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Rest in Peace, Guitar Icon Leslie West of Mountain: 1945-2020
On Wednesday, it was confirmed by Dean Guitars that Leslie West, co-founder, guitarist and co-lead vocalist of the band Mountain, has passed away at the age of 75 from cardiac arrest.
With a heavy heart, we are saddened hear about the passing of #Dean Artist and part of the Dean family, Leslie West. Legendary and one of a kind. Rest In Peace.
— Dean Guitars (@DeanGuitars) December 23, 2020
West’s brother, Larry West Weinstein, had posted on Facebook Monday that Leslie was in grave condition after suffering cardiac arrest, being rushed to the hospital, and being put on a ventilator:
“I am asking for all your prayers,” he had written in the post which has since been deleted. “(Leslie’s wife) Jenni is by his side in Florida but it’s not looking good. Thanks Jenni, he wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”
Weinsten added that “His heart gave out and he’s on a ventilator. May not make it through the night.”
Recent years also saw West deal with various health issues. In 2011, he had his lower right leg amputated as a result of diabetes.
Prior to the public announcement of Leslie West’s death, his friend and fellow rock icon Dee Snider posted this on Twitter:
“The final hours on this earth for the amazing Leslie West of MOUNTAIN. His voice and guitar will be silenced but his music will live forever. I am heartbroken. Prayers for him and his amazing wife, his rock, Jenni who is with him now. @lwestmountain”.
The final hours on this earth for the amazing Leslie West of Mountain. His voice and guitar will be silenced but his music will live forever. I am heartbroken. Prayers for him and his amazing wife, his rock, Jenni who is with him now. @lwestmountain
— Dee Snider🇺🇸 (@deesnider) December 23, 2020
Among his many career highlights, West and the original Mountain band landed a huge spot at the 1969 Woodstock festival, performing between the Grateful Dead and Canned Heat. Here’s an archival video from their performance:
In a 2019 column for Rolling Stone, West recalled the band’s iconic Woodstock performance — which they secured, he explained, due to sharing the same booking agent as Jimi Hendrix.
Woodstock was just our third job, and it was quite a thrill. Mountain got on the show because our booking agent also handled Jimi Hendrix. I remember watching Creedence, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who. And I was thinking, “How can I top that?” It was one good band after another. It was a thrill, I’ll tell you.
We hired our own helicopter ’cause we had heard that it would be chaos getting up there. When we flew over in the helicopter, it felt like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There was a first-aid kit, and I opened it up and took out an amyl nitrite popper. I looked out at that crowd, and I almost fell out of the helicopter.
The first Mountain lineup (West, Felix Pappalardi, Steve Knight, and Corky Lang) split in 1972, with West reforming the group a year later with Pappalardi, Allan Schwartzberg (drums), and Bob Mann (rhythm guitar, keyboards), one of many versions the band would have over the years.
To date, the final album of original Mountain material (not credited to West as a solo artist) was 2002’s Mystic Fire, the seventh Mountain record not including 2007’s Bob Dylan covers record Masters of War.
Leslie West’s most recent album was 2015’s Soundcheck, the guitarist remaining as active as he could given his health concerns in recent years.
West’s death comes a little over a week after Dave Grohl and Greg Kurstin shared a cover of “Mississippi Queen,” one of the duo’s entries in its Hanukkah Sessions series of covers:
May Leslie West rest in peace.
As our tribute to Leslie West, here’s our 2013 interview with writer Ken Sharp, reprinted in its entirety.
First gaining prominence as guitarist/vocalist in the classic hard rock trio Mountain, boasting signature classics like Mississippi Queen, Theme for an Imaginary Western and Never in My Life, Leslie West’s fiery, expressive playing has gone on to thrill hard rock fans and inspire the likes of Pete Townshend, KISS and Slash over the past four generations and more.
Bravely battling back from a life-threatening bout with diabetes, which tragically caused the amputation of his right leg, West’s terrific new album Still Climbing finds the legendary guitarist delivering a batch of finely crafted tunes powered by consummate guitar playing.
Produced by West and Mike “Metal” Goldberg, the record showcases stellar contributions from blues guitarists Johnny Winter and Johnny Lang, guitarist Mark Tremonti of Creed/Alter Bridge fame and Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider.
