Leslie West, the towering guitarist who created the hard-rock milestone “Mississippi Queen” with his band Mountain, died Wednesday morning. West’s brother, Larry West Weinstein, confirmed the musician’s death to Rolling Stone. He was 75. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. On Monday, West was rushed to a hospital after suffering cardiac arrest at his home near Daytona, Florida, where he never regained consciousness.
Released in 1970 on Mountain’s debut album, Climbing!, “Mississippi Queen” was two and a half minutes of boisterous bliss built around West’s burly yowl and guitar blasts and drummer Corky Laing’s completely unironic cowbell. One of those never-say-die songs of the classic-rock era, “Mississippi Queen” has been featured in countless soundtracks, TV shows (The Americans, The Simpsons), and in Guitar Hero III. In an interview with Guitar Player earlier this year, West said the song “has just everything you need to make it a winner. You’ve got the cowbell, the riff is pretty damn good, and it sounds incredible. It feels like it wants to jump out of your car radio. To me, it sounds like a big, thick milkshake. It’s rich and chocolatey. Who doesn’t love that?”
A contemporary of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix, West was respected for his versatile playing (from fingerpicking to metallic power chords) and was revered by a new generation of guitar players who followed. In 2011, Eddie Van Halen told Rolling Stone that West and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore were among his biggest influences: “Leslie West has this incredible tone in Mountain,” Van Halen said.
Born Leslie Weinstein on October 22nd, 1945, West grew up in the New York area — Manhattan, Long Island, and Forest Hills, Queens — and was a founding member of the Vagrants, a blue-eyed soul garage band of the mid-Sixties. The group (which also included his brother Larry on bass) scored two minor hits — “I Can’t Make a Friend” and a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” (released just ahead of Aretha Franklin’s titanic version) — before West left the band. A turning point, he once said, was seeing Cream at the Village Theatre (later the Fillmore East) in 1967. “My brother said to me, ‘Let’s take some acid before we go,’ ” West told Blues Rock Review in 2015. “So we took LSD and all of a sudden the curtain opens up and I hear them playing ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ and I see Eric Clapton and his buckskin jacket. I said, ‘Oh, my God, we really suck.’ After that, I started really practicing and practicing.”
With the help of Cream producer and bass player Felix Pappalardi, who met West when he was producing the Vagrants, West made a solo album, Mountain. Mountain also became the name of the band the two men formed — “because I was so fat!” West later joked.
West was known for electric-shock white blues riffing, but could also play more fluid melodic lines (as heard in Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride” and his solo in their “Theme for an Imaginary Western”). “The thing that most impressed me when I started was how, with Clapton, you could identity his sound like a signature,” West told the L.A. Times in 1990. “I wanted to have a sound you could identify like that. I was never a speed player. I tried to capitalize on my vibrato. I hope I’m regarded as a melodic guitar player, not someone up there going ‘weinie, weinie,’ all night long.”
When Cream disbanded in 1968, a new generation of even more muscular guitar-based bands were ready to pick up where they left off. Mountain loomed particularly large, and not merely due to West’s bulky size and head of frizzy hair. Reviewing an early Mountain show, one critic described him as a “300-pounder dressed in blue velvet, suede, and snakeskin.”
The original incarnation of Mountain scored a high-profile appearance at the Woodstock festival — on the second day, between Canned Heat and the Grateful Dead. “I think I had the most amplifiers of anybody there,” West told Rolling Stone in 1989. “It was paralyzing because that stage, that setting, was some kind of natural amphitheater. The sound was so loud and shocking that I got scared. But once I started playing, I just kept going because I was afraid to stop.” West also contributed some unreleased parts to the Who’s Who’s Next.
Although Mountain garnered a large following, the group broke up in 1972. Taking his Cream roots to a new level, West formed a Cream-style power trio with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream’s Jack Bruce. The group released three albums and sold out New York’s Carnegie Hall, but in 1974, West reformed Mountain for two more records.
The following year, West formally went on his own with his album The Great Fatsby, a musically varied album that showcased softer sides of his style and also, in its title, poked fun at his weight issues. The album featured “High Roller,” co-written by West with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; Jagger also played guitar on the track. The album failed to elevate West into a star solo act, and over the next few decades, he would alternate between solo albums and touring and recording with different versions of Mountain.
West’s health had been an issue for many years. In the mid-Seventies, he moved to Milwaukee to kick a heroin habit. In a 1990 interview, he said it had been 10 years since he had “stopped fooling with narcotics.” In the mid-Eighties, he was diagnosed with diabetes — his lower right leg was amputated due to complications from the disease — and promptly lost 85 pounds, dropping to 200. But his weight fluctuated over the years.
In the years that followed, West continued working: He was a regular on Howard Stern’s radio show, recorded solo records, and took a few stabs at acting, including in 1986’s The Money Pit. Mountain continued on and off with different lineups, and the band released an album of Bob Dylan covers, Masters of War, in 2007; Ozzy Osbourne sang lead on the title remake. Attesting to West’s stature, his 2011 album, The Unusual Suspects, included contributions from Slash, Billy Gibbons, and Zakk Wylde, and West’s last album, Soundcheck, featured Peter Frampton.
Other than “Mississippi Queen,” “Long Red,” a slice of psychedelic blues from Mountain, remains one of West’s lasting legacies. A drum beat from a live recording of the song, played by N.D. Smart, has been sampled by numerous rap acts, including De La Soul, the Game, ASAP Rocky, and, most notably, Kanye West in “The Glory” and Jay-Z in “99 Problems.” ”There was something about that song that appealed to rappers,” the guitarist told Blues Blast magazine in 2015. “I’ve got six different platinum albums on my wall from all these different guys sampling my stuff. When I wrote that song in 1969, there was no hip-hop. It just so happens that song has a hip-hop beat.” West’s legacy extends well beyond hip-hop, though; numerous bands have covered his material, most recently Dave Grohl and Greg Kurstin remaking “Mississippi Queen” earlier this month for their “Hanukkah Sessions.”
West, who had moved to Florida last month, is survived by his wife, Jenni Maurer; the couple married onstage at a Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in 2009. Of his own mixture of blues and metal, West told The Morning Call in 2000, “It’s like being a chef. You might use the same ingredients as everyone else, but it’s how you put them together. You end up with your own style.”