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Leon first met Dieffenbach in Seattle in the late '90s, shortly after Leon got out of drug treatment. At the time, Dieffenbach, who was instrumental in redeveloping the block where the Columbia City Theater and Tutta Bella Pizzeria now reside, ran a local recording studio, and he says he arranged for Leon to take guitar lessons and helped get his career off the ground. Today the two rarely speak to one another.
Now that he's $6.7 million lighter, does Dieffenbach regret getting involved in the Hendrix family affairs? "No, because there's a lot of help that we were able to bring to a lot of his family members," he insists. "We worked on saving [Jimi and Leon's childhood] house and gave it our best shot. We backed him when he got cut out of the will, but how much can you help somebody? The family's dysfunctional. That whole family has been in an awful way for a long time."
The familial acrimony has also ensnared a seemingly benign branch of the tree: the James Marshall Hendrix Foundation, which Al set up in 1988 as a means to empower Leon to do good deeds on his brother's behalf and help support himself in the process. The foundation is now headed by Jimmy Williams, a boyhood friend of both Hendrix brothers who was also very close to their father.
According to Williams, who lives in a home overlooking Boeing's Renton airstrip, he and Leon "parted company" over the foundation's direction. "Leon and others were trying to commercialize it too much," Williams says. "Janie had that side of the legacy. Al wanted [Leon's foundation] to be a pure charitable organization."
But Williams and Leon began to patch things up in 2006, when, says Williams, "Leon was having issues with people who loaned him money for the 2004 lawsuit. Everybody was broke, and the only way people could think to get the money back was through the foundation, so Leon asked me to watch his back — to take it over."
Around this time, Janie sued to get the foundation to stop using the Hendrix name. But in a rare setback, her claim was dismissed, and Experience Hendrix was ordered to pay the foundation's legal fees.
"A lot of people came aboard to take and mislead and not really help that family," says Williams, who as a boy lived for a spell with the same foster family, the Wheelers, as Leon. "Even with all that money, it hasn't benefited [them] much. My hope is that at some point — and I don't see this happening with Janie and Leon — one of their kids can piece the family back together and share in that legacy."
Despite a life fraught with disappointment, Leon remains upbeat about his future as an entertainer. He's got at least two new albums in the can, he says, with members of Styx and Deep Purple contributing. Furthermore, he's working on a biopic that he says Steven Seagal wants to produce, and has a book proposal that's attracted interest from the "biggest book agent in L.A."
But the problem is that all these projects are, to borrow a favorite phrase of Leon's, "caught up in legal" — an apt metaphor for his entire life.
Of the biopic, Leon says, "Seagal, he's a good friend of mine; he wants to make a movie, but he wants to control it. But all the other people who control a piece of [the film] don't want him to do that." (Seagal's management did not return calls seeking comment.) The book, meanwhile, is something of a mystery, as Leon can't recall the name of that big L.A. agent. As for one of the new albums, currently titled Tricked by the Sun, Leon says, "The people I was involved with, they're blackmailing each other to control it." As for the other, the one purportedly featuring musicians from Styx and Deep Purple, Leon says, "That's in legal too. I just can't believe all the shit I have to go through." (A Styx publicist denies any knowledge of this collaboration.)
One outfit that shares the rights to Leon's music and film projects is Gotham Metro, a production studio with offices in Los Angeles, Portland and Carson City, Nevada. Dave Craddick, one of Leon's many ex-managers, claims he's currently close to wresting control of Tricked by the Sun from the company, where he used to work. Gotham "didn't get its funding and ran into trouble with some other projects," explains Craddick. "As things deteriorated there, I had to take [the album] over and follow it through. I found the rest of the money to pay the producer and studio costs, then I hit a wall financially and haven't been able to hire an attorney to negotiate some of the contracts. But I have been moving forward with some online distribution outlets and some labels that are interested."
As if that weren't convoluted enough, Craddick adds: "I do have a completed master, which I'll release through my production company, Manhattan Entertainment Group. It's ready to go. I just got an e-mail from Gotham Metro saying they'll sign the album over to me. I didn't want to release it and have any loose ends, because that's when people come out of the woodwork."