Being Jimi 's baby brother can be a tough row to hoe, especially if
you play guitar
By Mike Seely
Published on March 03, 2009
On November 6, several famous guitarists Buddy Guy, Mike McCready,
Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd among them took the stage at
the opulent Paramount Theatre, trading porn licks in front of a
sold-out crowd. The concert marked the Seattle stop of an annual Jimi
Hendrix tribute tour organized by Janie Hendrix, who controls a large
share of her late stepbrother's estate through an enterprise called
Conspicuously absent from the concert, which also featured former
Hendrix collaborators Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, was Jimi's
younger brother, Leon. As the show began, Leon could be found
rehearsing with his band in a small practice space underneath the Red
Door in Fremont. Leon wasn't invited to the Paramount gig, as he's
been on the outs with Janie for years, the result of an epic legal
struggle over the rights to Jimi's lucrative legacy a struggle
that's found Leon on the losing end time and again.
A week earlier, on Halloween: Leon and his band are sharing a bill at
the Imperial Dragon, a cavernous restaurant-lounge in Tacoma, with a
group fronted by Goldy McJohn, the former keyboard player for
Steppenwolf and the Mynah Birds. McJohn lives in Burien, and was once
tight with both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who died within days
of one another in 1970.
Despite its emphasis on Asian fare, tonight the Palace is offering a
$2 hot dog special in the banquet room where Leon and McJohn are to
perform. In the lounge, there's another stage, where a classic-rock
cover band is playing to a sparse crowd. The banquet room is slightly
more crowded, albeit mostly with members of the bands and a handful
The promoter of the gig is a large man in a bejeweled cowboy hat
named Jim Nelson. Back when he was "three-quarters fucked up and had
a beautiful blond wife," Nelson claims, he performed regularly at the
Las Vegas Hilton, where he sang his "road song, 'Johnny B. Goode.'"
Tonight, he says, he'll be performing that song with Leon's band.
"Have you seen the flyer? Have you seen it?" Nelson asks excitedly.
"The flyer" is Nelson's main method for promoting this Halloween
show. He claims he's handed them out and plastered them all over
town, as well as at a pair of nearby military bases. He believes
flyers are more effective than newspaper advertising and just about
any other promotional tactic. "People keep them," he says. "That's
how I promote my bands."
Judging from the lackluster crowd that's assembled shortly before
Leon and his band take the stage, however, the flyer appears not to
have worked as Nelson had hoped. McJohn, for one, is incensed that
Nelson has promoted his Steppenwolf cover band (in which McJohn's the
only original member), Goldy McJohn & Friendz, as the actual
Steppenwolf. "[Nelson] is full of shit," says McJohn. "Steppenwolf
would never play a room like this." McJohn, who speaks deliberately
and boasts a long, gray mane of hair, hands over a self-released solo
CD entitled Fugue in D, which he describes aptly, it turns out as
"59 minutes and 23 seconds of backwards, forwards, pure,
Leon is rail-thin, with stringy hair and massive hands to rival
Jimi's, and wears tinted spectacles at all times. He is dressed in a
long leopard-print robe, open to reveal a T-shirt bearing his
brother's likeness that he designed himself. He and his band, a
four-piece, take the stage and launch into "Red House," followed by a
string of hard-rock originals from the band's lone release, Keeper of
the Flame. After finishing a track entitled "Voodoo River," Leon
points to the sky and exclaims, "Thank you, Jimi. What's up, brother?"
The band plays a handful of other Jimi covers, including "All Along
the Watchtower" and "Hey, Jimi," a lyric-tweaked interpretation of
"Hey, Joe." Leon mainly plays rhythm guitar, but occasionally trades
solos with Stefen Isaac, the band's competent lead guitarist. Like
his brother, Leon, who sings lead, is not the greatest vocalist, his
gravelly voice spitting out lyrics at such a frantic rate that
they're often unintelligible. As a guitarist, however, he shows
flashes of ingenuity, but mostly defers to Isaac.
"Johnny B. Goode" is the band's finale, and Nelson, as promised,
strides to the stage. Leon reluctantly cedes the microphone to the
promoter, who hunches and sways from left to right as he sings. After
a verse and a chorus, an unimpressed Leon pushes Nelson off the stage
and finishes the song himself.
