The Son of Performers
Al Hendrix was born in Vancouver, B.C., the youngest child of Zenora (1884-1985) and Bertram Philander Ross Hendrix (ca. 1869-1934). His parents were traveling vaudeville performers whose troupe disbanded in Seattle in 1911. Bertram moved the family, including Al's siblings Leon (ca. 1912-1932), Patricia (ca. 1914-1981) and Frank (1918-1986), up to Canada. He had heard from a friend that there was work there, and he wasn't finding anything in Seattle. He got a job as a steward at Quilchena Golf Club in Vancouver, the only job Al knew his father to have. The family had a happy home life, but they were shocked and heartbroken when Leon died of a ruptured appendix in 1932. Bertram died in 1934. The Depression was raging and times were tough.
Al lost interest and dropped out of high school at 17. There was no work to be had, there was no money for college, and it didn't seem to him that it mattered whether he finished or not. Like his parents, Al had show-biz aspirations: He wanted to be a tap dancer or an entertainer. He tapped professionally for awhile -- even having an agent and tap dancing solo at Vancouver clubs.
According to Al, he used to dance a mean jitterbug. He once entered a jitterbug contest at the Orpheum Theater, but was told he and his partner, Dorothy King, couldn't compete with the white contestants, because the whites, they said, "didn't have a chance against us." His friend Al Ford asked him if he was interested in boxing for money and he said sure. He was told the pay was $25 a round for three rounds. Al and a bunch of other guys drove down to Seattle for the fight. When he got there, he found out it was a Golden Gloves fight, and the amateur fighters didn't get paid anything.
The Move to Seattle
After a few years of attempting to find regular work and only just getting by, he decided to move out of Vancouver. He had tried to get a job with the railroad, but they told him he was too short. He stopped in Victoria and lived with a friend there, shining shoes to make enough money to get to Seattle. He had a visited Seattle as a child, and knew there was a larger black community in Seattle than in Vancouver.
He arrived with $40 in his pocket in 1940. Luckily, he was able to get dual citizenship because his father had become naturalized in Canada after his children were born. He started with odd jobs such as cleaning acquaintances' homes and the like, and then got a job at a restaurant on Pike Street called Ben Harris. Later he got work at a local iron foundry.
Jimi Is Born
Al met Lucille Jeter (ca. 1925-1958), Jimi's mother, through his landlady's daughter. Around the time he got his army induction notice, Lucille told him she was pregnant. Al said although it was unexpected, he didn't mind at all, because he was planning on marrying her anyway. On March 31, 1942, he married Lucille at the Seattle courthouse, and just three days later was shipped off to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for basic training.
Al spent a month in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was then sent to Camp Rucker in Alabama. He was a field artillery gunner for Company B of the 903rd Airbase Security Battalion. Their job was to guard the Eighth Airforce's airstrips, planes and bomb dumps -- traveling wherever the Eighth Airforce went. Al requested leave around the time Jimi was to be born, but he was refused because he lived in Seattle. The army was only allowing five days leave for family births, and he would have had to get right back on the train to Alabama as soon as he got to Seattle.
The next day he was thrown in the stockade without charge. He suspected he was put there so he wouldn't go AWOL to be with his family. About a month and a half later when he was released, he asked his first sergeant why he had been put in, and the sergeant replied, "General principle, general principle."
Al was sent to the Fiji Islands, Guadalcanal, and New Guinea. He said his company never engaged in any heavy fighting or were subject to frontal attacks by the Japanese -- which he was glad for -- but he hated being in the service because it took him away from his family and his responsibilities to them. After Jimi was born (November 27, 1942), Lucille's letters became much less frequent. Sometimes his letters to her would be sent back, and when he did receive letters from her, they always had a different return address.
He found out that Lucille was having a hard time of it and their son was being taken care of by Clarice, Lucille's mother. A source says she was hospitalized for tuberculosis during this period. He got a letter from a stranger, a Mrs. Walls, who said that she had the boy, and he could pick him up when he got back. Al started sending his money to Mrs. Walls. Al got another letter from a Mrs. Champ, who told him her sister, Mrs. Walls, had died and that she now had Jimi with her in Berkeley, California. Al started divorce proceedings before he left the service.
