was a ukulele the boys found while cleaning out a neighbourâs garage. When he finally got a guitar, Jimi, says Leon, âused to take gold tassels from his Paâs empty Seagrams 7 bottles and tie them to it.
âBut the music came from nowhere,â he says. âMusic has no body, and I remember when Jimi was playing, heâd try to conjure up the sound with his fingers â where is it?â Once, âwhen we were little, Jimi took a radio apart, trying to find the music inside it. We lost the screwdriver behind the sofa and couldnât put it back together, and that was another whuppinâ.â
Leon says, poignantly, of Hendrixâs soft vocal timbre: âIt came from always being told to shut up as a kid. Jimi went inside with his music, and when he got on stage, that was his timeâ.
There is genetic lineage, it turns out, as Leon imparts some new information âMy motherâs grandfather was a musician. He was black, but looked so white he was allowed to play, down in Louisiana. He played orchestral music in the 1800s.â However, âmy own children want nothing to do with music, theyâve seen what it did to us. My daughterâs in Mexico and my son wants to be a scientist, or a doctor. But Iâve got these grandchildren â and theyâre mighty interested. âHey, grandpa, play us that music by uncle Jimi!â
âBut in one wayâ, reflects Leon, âJimiâs just my brother. When I was little, I thought what he was doing was ordinary stuff. I didnât even know we were poor, it was just life in the projects.â He remembers Jimi taking him to see Buster Crabbe in 15-minute Flash Gordon films, for a nickel â âthat was Jimiâs nickname: âBusterââ.
Leon has had an interesting life: taken into care at a foster home â where Jimi would visit him â short periods in jail for minor offences, drug problems for which he was successfully treated, and being taken on tour with his brother, during which he got âa share in the chicks backstageâ.
An accomplished artist, Leon went on to work with the Boeing aerospace company as an expert technical draughtsman. âI thought I was going to be drawing airplanes like Jimi taught meâ, he says, âbut it was nothing like that. You draw this bolt, or this nut and off it goes to some department and into a bit of machinery. So I quit.â
Leon was left out of his father Alâs will when he died in 2002, the estate going to Alâs adopted daughter in another marriage, Janie. Leon has initiated serial court cases staking a claim to his brotherâs music, as far as the US Supreme Court, which upheld the will. However, another ruling in 2011 granted Leon ârights to his brotherâs name and likenessâ â though not his music â and there was an undisclosed settlement in 2015. Although the overall loser in this bitter and often sordid battle, Leon says, in his brotherâs old flat: âItâs their problem. Theyâve made their billions, but Iâm happy. I am my brothers brother. So whoâs the richest?â
Leon launched his musical career âafter the age of 50â, he explains, âand it got going after I separated from my Catholic-bird wifeâ. As the Leon Hendrix Band, he has released two albums, with another on the way, but for this special night at the Scotch, he joins other musicians from a band called Are You Experienced, whose lead guitarist, John Campbell from Birmingham, is not so much a cover or tribute artist as a devotee, says Leon, âwhose antennae found my brotherâs spiritâ.
Hendrix, The Who, the Rolling Stones and others played the Scotch back in the day, and on Saturday night Handel & Hendrix in London booked the now upscale nightclub for a special early-evening commemorative shift. âLetâs play it for Jimi,â said Campbell in broad Brummie, wearing the trademark military parade jacket and an orange sash around his head, launching into Machine Gun and Star Spangled Banner as appropriated by Hendrix.
Leon took the stage on which his brother played 50 years ago, and introduced Bob Dylanâs All Along the Watchtower, saying: âDylan picked up me and my Pa in his limousine, and called this one the song Jimi wrote!â Leon had some trouble remembering the lyrics, apologised, âSorry Jimiâ and confided to his audience: âI like to drink Jack Danielâs.â So what, they said in the forgiving, happy crowd, itâs Jimiâs brother.
Leon had said back at his brotherâs flat: âI just move with the spirit, man â where it takes me, I go, and Jimiâs there. Heâs my brother and heâs still lookinâ out for me.â And now, at the end of the evening: âGod bless you Jimi, for all the times you sent me round the world, following the spirit.â
Hendrix wrote his greatest ballad, Angel, for his mother, of whom he saw little. And of course, this was Leonâs mother too, of whom he saw even less. Which made for a cogent solo in Campbellâs rendering, during which Leon took his hands from his own rhythm guitar, removed his glasses and wiped a tear from his eye.