"That was a bullshit thing, I'm tellin' you," says Nelson, reflecting
on the incident weeks later. "Leon's a great singer, but he doesn't
sing that song worth a shit. He's a class act, but he's not a
rock-and-roll singer." That said, adds Nelson, "His brother's name
gives him the inside track, and the guy's good."
Leon says his band received "a check for $18" for performing that
night. Nelson chalks this up in part to the fact that the musicians
were signing drinks to his tab without permission, and concedes, "I
don't think they got paid shit."
Now 61, Leon's become accustomed to getting the short end of the
stick. A former drug addict and small-time crook, Leon was famously
cut out of his father's will and in turn, Jimi's estate before Al
Hendrix's death in 2002. A costly legal battle, in which Leon claimed
his stepsister Janie coerced a sickly Al into shunning him
financially, ensued. It was a battle Leon would ultimately lose in
2004, and subsequent attempts to profit from his brother's legacy
have been quashed in court as well.
While Leon says he's "tired of all the family stuff," there's always
a chance he'll continue his quixotic quest to carve out a slice of
Jimi's fortune. For now, he's left with only his music, a career he
reluctantly took up a little over a decade ago, when he claims his
brother encouraged him to pick up a guitar in a drug-fueled hallucination.
"This is all I've got," says Leon of his music. "This is the only way
I can take care of my children and my grandchildren."
That leaves Leon trying to make a go of it in a field where his
deceased brother is considered a deity. As Charles Cross, author of
the 2005 Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors, puts it: "If you
were Van Gogh's brother, would you paint sunflowers?"
The afternoon of the big-name Paramount concert, Leon rides the #28
Metro bus to band practice in Fremont. He's seated alone, near the
front, and nobody recognizes him.
Leon has lived in Seattle almost his entire life, but spends most of
his time these days at his girlfriend's place in Los Angeles. When
he's in town, where the rest of his band resides, he stays in West
Seattle at the Seattle West Inn & Suites, a budget motel around the
corner from a bar called the Redline, where he occasionally plays
The Hendrix brothers grew up dirt-poor in Seattle's Central District.
Their parents were both heavy drinkers who divorced when Leon was
still a small boy. Their mother, Lucille, died soon after. Al, says
Leon, "was abusive and an alcoholic and a motherfucker, but we loved him."
Jimi stayed with Al, but Leon was placed in foster care. "My dad
always put me in foster homes like two blocks away, because he loved
me," says Leon, five years younger than Jimi.
Leon and Jimi remained close into adulthood. Leon recalls one time
when Jimi called him from London. "He played 'Purple Haze,' and I
told him it was the stupidest song I'd ever heard," says Leon,
cracking up over a glass of white wine at the Red Door. "He was such
a mild-mannered guy. He was my brother, my father and my friend."
When Leon was in his late teens, he hit the road with Jimi, often
serving as the "gatekeeper" for females in romantic pursuit of his
older brother. But by the time Jimi died, Leon was making a name for
himself as a small-time criminal. In the three decades that followed,
Leon developed a mile-long albeit relatively softcore rap sheet
and a serious crack-cocaine addiction.
He occasionally found employment as a delivery driver, and sold some
of his artwork to help support his now-estranged wife and six
children. Leon was also able to set up trust funds for each of his
kids through a deal in which he relinquished to Al all future claims
to Jimi-related copyrights in exchange for $1 million. Al gained
control of Jimi's copyrights in 1995 after a costly legal battle of
his own; that same year he formed Experience Hendrix and tapped Janie
to run it, a multimillion-dollar enterprise that, among other
ventures, controls Jimi's catalogue and all associated commercial
releases (many of which are sold through EH's retail arm, Authentic Hendrix).
But Leon quickly pissed away his share of the loot, due in large part
to his debauched, hustler lifestyle. "Leon has wasted more money than
most people make in their lifetime," says Cross.
Leon has completed rehab, and his daughter, Tina, says he's made
great strides as a father since cleaning up his act. But with his
recent focus on his fledgling music career, he's repeating the
absentee-patriarch cycle that permeated his youth.
