Leslie West, rock guitarist best known for enduring ‘Mississippi Queen’ riff, dies at 75
Leslie West, whose band Mountain helped lay the groundwork for heavy metal with fuzzy, hard-riffing songs like the cowbell-enhanced “Mississippi Queen,” died Wednesday at a hospital in Palm Coast, Florida. He was 75.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, who said the cause was cardiac arrest. On Tuesday, West’s brother Larry wrote on Facebook that West had been put on a ventilator.
A physically imposing presence with a self-effacing sense of humor — “The Great Fatsby,” he called one solo album — the singer, guitarist and songwriter was among those who bridged the gap between the bluesy hard rock of the late 1960s (as typified by Cream, whose producer Felix Pappalardi went on to play bass in Mountain) and the flashier, more theatrical sound of ’70s metal acts such as Judas Priest.
West’s music was sludgy and rough-edged, with growly vocals and squealing guitar solos. But his songs had sharp pop hooks that played well on the radio; “Mississippi Queen” went to No. 21 on Billboard’s Hot 100. And his lyrical outlook was sunnier than Black Sabbath’s signature doom and gloom — a vestige of the hippie idealism enshrined at the Woodstock festival, where Mountain famously played one of its earliest gigs in front of a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
“Look at me / I believe it’s true,” West sang in “For Yasgur’s Farm,” titled in tribute to the dairy-farm owner who hosted Woodstock, “You’re a part of me / I’m a part of you.”
Mountain’s music also found a surprising afterlife as source material for dozens of hip-hop acts, including Jay-Z and Kanye West, who’ve sampled the drum beat from the band’s live-at-Woodstock recording of its song “Long Red.” The Beastie Boys sampled “Mississippi Queen” for a track from their cult-fave 1989 album “Paul’s Boutique.”
In a tweet, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister called West “one of the founding fathers of heavy metal” and said he witnessed other guitarists “bow down before him,” including Eddie Van Halen, who died in October. Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler wrote that “Mississippi Queen” had “one of, if not the, greatest riff of all time.”
This month, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, along with producer and keyboardist Greg Kurstin, posted a rendition of “Mississippi Queen” on YouTube as part of their virtual Hanukkah Sessions series.
Leslie Weinstein was born Oct. 22, 1945, in New York and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. Inspired to play guitar after seeing Elvis Presley perform, he bought his first instrument with money from his bar mitzvah and began emulating licks by blues greats such as B.B. King and Albert King, as he told Guitar World in 1987. (Waddy Wachtel, who went on to become a session pro known for his work with Keith Richards and Stevie Nicks, lived in the same apartment building and aided West in refining his technique.)
West and Larry soon formed a Rascals-style garage-soul group called the Vagrants, which built a following within the same Long Island scene that fostered Billy Joel’s Hassles; the band signed with Atlantic Records’ Atco imprint and cut a well-received cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” yet rock stardom beyond the East Coast never quite materialized.
Pappalardi, who produced several of the band’s singles, maintained his relationship with West after the Vagrants broke up, and he oversaw the recording of West’s 1969 solo debut, “Mountain.” The two formed the group they called Mountain with keyboardist Steve Knight and drummer N.D. Smart; Corky Laing replaced Smart not long after Woodstock, which West said Mountain had been booked for because the band shared an agent with Jimi Hendrix.
Mountain’s first LP, the gold-selling “Climbing!,” came out in 1970 and was followed quickly by “Nantucket Sleighride” and “Flowers of Evil,” both released in 1971. The band broke up the next year, which led West and Laing to form a short-lived trio with Cream’s Jack Bruce; West, Bruce & Laing signed to Columbia Records and made two studio albums and a live LP.
In 1973, West reunited with Pappalardi in a new lineup of Mountain, though it didn’t last long. West returned to his solo career — including for 1975’s “The Great Fatsby,” which featured a cameo by Mick Jagger — and later reconvened Mountain again (minus Pappalardi, who died in 1983) in various forms on the road and in the studio.
In 2011, he had a leg amputated due to complications from diabetes, but just months later released a solo album, “Unusual Suspects,” with appearances by Slash and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. His most recent album, “Soundcheck,” came out in 2015.
West, a frequent guest on Howard Stern’s radio show, is survived by his wife, Jenni, whom he married onstage at a Woodstock anniversary concert in Bethel, N.Y., in 2009; his brother; and a nephew, Max.
Years after Mountain’s heyday, the guitarist said he was still creatively stimulated by the sound he helped originate.
“I’ve noticed a lot of guys from the ’70s … are now trying to play stuff that they never played in the first place, and their credibility goes out the window,” he told The Times in 1990. “I’m not having to force anything or pretend.
“I just do what comes naturally.”
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