Making a Home
Al got back to Seattle in September 1945, and after a quick trip to see his family in Vancouver, he went down to meet and pick up "Johnny Allen," the name Lucille had given him. Al imagined the name Johnny Allen could have been a guy that Lucille was seeing while he was away, so he when he got back to Seattle he changed his son's name to James Marshall (Jimmy changed the spelling of his name to Jimi in 1966 at the suggestion of Brian "Chas" Chandler, the bass player for the Animals, who "discovered" him at Cafe Wha? in New York). Al and Jimi lived with Lucille's sister, Delores, and her three kids, Roberta, Dee Dee, and Julia. Lucille showed up soon after and asked if Al would like to make a go of their marriage. Al agreed.
He started working at Fry's Packing House and moved into a room with Lucille and Jimi at the Golden Hotel on 10th Avenue. Fry's didn't pay very much, so he got a job aboard a merchant marine victory ship, the Marshall and traveled to Japan. When he got back two weeks later, the room was locked up and Lucille and Jimi were gone. It turned out Jimi had gone with Clarice on a trip to Kansas, but nobody knew exactly where Lucille was. Al went to Delores' and stayed with her till Lucille came back, and they reconciled again.
In 1947, Al started taking electronics classes under the G.I. Bill and working at the Pike Place Market as a Janitor at night. Lucille had a habit of taking off for a few days at a time without saying where she was going. When she got back she would say she had been at a girlfriend's, and Al would say "Uh-huh."
Lucille got pregnant and gave birth to a son, Leon, on January 13, 1948. Al knew the child wasn't his and Lucille admitted to it. Around that time, Lucille had been staying with a Filipino man named Frank, and Clarice was taking care of Jimi during the day while Al was at work. Al was very reasonable with her, thinking "She was going to do what she's going to do anyhow, so ..." He said Lucille was a good and affectionate mother when she was there.
Later in 1948, Lucille was pregnant again, and again, Al wasn't the father. Joey was born in late 1948. Al says, "Things got really hectic after that." He was still in school, and barely had any money. He decided to just stick it out until Lucille decided to stay or go -- but he finally had enough when he found out she had been running around with the underage baby-sitter for the boys. He divorced her in 1950 and got custody of the kids. He gave Joey up for adoption when the money got really tight, and he put Leon in a foster home for a time, too.
Lucille had two daughters after their divorce, Cathleen and Pam, and another boy, Alfred. Lucille drank a lot. According to Al, she really enjoyed being the life of the party and alcohol provided the stimulant she felt she needed. She visited the boys once in awhile, but often came over after drinking late in the evening when the boys had already gone to bed.
Around 1953, Al began working for the City of Seattle, doing various tree and brush clearing work around town. He bought a house at 2603 26th Avenue. He shared this house with his niece, Gracie, and her husband, Buddy Hatcher. After losing the city job, he worked for Bethlehem Steel in the shipping department. When he lost that job, he started recycling scraps of metal. It was around this time that Al brought home an old, beat-up ukulele for Jimi -- Jimi's first instrument -- that he'd found while cleaning up a garage.
Al sometimes went hungry to feed Leon and Jimmy. They ate horsemeat hamburgers two or three times a week. Al was trying for jobs, but often times he knew he wasn't hired because of his race. He said: "You'd see a job advertised in the paper, go down and apply, and they'd say, 'It's just been taken.' Two or three days later, it'd still be in the paper."
It was hard for Al to cover the living costs during this time of unemployment. When Gracie and her husband moved out, Leon went to live with Patricia and her husband Pat Jimenez, and Jimi went to live with Frank and his wife, Pearl. Al's friends, Cornell Benson and his wife, Ernestine, moved in with him for a time.
In 1956, when Al couldn't make the payments, he lost the house and moved into McKay's boarding house on 29th Avenue. Jimi soon came to live with him there. It was Mrs. McKay's son, James, who offered his acoustic guitar to Jimi for $5. Al gave him the money. Leon began having problems at Patricia's house, so he went into foster care with friends of Al's for a time. Around 1963, Leon came back and stayed with Al permanently. By that time, Jimi had already left for the military.
Lucille died in 1958 while Al and Jimi were living at McKay's boarding house. She had been in the hospital a few times just before she died. Her ill health and death were related to her years of alcohol abuse. She was 32 years old.