"This was the second Christmas without him," says Tina, a music
producer herself. (Her Hendrix Dynasty Records has produced Bay Area
rapper Sam Quinn and the guitarist BluMeadows.) "He hasn't even seen
two of his grandkids. I know you have dreams, but they just want to
play chess with you. He gave a lot of energy to his kids and
grandkids before, so he'd be well received if he came around. He's
trying to get rich for us, but we don't care about that. When he was
a drug addict, we fed him."
Yet Tina, who lives just south of town in a house off Rainier Avenue,
admires her father's verve. "He's living his dream, traveling the
world, and he's over 60 years old." While Tina feels her dad has
chops, she considers his band's sound to be "a little dated," and
says he "needs a real producer." To this end, she notes, "I would
love to work with him."
"We're building a new legacy for a new time," says Tina, whose
brother, Jimi II (currently doing time in Phoenix on a weapons
charge), is an aspiring rapper. "We're always gonna respect [Uncle]
Jimi. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be doing this. He was the
first Barack Obama."
Prior to Al Hendrix's death, Janie and Leon held comparable shares of
the estate, according to a September 2004 article by Cross for Tracks
magazine. At the time, Janie told Cross she was surprised Leon had
been excluded entirely from Al's final will.
"I can't answer for what my father was thinking," she says today. "He
tried to instill his morals and his values into all of us. And I
often did hear my father say that Leon didn't get it. [Al] was a
gardener who often worked from six in the morning to nine at night.
He was an avid golfer, and he said, 'There're no gimmes.'"
"You look at Jimi, he had his own studio," continues Janie. "[Jimi]
recorded around the clock, laid down for a little while, got up, and
wanted to work again. Consequently, we probably still have another
ten years of unreleased material, which is incredible for an artist
who really functioned for only four years. Why? His work ethic."
Janie also states that Leon was offered a design job at Experience
Hendrix, but turned it down a claim Leon disputes. "When we were in
front of my dad, [Janie] said, 'Yeah, Leon can work here,'" Leon
recalls. "But when I got out of treatment a year or so later, it was
a different story. Every time I tried to go down there and say,
'Okay, give me the job now,' there was always an excuse. If she
offered me a job now, I'd take it. She's committed genocide on my
family. We got no insurance; we got nothin'."
Bankrolled to the tune of $3.5 million in legal fees by a wealthy
real-estate developer named Craig Dieffenbach, who doubled as Leon's
manager at the time, Leon filed suit in King County Superior Court
after his father's death. He claimed his stepsister, who only met
Jimi a handful of times in her youth, had manipulated an elderly,
infirm Al into rewriting a will that did not represent his true
interests. In court, Janie's lawyers portrayed Al's action as tough
love after Leon had squandered multiple opportunities to prove
himself a worthy recipient of his brother's fortune. In 2004, the
judge ruled in favor of Janie.
"Whatever the will said, Leon was the single closest person to Jimi
during the course of his life," observes Cross, who attended much of
the trial. "Should he have been included? Positively, yes. There's
the law, and then there's what's right."
Counters Janie: "First of all, the closest person to Jimi was Dad. As
far as Leon goes, it is sad and unfortunate, but Leon received more
than two million dollars in his lifetime when my father was taking
care of him. And Leon had already sold his rights to various people.
If he'd gotten any money, it wouldn't come to him, it would come to
the people he'd sold his rights to."
Not long after the verdict, Dieffenbach came out with Hendrix
Electric Vodka. After Dieffenbach hosted a star-studded launch party
for the hooch that was chronicled in the Los Angeles Times,
Experience Hendrix sued, alleging trademark infringement. Dieffenbach
countered that Janie only held the rights to Jimi's music. Janie once
again prevailed in court, and last month a settlement was announced
wherein Dieffenbach and Electric Hendrix, LLC will pay Experience
Hendrix $3.2 million for the infraction. Bottles of the vodka will
also be removed from store shelves. (It's worth noting that
Experience Hendrix has pushed its share of tacky Hendrix-related
products as well, including a rocking chair, golf balls and a
nonalcoholic red wine. "The Jimi Hendrix rocking chair is one of the
dumbest ideas ever marketed in rock and roll," says Cross.)
While some news reports stated that Leon was involved with the vodka
launch, and though court documents identify him as part owner, Leon
was never named as a defendant in the suit, and denies any direct
involvement with the product. "I had nothing to do with it," he says.