Standouts include Dying Since the Day I was Born, Busted, Disgusted or Dead, Feeling Good and a stirring cover of the Percy Sledge ‘60s hit When a Man Loves a Woman.
Rock Cellar Magazine caught up with West about the new album – enjoy below.
Rock Cellar: In 2013, what motivates Leslie West, in the words of the new album, to be Still Climbing?
Leslie West: Since I have my own line of guitars with Dean Guitars, the Leslie West signature series, gives me something to think about. I’m always working on my guitar sound. I started working on my latest CD, Still Climbing a year ago in June. I didn’t have that many songs written yet and knew of a couple of covers I wanted to do. Then the writing started to come. I used all my signature guitars in the studio, about four or five of them, and that made it more fun and creatively satisfying.
Leslie West: There are a couple of songs on the album like Tales of Woe, which wasn’t meant to be a “feel sorry for me” kind of song. It was just reminiscent of what I was going through and the sound of the guitar really turned me on when I was playing it.
A friend of mine, Jon Tiven who was one of my collaborators on the album, sent me a lyric. My wife, Jenni would send me lyrics too. They’d show up on my iPad. I’d wake up in the morning and look on iCloud and these lyrics popped up that she’d be working on. We don’t necessarily write sitting next to each other. What happens is sometimes I’ll have the music done and I’ll look at some of her words and say, “This will work great.” The song Dying Since the Day I Was Born, the song that opens the album, has Mark Tremonti playing lead with me on it.
Everybody thinks something else but as soon as we’re born we’re on the way to dying. When you buy a new car off the lot, as soon as you drive it off it depreciates twenty five percent.
For me, it’s really simple; if the song sounds good and the lyric sounds good, I’ll work on that song. It has nothing to with, ‘This wouldn’t work here or this wouldn’t work there.”
At least to me, most of the songs on the album really go together well.
Rock Cellar: Climbing! is a classic Mountain album from the ‘70s, what was the idea behind calling the new CD Still Climbing?
Leslie West: Look at the cover. It’s sort of reminiscent of the first Mountain album but there’s a rocket ship with my logo on it. It’s not a peace sign, it’s LW. If you look closely you’ll see that. On one of my guitars the LW is inlaid in the rear of the guitar. It looks like a peace sign but it’s really my initials of LW.
Listen, everybody gets knocked down in life. It’s how you choose to get up. So that’s what I had to deal with.
Rock Cellar: When did you first realize you made it in music business with Mountain?
Leslie West: On our very first album, the Leslie West Mountain album, there’s a song I wrote called Long Red—I also re-did on my new album. The reason I redid it was because it was a song which many hi-hop artists have sampled. I wrote it in ’69. If you go to Wikipedia and out in the song Long Red, the amount of hip-hop artists that have sampled that is amazing—Jay-Z with 99 Problems, Kanye West, Common.
You’ve also got artists like Depeche Mode and now Lana Del Rey who have sampled it too. It’s amazing to me. I thought it was time to redo the song. When I saw the response to Long Red when we’d play it at the Fillmore, I said to myself, “Wow, this looks like we may have something here, Mountain may have a career.” And we hadn’t even written Mississippi Queen yet.
Rock Cellar: In terms of the sound you envisioned for Mountain, was it taking off when here Cream left off?
Leslie West: I idolized Eric Clapton and I loved Cream. Felix Pappalardi produced Cream and he also produced my first group, The Vagrants way way back. When I saw Felix’s name as producer on Cream’s Disreali Gears album, I said, “Wait a minute, is this the same guy who produced us?” It was amazing to me to find out he had produced my favorite group so it brought us together.
I had already started Mountain, but not recording wise. Felix joined the group and we had a different drummer then. The improvisational nature of our sound didn’t happen until we started playing live. After hearing Cream’s half live and half studio album, Wheels of Fire, I was impressed with those songs. Felix and I had that improvisational thing on stage the same way that Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce had but to a lesser degree. I’d never put myself in their category. But our sound actually evolved, it didn’t start out that way. The reason we added our organ player, Steve Knight, was so we didn’t seem like a Cream knockoff.
