Leslie West of Mountain

by Dan MacIntosh

Leslie West died of a heart attack on December 23, 2020 at 75. This spirited conversation is from 2011.

Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi formed Mountain in 1969. Their fourth ever show was at Woodstock, where they went on after the Grateful Dead and scared the sonic bejesus out of some unsuspecting hippies. The group gets its name from lead singer West's onetime imposing physique, which one British publication referred to as "girthsome."

West quickly made an impact as a clever songwriter, powerful vocalist and guitar monster. With drummer Corky Laing, Mountain became a power trio in the style of Cream, and it was Cream's bassist Jack Bruce who wrote "Theme from an Imaginary Western," which remains an all time Mountain favorite. The group's signature song, however, is "Mississippi Queen," which has been heard on fine rock stations and beer commercials since 1970.

To our great benefit, West is not just a formidable guitarist, but also a great storyteller. Here, he shares with us his memories of recording with The Who (and the case of the wrong Felix), being sampled on hit rap songs, and that famous cowbell. West's role in rock music history is, indeed, mountainous.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Let's talk about some of your more popular songs. Of course, "Mississippi Queen," I imagine that's your signature song. Do you still enjoy playing that song, and what does it mean to you now?

West: I'll tell you what's really funny. I don't know if you know this, but I had my leg amputated.

Songfacts: Yeah, I heard about that.

West: And it was in Mississippi. I played at the Hard Rock in Mississippi, the Hard Rock Casino. Thank fucking God they had a great surgeon down there. But when I play "Mississippi Queen" now, I think about Jesus Christ. Of all places to lose my leg, it was Mississippi. But I so love the song because I can name 400,000 groups who would like to have a song like that.

Songfacts: Absolutely. I'm sure of it. If you're going to have a signature song, it's great to have one that's that good and not some stupid novelty song, right?

West: Absolutely. The riff is great, the cowbell in the beginning was just in there because Felix wanted Corky to count the song off. So we used the cowbell to count it off - it wasn't put in there on purpose. And it became the quintessential cowbell song.

But actually, when we go to Europe, it's a whole different ball game. "Nantucket Sleighride" is the big draw. In England, there was a TV show called Weekend World, it was like the UK's version of 60 Minutes. It was a 4-hour news show on Sunday, and "Nantucket Sleighride" was the theme song for it. Every time they went to commercial they played "Nantucket Sleighride." When I first went over to England, I found out they still use the pound, they don't use euros and all that. I told my manager, "I need some money." He said let's just go the accountant and get a check." I said, "What do you mean, get a check?" He says, "You have a lot of royalties sitting here." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because we submitted 'Nantucket Sleighride' for this TV show." I was just thrilled.

Songfacts: You never know where your music's going to go and who it's going to impact, huh?

West: You have no idea, man, because, aside from that, I'm sitting in my office right now and I have two platinum records and a gold record on my wall. In a million years I never would have guessed that these people would do my song. You know Jay-Z the rapper? You've heard of Jay-Z?

Songfacts: Yeah, absolutely.

West: "99 Problems" is my song. They sampled that, and Kanye West sampled the same song. The song was actually called "Long Red." It was on my first album. Kanye wrote two songs with "Long Red" as a sample ("The Glory" and "Barry Bonds"). Then Common, another rap artist, used "Long Red" for his intro. So it's absolutely amazing that I got platinum and gold records on my wall. I'm really happy because you'd never figure a Jewish kid writing the top rap songs in the world, so you never know who's going to end up doing your songs.

Songfacts: You're a hip-hop star and you never intended to be.

West: Well, you know what? It's great. Because I always thought to myself, why don't they use heavy guitar in rap? Rick Rubin produced that album, the Black Album, Jay Z's album that "99 Problems" is on. And I think it may have been his idea, because he's a big fan of Howard Stern and I'm always on the Howard Stern Show. Jay Z was going to retire, and then Rick Rubin talked him into doing one more, and the Black Album became the biggest selling album of his whole career. You gotta be lucky besides being talented, if you know what I'm saying.

In March, 1971, Leslie played on sessions with The Who at The Record Plant studio in New York. Leslie's guitar can be heard on the song "Baby Don't You Do It," which was released as a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of Who's Next. You can also hear Leslie on outtakes of "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again."
Songfacts: I was reading that you were on those sessions with the Who when they were recording Who's Next. Do you have the story from those days?

Leslie with Slash. Photo: Alex SolcaLeslie with Slash. Photo: Alex Solca
West: I got some story going with that. First of all, The Who's company, Track Records, was our agent in England. They represented us over there. So I got a call from their manager, who's long deceased now, Kit Lambert. He asked if I would like to play on this album - The Who were doing a new album tentatively titled Who's Next. I said, "Why would Pete Townshend need me?" He says, "Because he doesn't want to overdub." He wanted to do straightaway playing with me. So sure enough, we go down there to the studio. I bring my amps, I'm playing with them, going over all these songs and he had demos he did. First time anybody had used one of those synthesizers for "Won't Get Fooled Again." The thing was like one of those things that you use to plug in a phone like at the phone company. You know, they're plugging in all the lines. I don't know if you ever watched the show Laugh In. It might have been before your time.