"[Dieffenbach] didn't even contact me until two years after he
started the company. I came to find out later that he'd put me as an
owner when he first started the company. He called it a Hendrix
family endeavor in some fancy magazines, so he had to come to me
then. He said, 'I'm gonna give you guys [Leon and several of his
relatives] some money [2 percent shares of the company, according to
Leon],' and we said okay because we didn't have no money. But we
haven't seen any money since."
Dieffenbach, who now lives in Beverly Hills, remembers things much
differently. "He was in on it from the very fricking beginning," he
says of Leon's involvement. "I'm very disappointed in him."
Dieffenbach also disputes Leon's claim that he and family members
never received payouts from the vodka endeavor. "At one point, we did
a $26,000 distribution, and we'd been paying Leon for years."
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
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
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."
Gotham Metro CEO Michael Lasky confirms Craddick's account, and
classifies a Hendrix-related film project his company has been
working on as "on hold." As for his company's current financial bill
of health, Lasky concedes they've fallen on hard times, quipping, "If
the state of California and federal government are considered
solvent, then I guess we are too."
For years, Leon and his bandmates ignored this contractual tornado.
But recently Isaac, for one, got fed up. "I personally couldn't take
it anymore," says the guitarist, who feels that the band has become
"a local Seattle joke." Hence this past August, he enlisted Chicago
businessman Greg Groeper, a friend from Isaac's days as a studio
engineer in the Windy City, to help apply some business-savvy salve
to the band's situation.
The first person Isaac put Groeper in contact with was Williams.
Groeper is now the foundation's marketing and charitable gifts
coordinator, and has taken charge of the band's affairs as well.
"Mark [Stella, the group's bassist] calls me the antiterrorist
division," Groeper says of his current role. "He says my job is to
keep the assholes away."
Groeper also helped soothe the residual tension between Leon and
Jimmy Williams. "Leon knows I'm working with Jimmy, and Jimmy knows
I'm working with Leon," he says. "Having me in between them has
seemed to make a very big difference in their relationship. Leon
could basically be the spokesperson for the foundation and use the
band to create awareness and funding for the foundation. And the
foundation can provide Leon with the necessary legal cover he needs
to make sure that Janie doesn't go chasing his ass down the road ever again."
Adds Groeper: "I believe truly that there are a lot of things [Leon]
has done that he would not have done were it not for the influence of
some unscrupulous people. Yes, he's blessed with having Jimi as his
brother, because that cuts through a lot of the muck and gives him an
audience. But as a visual artist, he's very talented and nobody
pays attention to that. They just want to use him to market vodka or
coffee or condoms or whatever. I'm just trying to convince him that
he has to make it with what God gave him, not what other people give him."
Isaac first met Leon a few years ago, shortly after Leon began
performing live, at a Venice Beach bar called Scruffy O'Shea's where
Leon was scheduled to play. "He was scared shitless," recalls Isaac.
Leon aborted his set before Isaac had a chance to join him onstage,
but the pair cemented a relationship that night, and Isaac eventually
joined Leon's band.
"At first, [Leon] didn't believe in himself, and has at times been
afraid to play," seconds Neil Kirkland, the band's drummer and
keyboardist since 2002. "But then he got good."
Good, but not great and Jimi was arguably the best there ever was.
"I have a psychological impediment being Jimi's brother," Leon
concedes. But he got over this hump shortly after one of his clients
came to him looking to score dope. She didn't have any money, but had
an old guitar in tow, so Leon agreed to a swap. Later, while loaded,
he says, he nodded off. Shortly thereafter, he claims, "Jimi came and
the guitar started vibrating, making noise by itself. The guitar
started to talk to me, and it was compelling."
"[Leon is] a natural musician," says Williams. "He's not Jimi
nobody is. But he's done a lot in ten years. He's mastered the guitar
and has a band and he's great."
"He's way better than I expected," seconds Cross. "The problem is his
brother is the most famous guitarist who's ever lived. So for Leon,
it's absolutely nuts for Jimi Hendrix's brother to even think he
could be a guitar player. It's suicidal, almost. You have to, to a
degree, admire that."
Al sure didn't. According to Cross's book, he frowned upon his boys
taking up music as a career, with Jimi often practicing in secret to
avoid his father's ire. Only when Jimi made it big did his dad
embrace his talent. But this only served to strengthen Al's resolve
when it came to Leon.
