Was Jimi Hendrix murdered?
He was a music megastar, he died in mysterious circumstances involving drugs and there were suspicions of foul play.
This was Michael Jackson . . . but it was also Jimi Hendrix.
Was the guitar legend killed over money?
Michael Jackson’s untimely death will fuel biographies, album rereleases and conspiracy theories for years. But rewind nearly four decades and there’s another death, one that bears many similarities to Jackson’s, about which startling revelations are still coming to light.
Jimi Hendrix was also a black artist who crossed over to a white audience. He did for the guitar what Jackson did for the pop video, combining showmanship — playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his back, then setting it on fire — with a musicianship so peerless that on hearing him Eric Clapton considered packing it in.
And Hendrix, too, was afflicted by a fame that came too fast, too heavy; by the money-lubricated machinery of management; and by the drugs that helped him to cope. But there is one key difference.
James “Tappy” Wright, a former road manager, has come forward with an extraordinary claim about rock’s most gifted guitarist. At first it sounds absurd. But as the 65-year-old granddad lays out his tale while pouring a very un-rock’n’roll cup of tea, you begin to realise that there could be something to it.
Hendrix, according to Wright, did not die accidentally in the early hours of September 18, 1970, from choking on his own vomit after a drugs overdose. Instead he was murdered by a ruthless gang who burst into the London hotel room of his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, and forced sleeping pills and wine down his throat until he drowned. A horrific end, if true. But there’s more.
Wright says he knows the killers’ leader, in fact worked for him. It was the man whom Hendrix should have been able to trust above all others: his own manager, Mike Jeffery. Is that possible?
“Mike Jeffery was a dangerous man, no doubt about it,” says Wright, with a Whitley Bay “oo” in “no doot aboot it”. “He spent two years in the Army, in the Secret Service [it is known that Jeffery spoke Russian and was stationed in Egypt]. Shooting people was fun, he used to say to me, just like shooting ducks at the fairground. He’d have to creep into people’s tents with fixed bayonets, this was in the Suez days or whatever. The noise was horrible, he said: you could hear the metal scraping against the bones of their ribcage.”
In his memoir, Rock Roadie, published last week, Wright says that Jeffery confessed to the murder over a bottle of bourbon in 1973. The story has spread like wildfire on the internet, but until now no one has had the chance to quiz Wright in person. Why did he wait 36 years to tell the tale?
“I was scared,” he says simply. The man who once bedded 70 groupies in a month is potbellied now, with diabetes and dodgy knees, but Wright never drank or took drugs; his memory of the Sixties seems sharp. “Mike Jeffery was not a man you wanted to cross . . . I was scared of him. The day after he told me, I came in dead nervous, like, in case he’d had second thoughts. It was never mentioned again.”
Jeffery died in a mid-air plane collision a month later. Why did Wright not come forward then? Or, in 1993, why did he not give evidence when Hendrix’s former girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, asked police to re-investigate his death?
“They never asked,” Wright says. “The other men who helped Mike Jeffery kill Hendrix, they would have still been alive. And I was worried that the fact that I hadn’t come forward in the first place made me a — what do you call it? — an accessory. In the end, it was Rod Weinberg [a music impresario who co-wrote the memoir] who persuaded me I had a duty to come clean.”
Bob Levine, now in his eighties and living in Florida, is one of the few key players still alive. As the merchandising manager he worked closely with Jeffery, but even he had to take him to court to retrieve £30,000 lent to save Jeffery from a Mob enforcer.
Levine has sent Wright a letter. “I’m so glad you honoured the truth,” he wrote, “instead of all that regurgitated s*** that comes out.”
The Sixties were Wild West times in the music industry. While the rock stars got high, their managers got rich. Wright’s book is more concerned with his own sexploits with groupies, but when pressed, he will recount how Jeffery got him to fly from New York to France, Germany, London and then back, picking up parcels along the way. “I knew it was money. From shady individuals, yes. Sometimes royalty cheques, but they were all made out to Yameta, the offshore account Mike Jeffery set up in the Bahamas.”
The Animals, whom Mike Jeffery managed before Hendrix, were once the UK’s biggest act after the Beatles. They split up in 1966 with just £500 to their name. Their lead singer, Eric Burdon, described that Bahamas account as a “Bermuda Triangle” for their money. Hendrix found the same.
