Lonnie Youngblood was a hotshot sax player on the New York club circuit in the mid-1960s when he crossed paths with Jimmy James, a young musician who was turning heads with his dazzling virtuosity on the electric guitar.
After briefly playing in Youngblood's band, James went back to using his real last name and conquered the music world as Jimi Hendrix, while Youngblood fronted a series of rhythm and blues bands that toured with James Brown, Jackie Wilson and other '60s legends.
The friendship between the two endured, though, and in 1969, at the peak of Hendrix's popularity, the two men recorded several songs in a New York studio that became a coda to their relationship when Hendrix died in London the following year of a drug overdose.
The tunes recorded during those two or three days are the subject of a lawsuit Youngblood filed this spring that claims one of the songs, "Georgia Blues," was included on a 2003 compilation without his permission and without crediting him as its author.
The suit seeks unspecified lost-income damages from Hendrix's estate, MCA Records and film director Martin Scorsese, who collaborated on the collection "Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: Jimi Hendrix." Through representatives, all three parties declined to comment on the lawsuit or didn't return calls Monday.
Johnny B. Hendrix?
The lawsuit has not marred Youngblood's memories of Hendrix, whom he describes in terms that evoke Chuck Berry's mythical "Johnny B. Goode":
"He had a guitar in a sack, a change of pants and a shirt in another sack, maybe a toothbrush and some type of comb. And basically that was it," Youngblood said. "He basically didn't have a worry."
Though Youngblood was just one year older than Hendrix, the blues shouter and the future prince of psychedelia were headed in opposite directions musically. Their paths began to diverge around 1965 or '66, when Hendrix discovered hallucinogenic drugs and began to spend more time in New York's Greenwich Village, Youngblood remembers.
"He wanted me to go down to Cafe Wha and play for tips," he said. "To me, that was out of the question. I had a car, a wife, a son, an apartment. I told him, 'You've got to go where you can get some sure money.'"
While Hendrix's popularity soared with such songs as "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady," Youngblood became a star on Harlem's club circuit and a fixture on college campuses around the Northeast. Then, one night in 1969 Youngblood was onstage when Hendrix showed up unexpectedly, wearing his signature floppy hat, tassels and ruffled shirt, and "turned the place inside out."
'I want my song back'
Hendrix told Youngblood he would record some songs with him, Youngblood remembers, as payback for his help several years earlier.
"Jimmy had moved on to another place by then, but it was his way of saying thank you," he said.
Youngblood said he wrote "Georgia Blues" and points out that one line in the song goes, "I was born in Georgia 27 years ago" — a clear reference to Youngblood, who was 27 at the time and a native of Augusta, Ga.
The lawsuit claims Youngblood released the song himself on the Internet and copyrighted it in 2002. Youngblood said he refused an offer of $3,000 by a lawyer for Hendrix's estate to sell the song.
Lawsuits over authorship or royalties from popular songs were hardly uncommon even back in Hendrix's heyday. Hendrix was dogged by a small-time record producer who claimed to have a contract giving him part of Hendrix's career earnings, according to David Henderson, author of the Hendrix biography "'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky."
New, or purportedly new, recordings made by legendary artists can produce the same feeding frenzy, he said.
"Stuff that's in the vault is very valuable and very important to collectors and historians and music lovers," he said. "If someone's famous, that stuff is going to have legs."
Youngblood, 68, who still performs at clubs and private parties in New York and northern New Jersey, said he just wants what is legally his.
"It's the principle," he said. "I want my song back. They had no right to take my song."