"My dad forbade me to play after Jimi," Leon says.
For years, Leon honored his father's wishes. But when he finally went
against Al's will, "his attempt at music helped get him edged out of
the estate," says Cross.
Local musician-producer Brin Addison was the one who gave Leon guitar
lessons on Dieffenbach's recommendation. Addison remembers the
Hendrix clan being less than receptive to Leon's six-string pursuit.
"I recorded countless hours of music that [Leon] could present to Al
in the hopes of being accepted back into the family. Janie didn't
like that idea and pretty much poisoned Al against him and
eventually he was cut out of the estate altogether," says Addison.
"In the end, Al figured he knew Leon too well and didn't see music as
a turning point. I'm not sure playing guitar was a direct reason for
him being cut out, but it may have contributed in some way or other."
To this, Janie again denies having had any involvement in removing
Leon from the will, saying only, "As far as his music career, I wish
him happiness; I wish him peace; I wish him healing. If his music
makes him happy, I applaud him for that."
For every gig like the one in Tacoma on Halloween, there are at least
two others where Leon is treated as rock royalty where he's not
only the closest people are going to get to Jimi Hendrix, but the
closest they're going to get to celebrity, period. To wit, at a
working-class bar in Everett called the Doghouse, a fiftysomething
Iraqi soldier on leave lit up at the mere mention that Jimi Hendrix's
younger brother was playing a venue down the road. That show, a
white-linen affair at Club Broadway in commemoration of what would
have been Jimi's 66th birthday, ended up selling out. The crowd was
receptive to the band even though Leon seemed a little off his game,
understandable since he'd come straight from the airport after
playing a similar birthday affair at B.B.'s in Manhattan the night before.
Leon had flown to New York unaccompanied by his regular band. Instead
he played with what he termed from the stage his "New York band."
After Leon opened with the track "Jimi & Me" off Keeper of the Flame,
the crowd applauded warmly. To this a self-deprecating Leon
responded, "You guys are too kind. That was terrible."
When he moved on to covers of "Foxy Lady" and "Red House," the
assembled group of mostly Caucasian tourists became genuinely
enthused. "Kind of surreal seeing Jimi's brother," remarked one onlooker.
At gig after gig, Leon's magnetism proves a recurring trait. Glen
Bui, the lead guitarist for Goldy McJohn & Friendz, says that "Leon
got more attention from the fans than us or Foghat" when the three
acts shared a bill at Farragut State Park Amphitheater in Coeur
d'Alene this past summer.
Two days after the Paramount gala, at Kennedy's Nightclub in
Longview, a workaday town that most Seattleites only stop in for gas
en route to Portland, Leon's band is set to share a bill with McJohn
and Bui. A poster on the club's window touts Leon's band as "Jimi
Hendrix brother Leon Hendrix," and a portion of the evening's
proceeds is designated for the families of fallen soldiers.
Leon begins his set with an eloquent tribute to those who've perished
in the line of duty, and then launches into "Let's Roll," a driving
rocker about United 93. Next the band plays a solid cover of
"Sympathy for the Devil," after which Leon passes around a tin bucket
and encourages patrons to drop money into it for the show's beneficiaries.
Later the band covers "All Along the Watchtower," during which Leon
executes a deft, smoking guitar solo. They close with their usual
cover of "Johnny B. Goode," with Leon tweaking the lyrics so that he
sings, "Go, Jimi, go!"
Afterwards, as McJohn and Bui haul gear to the stage in advance of
their set, Leon nonchalantly sits down at a table with a drink. Mere
seconds go by before a crowd gathers around him, where Leon chats
with fans and autographs clothing, CDs even a woman's breasts.
"I'm not in Jimi's shadow," he says. "I'm in the shade." (See "Voodoo
Child: He Ain't Not Heavy.") [See below.]
With reporting from Ben Westhoff in New York as well as Erinn Unger
and Kassiopia Rodgers in Seattle.
Voodoo Child: He Ain't Not Heavy
Exploring the phenomenon of the lesser showbiz brother
By Mike Seely
Published on March 03, 2009
It's not unusual for siblings to enter similar lines of work. They
share the same genes, after all. But when siblings enter a field in
the public eye be it sports, politics or entertainment how one
compares to the other(s) becomes, well, quite public.