“Mike Jeffery told them that Yameta would be a tax haven for all their money,” says Wright. “But no one got any of it. Jimi died a pauper. The Animals didn’t have a pot to piss in.”
Jeffery may have been more unscrupulous than most, but in any business that runs on cash, the Mob is never far behind. Tours in the US had to contend with Mafia control of trucking, baggage handling and stadium concessions. Managers had to be tough nuts to protect their clients. Jeffery was a short man, not given to overt violence. Yet in his dark glasses and overcoat he exuded menace. He flaunted his connections with organised crime and the FBI.
But murdering your own star act? Perhaps Jeffery was capable of the deed, but what could the motive possibly be? This is where it gets interesting.
Jeffery had crippling debts. There were huge expenses from building Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio in New York, including a $400,000 loan from Warners; Hendrix’s first manager had won a court case granting him the next album and a share of all profits; he owed $200,000 in back taxes; and he had recently paid £100,000 to buy out Hendrix’s co-manager Chas Chandler (Chandler, reveals Wright for the first time, was livid with Hendrix for bedding his wife).
Yet Hendrix’s contract with Jeffery was coming up for renewal. The two men had clashed over not just money but musical direction, too. In 1967 Jeffery had disastrously booked Hendrix as support to the Monkees; the year after that he tried to dissuade Hendrix from recording a double album (Electric Ladyland); and in 1969 he tried to make Hendrix go back to using white musicians in his band. According to several sources during his final weeks in London, Hendrix was determined to change management.
Jeffery would have been desperate. He couldn’t afford to lose his cash cow. But according to Wright, Jeffery had one last get-out-of-jail-free card. Jeffery had taken out a $2 million insurance policy on Hendrix’s life. That was standard practice for a manager, but right now it meant Hendrix was worth more to Jeffery dead than alive.
It wouldn’t have taken much imagination to come to this conclusion, either. As a young man Jeffery had profited from two mysteriously well-timed fires, one at a nightclub and another at a coffee bar he owned in Newcastle. The insurance payments allowed him to set up management of the Animals and open the Club A-Go- Go for them to play in.
After Hendrix’s death, Jeffery was able to pay off his back taxes, buy out Hendrix’s father’s share in the Electric Lady studios, and buy himself a house in Woodstock. And of course he continued to cash in on his client’s legacy. In 1973 he even sent a virtual Hendrix out on tour — showing a film of Hendrix in concert, with support acts appearing beforehand.
So Jeffery had motive and ability. Had he the opportunity? No one knows where Jeffery was that night. Days later, he was tracked down to Majorca, where he had a nightclub. He expressed surprise, claiming not even to have heard of Hendrix’s death.
As to the sequence of events that led up to Hendrix’s death, accounts are famously conflicting. The authority is Tony Brown, whose exhaustive book The Final Days of Jimi Hendrix, came out in 1997. The ambulancemen and police who found Hendrix are interviewed. All concur that they found the door to the flat open, which suggests a hasty exit. Hendrix was fully clothed, which doesn’t sound as if he deliberately took pills to sleep. And he was “covered in vomit, tons of it over the pillow, black and brown it was”.
The doctor who examined Hendrix discovered copious amounts of wine in Hendrix’s lungs, but strangely little had had time to be absorbed into his bloodstream — a powerful indication of foul play. Dr John Bannister told The Times in 1993 that by the time his body reached the hospital, “Hendrix had been dead for some time, without a doubt, hours rather than minutes.”
The version of events presented by Dannemann had been accepted by biographers as fact for 20 years. It is now universally discredited. A German figure-skater turned drug-taker and fantasist, she was with Hendrix the night he died. She claimed that he fell unconscious when she popped out for cigarettes, that he was alive when the ambulance arrived, that it was their blunders that led to his death. This is denied in every detail by all the authorities involved.
It is known, however, that she argued violently with Hendrix before he died; and it was her sleeping pills that found their way into Hendrix’s system. After his death she became reclusive and litigious. Was she involved in the death? Did Jeffery somehow get her out of the way? Or was it she who gave Hendrix nine of the extra-strength tablets? She committed suicide in 1996, so we will never know.
Wright doesn’t claim to have all the answers — in fact very little of the story pieced together above can be found in Rock Roadie. His ripping yarn of groupies, celebrity encounters and touring devotes just five pages to Hendrix’s death. He knew the man, of course. He was there when Hendrix burnt his guitar at Monterey; he went shopping with him for women’s clothes to brighten up his look. But he’s no historian.