Rock Cellar: Dealing with your battle with diabetes which led to your right leg being amputated, how did that affect your spirit?
Leslie West: When I was in the hospital in Mississippi when I lost the leg, they put me in a coma for four days while they were trying to bust up the blood clot. I thought I was out for maybe two hours. My wife Jenni told me it was four days. I was on propofol. She made them take me of the propofol and wake me up so they could tell me that they were gonna have to amputate my leg. At the time I was so fucked up from the medication that I said “Do whatever you have to do.” It didn’t dawn on me.
Finally, when they completed amputating my leg I didn’t even wanna look and see what it looked like. It was bandaged for quite a while. I gad to go to rehab to learn how to get around. I have a prosthetic leg and my balance is really messed up o I can’t use it. There was a time when I said, “Jesus Christ, now what am I gonna do?” But I got a second wind after I came out of rehab. I’ve done the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp quite a few times. I did one in New York about a month after I came home. I realized, “Jesus, I really like playing the guitar, I can’t just let this go.” But there was a point where I said, “Oh, fuck it!” But when I had a second wind and that pulled me through. My wife Jenni is the one that saved my life. She had to make that decision, “Cut the leg or he’s gonna die.” So yeah, that’s a tough one. I’m lucky. I don’t know what I’m doing here, man. It could have been my hand or my arm.
Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself I look at these guys coming back from the Afghan or Pakistani war and they have no legs so there’s always somebody who has a worse deal than you.
Rock Cellar: Speaking of your wife, Jenni, discuss how she helped you get through that life threatening situation and with new LP, polar opposite to Felix’s wife Gail who killed him.
Leslie West: Well, that’s why I was afraid to get into that. I didn’t want my wife working with me like his wife because she ended up shooting him. So that’s not something I wanted to look back on and go, “Oh wow, I hope this doesn’t happen to me.” But working with my wife Jenni happened on my last album, Unusual Suspects. She wrote this lyric for the song Mudflap Mama, which Slash would play on.
I had this riff and chords and saw that she wrote this lyric and it was great. I put it together and it worked. For this album, I had already thought enough of her as a writer that it was natural for her to be involved on this album too. I sent Slash a copy of the first track on the album, Dying Since the Day I Was Born. I wanted to get his opinion of what he thought and he wrote back, “You can’t get a bigger sound than that!” That made me feel good and gave me confidence. The other guys that played on this album are guys that I wanted to play on the record. It wasn’t like, “Let me see who I can get.” I had a great time making the album.
Rock Cellar: Busted, Disgusted or Dead features the duel slide guitar work with Johnny Winter.
Leslie West: Well I had thee song all done. I finished a tour last summer with Johnny Winter. I thought for that song it would be really great if we could both play slide together on it. We have totally different styles so I thought it would be interesting to have him play on it. I wasn’t with him when he recorded the part. My co-producer, Mike Goldberg, went out to see Johnny in Connecticut at the studio where he works. He recorded him there and it was close enough to home when I was putting the song together that I said, “This really sounds like Johnny Winter.”
When you listen to what he plays you can really tell his style because it jumps out at you.
Rock Cellar : Bring us back to how Mountain’s all-time classic Mississippi Queen was created.
Leslie West: I moved into a new apartment in New York City on Park Avenue after Mountain had made it. We had to do a new album, which was Mountain Climbing. Corky Laing came over to my house and he’d started these lyrics and had the word, “Mississippi Queen, do you know what I mean?”
He said it was written about a girl he met in Nantucket and when the power went out he saw her dancing. Those words made me come up with the riff and the melody and the chords right then and there. It didn’t take us more than twenty or twenty five minutes to write it. We went into the studio and Felix told Corky to count off the song and he used the cow bell to count it off. I think the song is only two minutes and twenty two seconds.
In the old days when you put out a 45 there was another song on the B-side and some disc jockeys tried to be very hip and creative. Instead of playing the song a group was promoting they would play the B-side. My manager at the time said, “We’re not gonna take that chance” and so we put Mississippi Queen on both sides. The song was a little heavy for radio when it first came out but somehow it broke through. I felt it was a pretty good riff.