Al and Jimi moved in with Gracie and Buddy for awhile, and then into a room at Cornell and Ernestine's new place on College Street. Al started working with Patricia's husband, Pat, who had his own landscaping business, and shortly thereafter went into business for himself. He worked in landscaping until the late 1970s, when his health caused him to quit.
Jimi's First Guitar
In or around 1957, they were forced to move out from the Benson's when the landlord found them living there, and he and Jimi moved to an apartment on East Terrace Street. The place was infested with cockroaches -- so many they tried not to have any food in the house -- which wasn't hard as money was so tight. It was when they were living there that Al went and bought Jimi his first electric guitar. Al put the guitar on a payment schedule from Myers Music on 1st Avenue.
That one got stolen off the stage during an intermission at the Birdland Ballroom when Jimi was playing a gig there. Mary, Al's brother Frank's second wife, noticed Jimi was down and told him to go get another guitar and she'd pay for it. Jimi did, but when Al found out he forced him to take it back. He bought him another one himself when he could afford it.
Jimi Joins the Army
Al met a lady, Wileen Stringer, and eventually moved with her, her daughter, Wilette, and Jimi to 2606 Yesler Way. Jimi was going to Garfield High School and worked with Al in his landscaping business. Instead of finishing high school (he was expelled and didn't bother going back), and in order to avoid jail-time for joyriding in a stolen car, Jimi joined the Army. (Al disputes this version of events.)
Either way, Jimi's theft sentence was suspended, and joining the military was discussed with the judge at his hearing. Al says he might have seen a "Screaming Eagles" patch in a book, or had a friend come out of the service with one. At the recruiting office he was told it was a patch of the 101st airborne paratroopers. Jimi was classified 1-A, which meant he could be drafted at any time, and he figured he would be, so he thought he'd go "all the way" and join the paratroopers.
In June 1961, Jimi was shipped off to Fort Ord, California, for basic training, and was later stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, just 60 miles from Nashville, Tennessee. Before going into the service, Jimi told Al that he was going to make it in the music business. Al said "Hurry up, I'm getting tired of working!"
Wileen stepped out on Al, and although he thought of marrying her, he didn't want to go through what he'd gone through with Lucille, so he ended it right then. Al sent Jimi his guitar after Jimi requested it in January 1962. After Jimi got hurt in the summer of that year, he got a medical discharge from the army. Jimi stayed down south playing with musicians he had met, instead of coming back to Seattle where he thought he would just be "sitting around idle." Al understood that, because he had felt the same way about staying in Vancouver when he was young.
Al's Marriage and Jimi's Fame
Al met Ayako "June" Fujita in 1966 through his friend Delores Kurber, and they hit it off. June (who called herself June because she was born in June and nobody could pronounce her name) had five children: William, Marsha, Linda, Donna, and Janie. Janie was three, but all the other kids were grown. They got married, Al adopted Janie, and they lived together on Queen Anne Hill. Al and June separated amicably around 1986, and June died in 1999.
Jimi called Al from London in September 1966, and said, "Dad, looks like I'm on my way to the big time." Jimi had heard he had gotten married, so Al told him all about June, and Jimi was happy for him. Jimi hadn't sent Al his first album, Are You Experienced, which was released in May 1967. Al heard his neighbors playing music and thought it sounded like Jimi, so he went over there, introduced himself, and saw that it was! The neighbors, whom Al described as "hippies," were ecstatic that they lived next to Jimi's dad, gave him the record, and asked for his autograph. Al's friend Ernestine Benson told him she thought "The Wind Cries Mary" was probably was about him and Lucille.
Jimi kept in touch, but the first time Al saw him again was in 1968. Jimi came in for a show at the Seattle Center Arena on February 12, 1968. Al went to meet him at the airport and wondered why so many people were there -- he had no idea that Jimi was such a celebrity. Jimi met Janie for the first time, and Al said he was crazy about her. It had been five years, and the whole family was there to greet, congratulate, and visit with him. The next day, Jimi was given the key to the city of Seattle, and then an honorary diploma at an assembly at Garfield High School. He was asked how long he had been away from Seattle, and he replied, "Oh, for about 5,000 years."
Jimi asked Al if there was anything he needed, and Al said June's car was giving them problems. A bit later, after he'd left, he sent money for Al saying, "Get a new car and a truck, too!" Al did -- a car for June and a truck for his landscaping business.