Songfacts: I've watched some of Laugh In, yes.

West: Well, Ernestine was a telephone operator. She had this board in front of her where she'd be talking. That's what that synthesizer looked like Townsend was using, it was so old. So we're recording, and then Kit Lambert says to me, "Listen, does Felix play the organ?" Felix Papallardi was the bass player in Mountain. I said, "Yeah, I think so. Why?" He said, "Well, I'll have him come down and play a song with you." So Felix comes down and now he's thinking - he had a massive ego, Felix. He's thinking that The Who want him to play bass. So he sends his bass down, and I said to him, "Felix, I don't think they want you to play bass." And John Entwistle walks in the studio and sees all these basses and says, "What the fuck is this? I thought I was the bass player. Now what is this?" And Felix says, "Well, make up your mind, I'm a busy man." So Townsend turns around and says, "Listen, we thought you were Felix Cavaliere from the Rascals that played organ." So there I am, a little fucking fat kid from Queens, and this is so embarrassing. And then he leaves, and there I am with The Who. They had to go back to England to re-record it with Glyn Johns because some stuff didn't come out good. But I know they released it on The Who's remixes years later. Playing with The Who - unbelievable.

Songfacts: That's a great story. Oh to be a fly on that wall.

West: Listen to what's even more funny. At the session there was a big Hammond organ, and I saw Pete sit down at the organ. He was slamming the thing down like he was Phantom of the Opera. He was having a good old time, but he was being deadly serious. This is what a nut job he was. But being able to do sessions with them and have them come out later on was just a great thrill.

In 2011, West released The Unusual Suspects, the suspects being his guest musicians Billy Gibbons, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather and Kenny Aronoff (the lone drummer). West is out to prove that a 65-year-old Woodstock veteran can still rock with the best, saying, "My singing has gotten better and, as a player, I'm more melodic and have a better vibrato. As I get older, I think I've gotten better."
Songfacts: The new album has really got some great songs on it. And the one that really stands out to me is the one "Don't Call Me a Legend."

West: It's very interesting that you mention that, because the song was written 30-some odd years ago by my partner, Joe Pizza, spelled P-I-Z-Z-A. I went to school with him and we wrote a couple more songs on the album. My wife heard the song, said, "You've got to listen to this song." And originally, "just call me legend" was the first line. I said, "Joe, there's no way I'm going to sing a song that says 'just call me legend.'" So I thought about it and said, "I can sing it if it said, "Don't call me legend, I just came here to play."

He wrote it on piano. The song itself was so beautiful and I love playing lead guitar over piano changes. It's much different than when I'm playing over a guitar-written song. So that just came out fantastic. I didn't think it was going to come out that good, but by God, it did. The words are pretty much true, and the fact is that I've known Joe for 35 years, he was a couple of grades younger than me. Still something seemed to click with that song. I'm pleased that you like it.

Songfacts: What it makes me think is as soon as somebody starts calling you a legend, it's almost as if your best days are behind you.

Leslie with Billy Gibbons. Photo: Alex SolcaLeslie with Billy Gibbons. Photo: Alex Solca
West: Yeah, it's like when somebody puts out a retrospective album, that means you have one foot in the grave. (laughs) But the thing is, when I'm singing about the old players, dead or alive, it feels like it's somebody else's point of view, because he wrote the song. I didn't write the song. I don't know if a listener will go that deep in it, but there's a line in there he has about "my fans have changed over time, they come back to see my pantomime." I said, "Joe, what do you mean by that?" He said, "Well, when you play, I notice you play with your mouth." In other words, I'm mimicking what I do on the guitar with my mouth. I said, "Bullshit. You picked that up?" I think it was just great.

Songfacts: Why did you wait so long to record it?

West: I never heard it until I was getting ready for the pre-production for this album. Joe and his partner Ronnie own one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the United States (Interchem). I went to school with this guy. I had no idea he was as rich as he is. He's like a normal, simple guy. But my wife now works with him. Every pharmaceutical company on the market has to license the compounds through Joe and Ronnie’s company. I'm talking about Pfizer, Smith Kline, all that - they license all these compounds that are going in this country. So they had a recording studio in their offices to make DVDs and CDs for these companies explaining how the compound works. In doing so, I guess about 20 years ago, he turned the studio into a real rock studio, not just to make explanatory DVDs. So I was going up there and doing a pre-production, and my wife saw the song and said, "Listen, Joe wrote this song for you 30-some odd years ago. You've got to listen to it." So I listened to it and I said, "Boy, this would be great for the album if I can do it good."