So The Times contacted other experts who might shed some light. Roger Pomphrey made a documentary in 1997 about Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album. A former musician, he interviewed all the key players still aliveand immersed himself in the Hendrix literature.
“If I thought there wasn’t some credibility to this story I wouldn’t begin to associate with it,” Pomphrey says. He will be moderating a series of public Q&A sessions with Wright at the Edinburgh Festival. “We all know that the whole world loves a conspiracy. What separates Hendrix’s death is that from the word go it was incredibly murky. Monika Dannemann’s story changed by the hour. When I made my documentary there were a couple of people who claimed, offcamera, that Monika was in New York two weeks after Jimi died, and who heard her in close conversation with Mike Jeffery.
“That said, of course I’m expecting a total backlash, people saying why have you waited so long to come out. Having got to know Tappy over the last few months, I suspect he’s an honest man.”
Joe Boyd made one of the first Hendrix documentaries, back in 1973. Asked about Wright’s revelation, he says, categorically, “I think it’s absurd.” He knew Jeffery a bit, having dated his secretary. There was a “sinister aspect” to the man, Boyd says, and he “certainly wasn’t the best manager in the world”, but he was intelligent and good to talk to; Boyd can’t believe murder. But then Boyd hadn’t read up on any of the medical revelations from the Nineties; after hearing the whole tale, he began to wonder if there was something to it.
Next, the Hendrix obsessive Yazid Manou, who befriended Dannemann. Initially, he had assumed that Wright was simply a desperate figure with a book to promote. On more considered reflection, he feels that “all the elements of [Wright’s] story could be true, but it’s difficult to check”. And he put us on to a vital witness.
Alan Douglas was Hendrix’s friend and producer during the Electric Lady sessions, and masterminded posthumous releases for 20-odd years. Numerous biographies state that Douglas was the man Hendrix wanted as his new manager.
“Absolutely not true,” Douglas says. Though in his late seventies, he’s still sharp. “I’m not a manager. We never once talked about it. I thought there wasn’t any problem between me and Mike Jeffery but obviously there was, because I kept hearing from people that Mike was worried I was going to steal Jimi.” Confronted about this later, “Tappy” Wright sticks to his story. “I just heard Mike Jeffery’s side of it, but I know what he said to me. Maybe he heard the wrong thing, maybe there’s more than what Alan Douglas is saying.”
Douglas cannot believe Jeffery had anything to do with the death. But he reveals a fascinating conversation with Jeffery a few days after Hendrix died. “Mike was bent double, his head at waist level, in terrible condition with his back. He was feeling a lot of guilt, and told me he wasn’t in retrospect treating Jimi the way he should, under pressure from all the loans. One thing he said to me I don’t think I’ve told anybody, but it’s something I’ll never forget: ‘Every time I was with a woman I thought I could love, I found she was only with me to get to Jimi’.”
So who do we believe? Who, after all this time, can reconstruct events with any certainty? It does not help Wright that his book is ghostwritten: dialogue does not ring true, and there is the odd detail — an “I Love New York” mug, when the slogan wasn’t invented until 1977, for instance — that Wright will admit was made up for colour. But it would be a bizarre fantasist who would fabricate such an appalling story, about people he was close to, just to sell a book.
This much we do know. The medical evidence is at least consistent with Hendrix having been murdered. Jeffery had ability and opportunity. He behaved oddly after the death. And if we believe, as many have attested, that Hendrix wanted to change management, then he also had motive.
Hendrix’s passing marked the end of the Sixties. His stupid, avoidable death from drugs — along with fellow 27-year-olds Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison — was long held as an indictment of the age, the ultimate discrediting of the pursuit of personal liberty over social conformity.
But instead, you may now choose to rewrite your paradigm of the Sixties like this: the Flower Generation’s rarest bloom was trampled by a ruthless, moneygrabbing, ex-army businessman who wore shades and took drugs, but never understood what Hendrix’s music was about.
Either way, what Hendrix’s death amply demonstrates, as Michael Jackson’s death will continue to do for the next 40 years, is the public’s boundless fascination with their too-mortal gods, and the music industry’s unerring ability to turn martyrdom into money.