Leslie West, rock guitarist best known for enduring 'Mississippi Queen' riff, dies at 75
Leslie West, who performed in 2008. (Jason DeCrow / Associated Press)
Leslie West, whose band Mountain laid the foundations for heavy metal with fuzzy hard riffing songs like the cowbell-reinforced "Mississippi Queen", died on Wednesday in a hospital in Palm Coast, Florida. He was 75 years old.
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 hooked up to a ventilator.
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The singer, guitarist and songwriter was a physically imposing presence with a selfless sense of humor - "The Great Fatsby," as he called a solo album - and was one of those who bridged the gap between the bluesy hard rock of the late 1960s (as is typical) closed by Cream, whose producer Felix Pappalardi later played in Mountain Bass) and the flashier, more theatrical sound of 70s metal acts like Judas Priest.
West's music was muddy and rough, with growing vocals and squeaky guitar solos. But his songs had sharp pop hooks that played well on the radio; "Mississippi Queen" went to number 21 on Billboard's Hot 100 and its lyrical outlook was sunnier than Black Sabbath's Doom and Darkness - a holdover of hippie idealism anchored at the Woodstock Festival, where Mountain played one of his earliest appearances a crowd of hundreds of thousands.
“Look at me / I think it's true,” West sang in “For Yasgur's Farm,” which was titled in homage to the dairy farmer who housed Woodstock. “You are part of me / I am part of you. ”
Mountain's music also found a surprising afterlife as the source material for dozens of hip-hop acts, including Jay-Z and Kanye West, who got the drum beat from the live-at-Woodstock recording of the song "Long Red "sampled the band. The Beastie Boys sampled "Mississippi Queen" for a track from their 1989 cult album "Paul's Boutique".
In a tweet, Twisted Sister West's Dee Snider named "one of the founding fathers of heavy metal" and said he saw other guitarists "bow before him," including Eddie Van Halen, who died in October. Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler wrote that the Mississippi Queen had "one, if not the greatest reef of all time".
This month Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, along with producer and keyboardist Greg Kurstin, released a rendition of "Mississippi Queen" on YouTube as part of their virtual Hanukkah sessions series.
Leslie Weinstein was born in New York on October 22, 1945 and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. Inspired to play guitar after seeing Elvis Presley perform, he bought his first instrument with cash from his bar mitzvah and began emulating licks from blues greats like BB King and Albert King, as he told Guitar World in 1987. (Waddy Wachtel, who went to become a session pro known for his work with Keith Richards and Stevie Nicks, lived in the same house and helped West refine his technique.)
West and Larry soon formed a Rascals-style garage soul group called Vagrants that built a following within the same Long Island scene that promoted Billy Joels Hassles. The band signed Atlantic Records' Atco imprint and cut a well-received cover of Otis Redding's "Respect," but rock star beyond the east coast never quite came off.
Pappalardi, who produced several of the band's singles, cultivated his relationship with West after the Vagrants split and directed the recording of West's 1969 solo debut "Mountain". The two formed the group with whom they called Mountain Keyboardist Steve Knight and drummer ND Smart; Corky Laing did not replace Smart long after Woodstock, which Mountain Mountain said had been booked because the band shared an agent with Jimi Hendrix.
Mountain's first LP, the gold-selling "Climbing!", Was released in 1970 and was quickly followed by "Nantucket Sleighride" and "Flowers of Evil," both released in 1971. The band broke up the next year, causing West and Laing to form a short-lived trio with Creme's Jack Bruce; West, Bruce & Laing signed with Columbia Records and made two studio albums and one live LP.
In 1973, West teamed up with Pappalardi in a new lineup of Mountain, though it did not last long. West returned to his solo career - including for "The Great Fatsby" from 1975 with a cameo by Mick Jagger - and later reassembled Mountain (minus Pappalardi, who died in 1983) in various forms on the street and in the studio.
His leg was amputated in 2011 due to complications from diabetes, but only a few months later he released a solo album titled "Unusual Suspects" with performances by Slash and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. His latest album "Soundcheck" was released in 2015.
A frequent guest on Howard Stern's radio show, West is survived by his wife Jenni, whom he married on stage in 2009 at a Woodstock anniversary concert in Bethel, New York. his brother; and a nephew, Max.
Years after Mountain's heyday, the guitarist said he was still creatively inspired by the sound he helped create.
"I've noticed a lot of people from the '70s ... now trying to play things they didn't play at all and their credibility is missing the window," he told The Times in 1990, forcing something or pretending to do something .
"I just do what comes naturally."
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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