Songfacts: How crazy is that?

West: Very crazy. Like "One More Drink For the Road," the opening cut, he came in with that, and then I added stuff to it, and we finished writing it together. Their pharmaceutical company, you can't work there unless you love music. Because he's got the recording studio, Joe's got a grand piano in his office, and his partner Ronnie plays drums - it's amazing. It's abso-fucking-lutely amazing.

He's got a lot of spare time and he's able to write these songs. I listened to some of them and he said, "Leslie, if you get an idea, get in the F'n studio and put it down and we'll see if we can write it." So it's great having a full-blown recording studio five minutes from my house that I can go in all the time. And he has other great songs, and he's writing a Broadway play now. He's a really, really talented guy and he's never gotten any credit. His solo career, I think he put out an album called Slice - because he's Pizza. It never really did anything. But I played on that first album God knows how many years ago. He's written some really beautiful songs. That "Legend" song just really gets to me, man.

Songfacts: Well, I wanted to talk about "Theme From an Imaginary Western," and I was reading something that it was dedicated to Felix...

West: Wait a minute, "Theme From an Imaginary Western" dedicated to Felix? Where did you read that? On the original album? (we saw Leslie make the dedication here) You know what? Jack Bruce wrote that song when he was in Cream. I think when we recorded it on the album Climbing!, on the back, I think maybe Felix dedicated it to his mother. It wasn't written about Felix, but basically the song, according to Jack, was about Cream going on the road.

Songfacts: Okay.

West: "When the wagons leave the city"... when we started Mountain, Felix produced Jack's album Songs for a Tailor and he had a really great song on that. So I saw it - took me a while to learn. It was not the simplest of songs. But I love that song. When we play it now I still get excited to play the solo - the chord changes help make that song so great. Very different rock song.

Songfacts: So that's wonderful that it still kind of gives you that feeling, because it's a timeless song.

West: It does. And even with "Nantucket Sleighride," I used to hate playing it because it was so complicated. Now I love it. It sounds like a really great, different type of song for a rock group to do. That's what "Legend" reminded me of; when I'm playing the chords and playing the solo on "Legend." Someone wrote me yesterday and said, 'I thought the album was fantastic, and he said, "You know, this sounds like the newest version of a song in the vein of "Theme From an Imaginary Western."

Songfacts: That's quite a compliment.

West: Yeah, it was really great. Really great.

Songfacts: I want to ask you one last question and I'll let you get back to your busy life. I read that you went to Forest Hills High, which is where the Ramones and Burt Bacharach and Paul Simon went - a lot of really, really famous people.

West: I never heard Burt Bacharach. I knew Paul Simon did. And the Ramones, they were younger than me, but Johnny Ramone lived across the street from me when I lived in Forest Hills. Before they were a group, he wanted to be our roadie. I didn't graduate, by the way.

Songfacts: So you knew Johnny before he was a Ramone?

West: Oh yeah. We used to call him Johnny Beatle because he had a Beatle haircut. He'd walk around, we'd call him Johnny Beatle.

Songfacts: That's priceless. Thank you for taking time and sharing some of those great stories.

West: Thank you. I appreciate it more than you know.

We spoke with Leslie on August 16, 2011.
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Comments: 16

  • William Maloon from Oklahoma I really In joyed the Interview, I learned a lot of new things, which is Awesome. Thank You For Sharing.
  • AnonymousHow about Jimmy reed
  • Ken from PhiladelphiaA few months before Jimi Hendrix’s death, Leslie West recorded at Electric Lady Studio, and, after hearing him, Jimi asked his own Engineer if he thought Leslie was better than him. The engineer assumed he was kidding but Jimi was serious as a heart attack. He thought Leslie was that good. I can think of no greater validation for a guitarist than Jimi Hendrix thinking you are his equal or even better.

