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Unreleased Material From Jimi Hendrix Reflects A Life Of Music And Money Woes

It's been 40 years since the death of Jimi Hendrix, but unreleased material is still trickling out of the family's archives. A new four-disc anthology is the latest release to follow a long and tangled thicket of legal disputes that have surrounded the estate since the moment Hendrix died.

The new anthology is called West Coast Seattle Boy -- a phrase Hendrix used to describe himself in his writings. The set includes demos, outtakes and recordings from all phases of Hendrix's career, starting with his formative years as a sideman for Little Richard, King Curtis and the Isley Brothers.

Janie Hendrix is the CEO of the family business, Experience Hendrix, and a co-producer of the new boxed set. When she listens to his early recordings, she isn't exactly hearing a legendary guitarist.

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"I hear a young musician who is trying to make it, and just trying to really eat," she says, laughing. "That's what he used to say. Because he would take these jobs to make sure that he could eat. And to get him a step closer to the fame that he really desired."

After five years backing up other musicians, Jimi Hendrix found fame in London. When he came back to the United States in 1967, he was a star. After that, Hendrix was rarely far from his guitar -- or a tape recorder -- says recording engineer Eddie Kramer.

"When Jimi was alive, the four years I was fortunate enough to work with him, he was in the studio all the time," he says. "When he wasn't sleeping, he was recording. So the tape was always rolling for him."

Hendrix even bought his own reel-to-reel to record jam sessions and demos.

He sold millions of records, and headlined the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals. But he never showed much interest in the business part of the music business, as revealed in a 1969 documentary interview that's included in the boxed set.

"Money is getting to be out of hand now," Hendrix said. "Musicians, especially young cats, they get a chance to make all this money. And they say 'Wow, this is fantastic.' They lose themselves. And they forget about the music itself. So you could sing a lot of blues. The more money you make, the more blues sometimes you can sing."

Charles Cross wrote a biography of Jimi Hendrix called "Room Full of Mirrors." He says the musician's disregard for the fine print of contracts got him in trouble.

"This thing's been a mess ever since the moment that Jimi became famous, even before he died," Cross says.

When Jimi Hendrix died suddenly in 1970, he did not have a will. It took almost three decades of litigation before Al Hendrix regained control of his son's recordings. When Al died in 2002, he left most of the estate to his adopted daughter, Janie. And he left his younger son out of the will altogether.

His name is Leon Morris Hendrix, and he was Jimi's younger brother. They grew up together in Seattle, and remained close. When their father died, Leon sued to get a piece of the estate, and lost. Years later, he still seems angry that his stepsister runs the family business.

"She only met him twice, and she was only six," Leon says. "I got no money from the estate. The Hendrix family -- Jimi's blood relatives -- they get no pennies. They get nothing."

Leon's attorneys argued that Janie manipulated their father into removing Leon from the will -- a charge Janie denies. She says Al Hendrix was tired of supporting of Leon through his struggles with addiction.

"I really have to go by what my father did in his will," she says. "And you know, as far as my brother goes, my father took care of Leon. He received close to 3 million dollars in his lifetime. So his decision was to not leave him anything else. I'm just honoring what he requested."

Hendrix biographer Charles Cross attended the long and messy trial in 2004. He says it left one pretty basic question unanswered: What did Jimi want?

"Al didn't create these recordings," Cross says. "Al didn't create this wealth. It was truly Jimi Hendrix. Maybe he didn't create a will, and maybe he died without one. But would Jimi have wanted such a disparity between his father's side of the family and his mother's side?"

Jimi Hendrix rarely mentioned his family in interviews. He didn't talk a lot about money or material success either. But in a 1968 interview, he said he was still willing to starve for his music.

"I don't care about starving anymore, to tell the honest to God truth," Hendrix says. "I did it before, and I was happy. We have it very nice now. But if I ever lose all that, I'm still gonna be interested in music. If they can't dig what we're trying to do later on? It's not gonna really hurt me. I'd still be doing it for my own self-satisfaction, because my scene is music."

We can only guess whether it would have hurt Jimi Hendrix to know that his legacy is one of the most disputed in rock history.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.