Jimi returned to Seattle again in September 1968. He had a show at the Vancouver Arena, and his grandmother, Nora, got to see him perform. He played the Seattle Center Coliseum (now Key Arena) on September 6th. Jimi again came home for a visit in May 1969, and talked with his dad about maybe getting married and buying a house on the water in Mercer Island. He played Woodstock on August 18, 1969, and came home again in July 1970, for a show on the 26th at Sicks' Stadium (the old Seattle baseball stadium).
This was Jimi's final visit to Seattle and the last time Al would ever see him alive. At the boarding ramp at the airport, Al said to him, "Keep your nose clean." Al said Jimi started towards the plane but came back and looked into his eyes. He went down the ramp again but turned around, came back to Al and just looked at him. He did this three times. The thought, "Will I ever see him again?" went through Al's head -- he always worried about Jimi's planes crashing -- and he sensed Jimi was feeling the same thing that day. Al waved him goodbye.
Jimi's Death and the Theft of His Legacy
On September 18, 1970, Al got a call from Henry Steingarten, Jimi's lawyer, and was told that Jimi was dead. Steingarten told him to come to New York and to bring a lawyer. Al brought Charles Pasco, a friend of a longtime friend. In New York he met Alan Douglas, who told him he and Jimi were great friends and that Jimi had been using his studio before he died, but Al said Jimi had never mentioned Alan to him.
Al went to Jimi's New York apartment, grabbed some photos and a letter and asked that all Jimi's things be sent to him. Of all the belongings he saw in the apartment, he knows a lot of them weren't returned to him. Jimi's gold records and a photograph on the mantel piece were stolen from Al's home in 1985.
Al heard of things of Jimi's being sold at auctions, but he never saw any of that money. Al did donate Jimi's Hopi jacket and some other things to a Planned Parenthood auction, but included a letter of authentication to go with these items. Al was encouraged to turn over Jimi's letters to lawyers for safe keeping, but he said he never saw them again -- the lawyers told him that they had been returned to him. Alan Douglas came and picked up all of Jimi's music recordings at Al's house, saying he was using them for mixing.
Al hired a lawyer Leo Branton, Jr. in the late 1970s. A friend of Al's knew Leo's brother, and said he was a good lawyer for the entertainment world. When Al's niece, Diane, read about the rights to Jimi's music being sold, she asked Al if he was selling them. He said no and went about finding out what was going on. He thought he had the rights.
In April 1993, Al filed a lawsuit in Seattle's U.S. district court to sue Alan Douglas and the family's legal advisor, Leo Branton, in order to regain the rights to Jimi's music. The litigation was funded by Paul Allen (b. 1953), who asked for repayment only if they prevailed.
In July 1995, they won the case. With his daughter Janie, Al created Experience Hendrix, L.L.C. Al was chairman of the board and Janie heads the company as President. Bobby Hendrix, Frank's son, is vice president. Janie's husband, Troy, is in charge of the new Hendrix Records label, which is a joint venture with MCA records. They have also begun Dagger Records, an independent label through Experience Hendrix. Their website is www.jimihendrix.com.
In 1995, One Reel held a Jimi Hendrix tribute concert at the Memorial Stadium at the Seattle Center's Bumbershoot Festival that really pleased Al. The line-up included Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars with Parliament and Funkadelic, Buddy Miles, Billy Cox, Vernon Reid, Little "Jimmy" King, Junior Brown, Clarence Clemons, and Eric Burdon.
Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne division parachuted into the stadium with purple smoke trailing from a contraption in their boots. They landed flawlessly one after the other in a 10 by 10' area marked off area in the middle of the stadium floor. To the cheers of the audience, they crowned Al "King" in a ceremony on stage, giving him and a robe and having him light a cauldron with a guitar sculpture in it similar to the flame lit at the Olympics. It started raining heavily, just as it had at Jimi's last Seattle concert at Sicks' Stadium, but most people stayed. To make the night more spectacular, there were about four or five lightening cracks that lit up the sky.
In the hospital after a scare when his pacemaker went on the fritz, Al told Janie he wanted to "stick around" long enough to get Jimi's estate settled, get the rights back, and tell Jimi's story in a book. Al and Jas Obrecht worked together to create My Son Jimi, a book constructed of transcribed interviews with Al about Jimi and his life and career.
Al Hendrix died peacefully at home in his sleep on April 17, 2002. His funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church on April 27, 2002. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, as is Jimi.