  • Lou Mast from Cedarhurst . NyDidn't Johnny Ventura the lead singer of the Cat's Meow co-write the song " Long Red " with you?
  • Lou Mast from Cedarhurst . NyWeren't you and Felix together in the Vagrants in '67? Ok, I'm at a concert at the "Island Garden" in west hempstead around 1966. The first act was The Illusion, the second act the Vanilla Fudge, the third act was you with Corky Lang, Felix Papalardi. Who was the drummer? Oh, and the next act was of course the Young Rascals. But when you did the riff to the intro Mississippi Queen the f--king place went crazy!! You were signed to Atco Records and years later I was signed to Atlantic 93'. Anyway, during the late 80's we were introduced at a place called Justin's in Cedarhurst, Long Island by a mutual friend, Ronnie. One day if at all possible I would love to sing with you on "Imaginary Western" since people over the years said I have a voice timbre like Jack Bruce. Can I sing? Ask Ronnie.
  • Dave from Scranton, Pa.In April of 1971 I saw Mountain at Scranton's Watress Armory .. At The end of their set ... My friend and I ran around to the back of the stage ... Leslie came down the steps off the stage and went to hand Me His Les Paul Junior ... Then Laughed and Said .. "Hey .. You're Not the Guy" and handed it to a Roadie ... I almost fell over! ... LOL
  • Sanford from Prescott, AzDon't forget West, Bruce and Laing....whhhhyyyyyyy dont'cha come to my place! Best Corky song ever...Turn Me Over.....Agree that LW is the most underrated rock guitarist in history.......
  • Jon-a from Madison, WiInteresting story Corky Laing told about Mississippi Queen: the first person outside the band to hear the song was none other than Jimi Hendrix, who was at the Record Plant, mixing Band Of Gypsys, when Mountain recorded it...
  • Bob Annese from Originally From Scranton, Pa.Always loved Leslie West. A sound that can't be duplicated. Still, in my opinion the most unrecognized guitar player there is. He makes it sing. I still get goose bumps when he play the solo to "Theme" to this day.
  • Dan from Norwalk, CaRamalamaman from Phnom Penh! Wow, thank you for checking in.
  • Ramalamaman from Phnom PenhCorky Laing wrote the lyrics to Mississippi Queen; it's about a dancer he dated.
  • Dan from AnaheimYa! I saw Leslie West in concert on stage in Passaic, NJ in 1973 or 74. I was three seats away from front row, with a real good view of him on stage. He accidentally droped his electric guitar during the performance, and was really upset (tee'd). He picked up the quitar and was checking it over for damage, during the show. He was mad about it! I guess that "guitar" really meant something to him. Other wise, of course it was a GREAT performance. And this little incident has still stuck with me, till this day. UH! Thanks for that memory LESLIE WEST! Actually it does mean something to me!!!
  • Steve-o from Los AngelesFor more road stories, read Leslie and Corky's book.
  • Mark The Shark from Mile High City Denver ColoradoLeslie West, YOU DA MAN!!! Wish I coulda asked: What's with the extreme background hiss on MISSISSIPPI QUEEN? Was it a cheap studio/bad pressing/maxed gain during process? I can't say how many times I cursed that noisy recording when making tapes in my younger days, bought several alternate copies and LP's but they all sounded just as horrible. Funny thing is, now it's grown on me and I wouldn't want a clean issue now -- I actually think the hiss brings out a little something extra in that sizzling track. That song when released delivered more SOLID ROCK IMPACT to the soul than anything around: true to its namesake's powerful mesmerizing paddlewheel, it hypnotizes and entrances the listener - who, like the Mighty Mississippi, can neither resist nor escape the encroachment of this relentlessly driving composition, we get sucked in, rolled around and pounded, and spit out abruptly in its wake -- and do we not feel so thoroughly refreshed and invigorated by the experience? (Note to newbie Mountain fans: NEVER IN MY LIFE is in the same vein, a must hear and worth tracking down if you ain't never heard it - it's nearly MISSISSIPPI QUEEN'S equal in hit quality with even more soul (if you can imagine that!), and its debauched imagery of his awakening "in the mornin" to a good woman that brings whisky & lovin to her man for breakfast was doubtless too risque for airplay til decades later. Yes - there were other great, powerful, more famous, larger sellers, but MISSISSIPPI QUEEN muscles its way to the top o the heap in my book for its unique combination of bare-bone arrangement, driving/pounding tempo, ragged power guitar, no bullsh!t power drumming, high-impact vocal; of course the contenders have all these requisites, but none match the sheer hair-raising ELECTRICITY exuding from this gnarly slice of Americana, nor do they exhibit the loose spontaneous feel of this most precious session!! Leslie's Real Man guttural vocals and imposing delivery make Daltry and Plant sound nearly cherubic by comparison, no disrespect intended but I prefer a male singer who sounds more like a man. Also- WHERE OR WHEN WILL WE GET MORE JUICY DETAILS OF THE WHO'S NEXT SESSIONS? Do the Who fans know this? Upon initial consideration, it makes plain sense that Our Man West would be the singular choice for augmenting Squire Townshend during this Who's Next zenith of his ingenuity. Dang it: now I'm going crazy trying to suss who's playing what! Any hints for us, Mr. West? Godspeed, Blessings, and THANKS to you, Sir! Leslie West is absolutely one of the unsung greats, how enlightening it is to find he is also a great man. Great article/more please! -Mark the Shark
  • Nick from Paramus, NjMy friend's mother works for Interchem! Joe Pizza's Her boss! I totally freaked when I read that!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaNice interview. Sorry to hear about his leg, glad he is OK though.
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