RIP Leslie West from MOUNTAIN
The First Footsteps of Metal:
A Bold Sound & Career
“The one who plays different, that’s the one you’re going to remember…. I wanted vibrato like somebody who plays violin in a hundred-piece orchestra….I wanted to have the greatest, biggest tone.” - Leslie West
By: Abbe Davis December 2020
It is 1970, and you get in your car after work to make the trek home. You are probably driving in a Buick GSX, or Challenger, or Corvette, or Plymouth Superbird. You turn to slide the dial over to the FM Rock station, cause let's face it, Rock soothes the soul. Suddenly, you hear this in-your-face tune, "Mississippi Queen! If you know what I mean_ Mississippi Queen! She taught me everything." It is 2 minutes and 30 seconds of gutsy, unimaginable growl and grit, and you are hooked. Leslie West’s voice and guitar are howling, and then drummer, Corky Laing’s completely essential cowbell. You realize that you are hearing a turning-point, landmark song, and it is something you have never heard before. “Mississippi Queen” has been featured in countless soundtracks, TV shows (The Americans, The Simpsons), and in Guitar Hero III. In an interview with Guitar Player in 1987, West said the song “has just everything you need to make it a winner. You’ve got the cowbell, the riff is pretty damn good, and it sounds incredible. It feels like it wants to jump out of your car radio. To me, it sounds like a big, thick milkshake. It’s rich and chocolatey. Who doesn’t love that?”
Leslie West, lead singer and guitarist of the band, Mountain, died two weeks ago in Palm Coast, Fla at the age of 75, due to cardiac arrest. He rose to fame with Mountain, which Rolling Stone called a “louder version of Cream” - a band Mr. West idolized. One of the group’s first gigs was Woodstock. His sound was ballsy guitar riffs and growling lead lines, and hit songs like “Mississippi Queen,” and other rock anthems of the 70's.
West battled various health problems over the years, including bladder cancer in the early 2000's. In 2011 he had to have his lower right leg amputated due to complications of diabetes. West struggled with obesity for most of his life, and, not the typical thin rock star - especially back when Mick Jagger was strutting around, West's persona and physique stood out. His guitar tone was scathingly fierce, with a strong vibrato.
“I didn’t play fast - I only used the first and the third finger on the fingering hand,” he told Best Classic Bands in 2011. “So I worked on my tone all the time. I wanted to have the greatest, biggest tone, and I wanted vibrato like somebody who plays violin in a hundred-piece orchestra.”
His vocal lead was noticeably powerful and passionate. It could be seen as an early example of today's Heavy Metal belting/screaming, compared to the sound of the 70’s. Mountain varied in its style, with some songs that were more melodic ballads, or the workings of the bassist/co-lead singer/producer, Felix Pappalardi. The band's comparison to the band Cream, was probably due to Mr. Pappalardi’s role as the producer of many of Cream's best-known recordings.
“I idolized Cream,” Mr. West told Guitar World magazine in 1987, “and here was a chance to play with one of the best musicians in Rock ‘n Roll and one of the best writers, too.” referring to Mr. Pappalardi.
Deepening the bond between the two bands, Mr. Bruce joined Mr. West and Mountain’s drummer, Corky Laing, to form a power trio after Mr. Pappalardi left Mountain in 1972. Mountain rose to No. 26 on the Billboard chart with their debut album, “Why Dontcha.” They also earned two gold albums, “Climbing!” and “Nantucket Sleighride,” each cracking Billboard’s Top 20 in the early ’70's.
LESLIE WEST's LIFE:
Leslie West was born Leslie Weinstein on Oct. 22, 1945, in New York. When Leslie was 8, his mother bought him his first instrument, a ukulele, but he became entranced with the guitar after seeing Elvis Presley play one on television. He bought his first guitar with the money given to him for his Bar Mitzvah. After his parents divorced, he changed his name to West, and after he graduated high school he went into the music scene. “I went to N.Y.U. — New York Unemployment,” he jokingly told the News-Times of Danbury, CT in 2005.
