FROM a basement apartment here, an electric guitar snarls out a familiar raucous riff, suggesting that the music of revolutionary guitar stylist Jimi Hendrix lives on in his hometown, 25 years after his death.
But even as Hendrix's electrical wizardry continues to inspire guitarists around the world, his musical legacy has been drawn into a messy legal fight with as many cliffhangers as a daytime soap opera.
Hendrix's father, James Allen (Al) Hendrix, alleges that he was duped by his own lawyer into selling much of his son's musical estate for a fraction of its worth. That estate has grown to several million dollars a year in album royalties, sheet music, and other merchandise. Last year, Hendrix may have outsold even the King - Elvis Presley - himself.
Whether or not Al Hendrix has a valid case against his lawyer, some analysts say the situation symbolizes the difficulty artists and their families have maintaining the rights to music copyrights and recordings.
"It's a shark's business," says Paul Mawhinney, owner and curator of Record-Rama Sound Archives in Pittsburgh.
"The record industry rules," adds Stan Soocher, editor-in-chief of Entertainment Law and Finance in New York. Still, "artists are in a better position" than they were a few decades ago, because of a proliferation of music lawyers and books, and a general awareness of intellectual-property issues, he says.
In another home-grown example of rock bands' rifts with the corporate world, the popular grunge band, Pearl Jam, just conceded defeat in its year-long battle to break Ticketmaster's near-monopoly on concert sales.
The Hendrix case is rumored to be drawing to a quiet close - an out-of-court settlement. A trial scheduled to begin here today has been postponed. The cast in the Hendrix case includes:
*Leo Branton, a respected civil rights lawyer who was a friend of the Hendrix family when Al Hendrix enlisted his help with his son's estate. The lawsuit names Branton, his wife and son, and music producer Alan Douglas as defendants, along with several overseas corporations to which music rights were transferred. Mr. Branton acted as attorney for these corporations.
*Al Hendrix, a gardener, who was declared the sole heir of Jimi Hendrix's estate. Although he has received $2 million or more from the estate, he accuses Mr. Branton of mismanaging the estate, misrepresenting key facts about music-ownership deals, and self-dealing. Branton and the other defendants say their actions have been above board and that they have made a success of an estate that many thought had little potential for profit.
*Paul Allen, the reclusive Northwest billionaire who co-founded Microsoft Corporation with William Gates in 1975. A musician and long-time fan of Jimi Hendrix, he wants to open a museum bearing the rock star's name in Seattle. He initially loaned money to Al Hendrix to help with the lawsuit, but so far the museum representatives have failed to reach a licensing agreement with Al Hendrix. Mr. Allen is expected to open the museum with or without a deal.
*Daniel Sundquist, a Swedish citizen who claims to be Hendrix's son, and has changed his name to James Hendrix. He has lost one legal effort to prove this and win control of music copyrights.
Some legal scholars caution against jumping to the conclusion that Branton acted in bad faith.
In the mid-1970s, when Branton struck one key deal, "no one knew the value of Hendrix into the '90s," says Marin Scordato, a professor at the Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. "The deal was made in the face of uncertainty, and now the regret [of Al Hendrix] is experienced in the face of how it has played out."
Another side to the conflict has centered around the issue of artistic integrity. The Hendrix family's most recent complaints against producer Mr. Douglas involve overdubbing drum parts, not on the original tapes, for two tracks used on a new album called Voodoo Soup. "I think Douglas's contributions have hurt more than helped Jimi's legacy," says Janie Hendrix Wright, Jimi's sister.