Leslie West, Guitarist and Singer of Mountain, Dead at 75
The hard-rock pioneer and “Mississippi Queen” co-author suffered a heart attack earlier this week.
Leslie West, guitarist, singer, and co-founder of the pioneering hard rock band Mountain, has died at the age of 75.
The news was confirmed by Dean Guitars – which West endorsed – on social media.
His brother, Larry West Weinstein, wrote on Facebook that West had suffered a heart attack earlier in the week, and had been placed on a ventilator.
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. pic.twitter.com/sGmk4pF011December 23, 2020
As the charismatic, Les Paul Junior-wielding frontman and guitarist of Mountain, West took the blues-flavored hard-rock sound of Cream and injected it with a sense of showmanship and pop sensibility, inspiring untold thousands to pick up a guitar in his wake.
With the band's infectious, cowbell-infused 1970 mega-hit, "Mississippi Queen," West – using his beloved Les Paul TV Jr. into a 50-watt Marshall that went into a Sunn 12-inch cabinet – conquered rock radio, capturing some of the brawniest hard-rock guitar tone of its era in the process.
“The song’s ["Mississippi Queen"] got three chords,” West told GP earlier this year. “Any idiot can play it. I just happen to play it better than anybody.”
Born in 1945 in New York City, West was influenced as a youth by R&B and soul, two genres that heavily influenced the sound of his first band, The Vagrants. The Long Island-based group only had a couple of minor, regional hits in 1966 and 1967, but ended up being the vehicle through which West met Felix Pappalardi, who produced Cream's Disraeli Gears, and co-wrote their song "Strange Brew."
Pappalardi took a liking to West, and – after The Vagrants disbanded and West put together a new solo band – offered to produce and play bass on what would become West's first solo album, 1969's Mountain. Heavily influenced by Cream, Mountain showed West moving away from the R&B and soul of the Vagrants and toward a tough, hard-hitting, bluesier sound that nonetheless retained an ear for hooks and accessibility.
That album, in turn, became the moniker of West and Pappalardi's new band, which featured Steve Knight on keyboards and, originally, N.D. Smart on drums. This lineup, as their third professional show, performed on the second day of the Woodstock festival.
With Smart soon swapped out for drummer Corky Laing, Mountain released their debut album, Climbing!, in 1970. Led off by "Mississippi Queen," the album – though overshadowed by the likes of Led Zeppelin – was formative in the development of hard-rock and, later, heavy metal.
After two more albums – neither of which equalled the success of Climbing! – Mountain split up in February 1972, though they would reform in 1973 and again (without Pappalardi) in 1981, 1992, and 2001, each for a handful of years at a time.
After Mountain's first breakup in 1972, West and Laing teamed up with Cream bassist Jack Bruce to form West, Bruce, and Laing, which released two studio albums and a live LP before disbanding in 1974.
West also – through the years – played guitar on albums by Bo Diddley, Ian Gillan, Joe Bonamassa, and Ozzy Osbourne, in addition to occasionally trying his hand at acting, with appearances in the 1973 film, Family Honor and the 1986 film, The Money Pit.
Though West's lower right leg was amputated in 2011 due to complications (opens in new tab) from type 2 diabetes, he soon returned to the road and continued to release new music, including 2013's Billboard Blues Chart-topping effort, Still Climbing, which featured the likes of Mark Tremonti, Johnny Winter, and Jonny Lang.
His final album was 2015's Soundcheck.
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Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.