I learned how to play those kinds of heavy riffs by listening to Cream; playing riffs and chords and singing, I’d never heard that before. Up until then you had The Beatles who wrote really pretty songs. The Stones had songs with great riffs ands the Beatles did too. Satisfaction by the Stones was the first song to use a fuzz tone on the riff. It showed me a different way to approach writing and made me feel I could write songs.
Rock Cellar: What makes a great guitar riff?
Leslie West: What makes a great guitar riff for me is one you can sing in your head right away. It needs to be something simple and catchy that you can sing back. It’s more than a hook; it’s something that stays in your head. It also reminds me that the riff in Never in My Life is two notes away from Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Steve Lukather played rhythm on that song and Eddie Van Halen played the solo. The riff of Beat It (imitates riff to that song and Never in My Life), it couldn’t get any closer than that.
Rock Cellar: Mountain wasn’t a one-trick pony, as evidenced by a song like Theme for an Imaginary Western.
Leslie West: That’s right. When Mountain first went over to England, I don’t think the Nantucket Sleighride album was out yet. But Felix was killed and we went and put the group back together with Mark Clarke on bass from the band Coliseum. We played Knebworth, this big festival in England, and we did Nantucket Sleighride and the place erupted. I said, “How do they know this song?” Well, it turned out that our song, Nantucket Sleighride was used as the theme song of a TV show in England called Weekend World. It was a news show, sort of like 60 Minutes over here.
On every commercial they would play part of Nantucket Sleighride. Many years later, I was rehearsing to play a show at the Philharmonic and we were playing songs by The Who, Pink Floyd and others. Ringo’s son, Zak Starkey, was the drummer and he told me he and his Dad used to watch the show in England to hear that song. (laughs) The Nantucket Sleighride album was on Island Records in England and they did a good job of distributing it and somehow they just picked up our song Nantucket Sleighride. I didn’t like the song when I first recorded it. The chords were difficult.
It wasn’t your normal rock and roll song and it wasn’t a three chord blues. It reminded me of a song on my new album, my version of Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman. Johnny Lang did it with me. The organ in that reminds me of Procol Harum. When Whiter Shade of Pale came out by Procol Harum, I said, “What an intriguing, aristocratic sound it has.” The organ on When a Man Loves a Woman reminds me of that. It was like a B3 organ just like the one that Procol Harum and it sounds really great with Jonny Lang playing guitar and singing a duet with me on the track. But now I love playing it. On the new album, the keyboards on a few songs really really make it.
Like on When a Man Loves a Woman and then Feeling Good, which is a song that Dee Snider of Twisted Sister sang a duet with me on. It really fills it up. The keyboard is a big beautiful pad underneath. Others songs like I’m Not Over You at All don’t have any keyboards but there’s a sax solo on that. You have to mix it up.
You don’t have to have an album where every song has a guitar solo; this changes things up a little and I like that.
Rock Cellar: You’ve spoken about what makes a great riff. What are the elements that comprise a powerful guitar solo?
Leslie West: I’m listening to the chords and the solos come out of the chords. There are some solos I hear on songs and the solo has absolutely nothing to do with the song. It’s just a guy playing really fast or shredding away but having no relationship to the actual song itself. The solo that Mark Tremonti played on Dying Since The Day I Was Born is lightning fast and melodic and it fits with the song. It’s a great solo. I also play a solo but my style and his are so different but they blend together really well.
Rock Cellar: If someone asked you to describe your guitar style what would you say?
Leslie West: It’s pretty big because I’m playing full chords when I can. If I’m being honest when I’m playing solos I try to make it sound like when you listen to a symphony and the first chair violin stands up for a solo. It stands out and that’s what I’m trying to do with my playing as well. So when that time comes you really want to make the solo memorable. It’s not just about seeing how many notes you can play within a thirty second break.
Rock Cellar: What’s the strangest concert bill ever appeared on?
Leslie West: Playing the Fillmore East with Mountain and Theolonious Monk was on one of the shows we did; that was pretty strange. The promoter, Bill Graham, was known for that; he was known for putting acts on the same bill that you wouldn’t necessarily see together. He was way ahead of his time.
We were one of the few groups who were able to play the Fillmore East four nights in a row. That was real accomplishment. The only trouble with that is the way people were on the same seat every night. (laughs)