His professional career began in a band he formed in the mid-1960s with his brother Larry, who played bass. The band, the Vagrants, was a blue-eyed soul group inspired by a hit act from Long Island, the Rascals. The two bands played the same local clubs, as did Billy Joel’s early group, the Hassles.
Improbably, Vanguard Records, better known for Folk, Jazz and Classical artists, signed the Vagrants. Their first single, “I Can’t Make a Friend,” a garage rocker, became a minor hit in 1966. Mr. Pappalardi, who produced some of the Vagrants’ songs, helped them obtain a new contract with Atco Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic. Their cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” earned the Vagrants some East Coast airplay in 1967.
In 1969 West wanted to record heavier music and left the Vagrants to make a solo album whose title, “Mountain,” was a reference to his imposing size. Produced by Mr. Pappalardi, it featured many songs co-written by the two, including “Long Red,” which, with ND Smart on drums, featured a drum break that inspired one of the most popular samples in Hip Hop history; heard on more than 700 recordings, including ones by Public Enemy, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar.
By the time “Mountain” appeared, West had persuaded Mr. Pappalardi to form a band with him named for the album. “I said, ‘There’s never been a fat and a skinny guy onstage. We can’t miss.” One of Mountain’s first gigs was at the Woodstock festival, a booking the band received because it shared an agent with Jimi Hendrix. The band’s debut album was released the next spring, with Steve Knight added on keyboards, and Laing on drums.
Mr. Knight’s keyboard playing differentiated Mountain from Cream's power trio format. The album’s lead track, “Mississippi Queen,” had what became one of the most famous cowbell intros in rock, though it was originally used by Mr. Pappalardi simply as a way to count the band into the song. The song reached No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart and became an FM radio staple.
The final studio album by the original Mountain, “Flowers of Evil,” was released in late 1971. One side had music recorded live at the Fillmore East. By 1972 the group split, due to drug abuse and Mr. Pappalardi’s decision to quit touring. While he continued to work as a producer, Mr. West, Mr. Bruce and Mr. Laing recorded two studio albums and a live set before Mr. Bruce bowed out in 1973. That same year, Mr. West and Mr. Pappalardi reformed Mountain with a new drummer and keyboardist for a double live album, “Twin Peaks,” and a studio album, “Avalanche,” both issued in 1974. But months later, the group imploded. In 1983, Mr. Pappalardi was fatally shot by his wife, Gail Collins, who had co-written songs for Mountain and designed their famous album covers.
Mr. West continued to record and perform, billed either under his own name or as leader of Mountain, sometimes with Mr. Laing. He collaborated on albums with star guitarists like Joe Bonamassa and Peter Frampton, and recorded with top Metal singers like Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, and Ozzy Osbourne.
His last album with Mountain, “Masters of War,” released in 2007, featured covers of Bob Dylan songs. In 2009, he toured with a band billed as West, Bruce Jr. and Laing, with Mr. Bruce’s son, Malcolm, on bass. He appeared with Mountain at an all-star concert for the 40th anniversary of Woodstock in 2009. His most recent solo release, “Soundcheck,” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s blues chart in 2015. He continued to record and perform, under either his own name or Mountain for years.
Mr. West is survived by his brother and his wife, Jenni Maurer, whom he married onstage, after his Woodstock performance in 2009.
“I’m not a great guitarist, technically,” he told Guitar World in 1987. “But you know why people remember me? If you take a hundred players and put them in a room, 98 or 99 of ’em are gonna sound the same.
RIP Leslie West, true path paver and legendary rocker.
GUITAR WORLD INTERVIEW:
Abbe Davis, Editor TRR
Abbe Davis is the Chief Editor at TRR; promoting bands and supporting Rock music. She is also the lead singer/songwriter of hard rock band, Sordid Fable. She has performed alongside of Buddy Guy at the River Walk Blues Festival, and has enjoyed performing for years.