Luke and Owen Wilson, acting brethren who have achieved similarly
lofty stature in their mutually chosen realm, are the exception (as
are Peyton and Eli Manning). How their brother Andrew compares to
them is the rule. While Andrew has scored parts in some significant
films Fever Pitch and Bottle Rocket come to mind his roles have
not risen beyond character-actor status.
More often than not, the phenomenon of the lesser brother takes hold
at some point, and rarely loses its grip. John and Patrick McEnroe,
Sylvester and Frank Stallone, Cal and Billy Ripken, Jeff and Beau
Bridges, Dennis and Randy Quaid, Greg and Mike Maddux, John and Teddy
Kennedy, Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, Dick and Jerry Van Dyke, Jose and
Ozzie Canseco, Dominique and Gerald Wilkins, Sean and Chris Penn,
Matt and Tim Hasselbeck, Bill and Brian Doyle Murray, Rob and Chad
Lowe, Carson and Jordan Palmer, Matt and Kevin Dillon, Super Mario
and Luigi that one brother has surpassed the other in all these
pairings couldn't be clearer. (This phenomenon is not, of course,
gender-specific; the same model could be applied to female showbiz
sibs, with the Knowles sisters as Exhibit A.)
But special scorn is reserved for the brother who resorts to mimicry,
which brings us to the sad story of Leo and Ron Gallagher.
Leo Gallagher is better known simply as Gallagher, the fruit-smashing
comedian who first rose to prominence when he took a sledgehammer to
a watermelon at a Los Angeles-area club in 1976. According to Leo,
Ron, who claims to have had a hand in conceiving the fruit-smashing
shtick, came to his older brother in 1990 and asked if he could do an
imitation show. Leo gave Ron his blessing. According to Ron, it was
Leo who persuaded him to launch his own, very similar, act.
In a May 2000 People article, Jeff Macke, an Ohio club owner who
booked both brothers, said: "Ron's show doesn't compare to what his
brother does. Ron does the old material. Leo has new props; he's
always changing." Nevertheless, both Gallaghers kept robust touring
schedules, and even performed together at Madison Square Garden in
1993. But when Ron played Detroit's 2,000-seat Fisher Theatre, Leo
viewed it as a violation of their pact, whereby Ron would stick to
smaller venues. Leo then successfully sued his brother for copyright
infringement, fracturing the careers and relationships of both men.
(Through a publicist, Leo Gallagher, who still tours, declined to be
interviewed for this story.)
If Jimi Hendrix were alive today, Leon Hendrix would risk being
branded with the Scarlet R. But because Jimi died in his prime, Leon
could end up more like a poor man's Jim Belushi.
Like Jimi, John Belushi died of a drug overdose at the pinnacle of
his fame. But unlike Leon, who didn't pick up a guitar until long
after his brother's death, Jim Belushi was already pursuing a career
as an actor when John died. When shortly afterward Jim joined the
cast of Saturday Night Live, the show that had made his older brother
an icon, the move smacked of morbid opportunism. What's more, it
quickly became evident that Jim was nowhere near the performer his
brother had been, and his movie career failed to take off.
But Jim was not without gifts of his own, and has since become one of
television's most durable sitcom stars. And at the end of the day,
whatever his failings, he's still the closest thing people are going
to get to one of the greatest comic talents ever to walk the earth.
So it goes with Leon. "It was hard at first, but people like me now,"
he says. "I can play. I'm not fantastic, but I get by. And I write
good shit." All in all, while he cops to some psychological
discomfort at entering a realm his brother once dominated, Leon says
that following in Jimi's footsteps has been "fun."
Ben Savage, the younger brother of Fred (The Wonder Years) Savage who
first made a name for himself in the schoolhouse sitcom Boy Meets
World, concurs. "I don't think having siblings in the same line of
work is an impediment," says the 28-year-old Savage, who, like Fred,
has failed to equal his adolescent stardom as an adult. "If anything,
it motivates you to work hard. It's like The Godfather this is the
business we've chosen. It's not necessarily competitive."
"If someone in your family has been there before you, great," he
adds. "It can give you a foot in the door. The Baldwins are doing
okay. The Simpson girls are doing great. Everyone just finds what
works for them. I think if you can bring entertainment to the table
that people enjoy, people aren't going to say there's only room for one."