Leslie West Discusses the Roots of Mountain in 1987 Guitar World Interview
Here's an interview with guitarist Leslie West from the January 1987 issue of Guitar World, which featured Yngwie Malmsteen on the cover. The original story by Gene Santoro started on page 22 and appeared with the headline, "Leslie West: A Sleeping Giant Comes Alive."
"You can't get more basic and efficient than this," croaks Leslie West as he gestures at his brand-new Les Paul Junior. Gibson has given him the first of their re-issued line, in honor of all he did for that model by playing it to death-his earlier ones literally fell apart from use -- in Mountain and West, Bruce & Laing.
"It's just a hunk of wood with one pickup and a tone control – ya gotta have a tone control to get that bassier sound Clapton calls The Woman Tone -- but that's all you need."
Kinda like the axman's style itself, his guitar. At the beginningsof the Hard Rock Era, West opted for a leaner approach that combines that fat-beyond-fat distortion, a blues-derived vibrato and a pentatonic sense of melody that could make his solos sing even while they rock-and-raunched.
"I'm no great guitarist technically," he shrugs. "I only play with these two fmgers [index and ring]. But you wanna know why people remember me? If you take a hundred players and put them in a room, 98 or 99 of 'em are gonna sound the same; the one who plays different, has some of his own, that's the one you're gonna remember."
In Leslie's case that memory reaches back a long way, to a place called Long Island in the early sixties. "Why'd I pick up the guitar' To get laid," he laughs. "When? I'll tell you when. My uncle used to write for Jackie Gleason, and my grandmother used to take me to all the tapings. So one summer she took me to see Jackie Gleason's American Scene Magazine, but there was a replacement -– Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey had the stage show instead. I started crying 'cause I wasn't gonna see Gleason -- he was my hero, with the carnation and the sharp suits, the whole bit. But you know who was the guest on the show? Elvis Presley.
That's when I started playing guitar – saw that sonofabitch come out and go [mimicks Elvis], 'Well it's one for the money,' and thought, 'I gotta play this thing.' "
After a couple of ukelele lessons from a cousin studying at Juilliard, West got the ax to play: "A '58 sunburst Strat -- I got it with my bar mitzvah money [laughs]." He went right to the sources to learn how to play it, copping licks off records by his favorites: "B.B. King, Albert King, Eric Clapton, man." Then in 1964 came the Vagrants, a local band formed by West and his bass-playing brother, which built quite a New York-area rep.
''You know what happened with that Strat?" he grins. "When the Vagrants started we all wanted new guitars, so I traded it in for – get this -- a Kent, a red Kent with three pickups -- it was disgusting, man."
Equally disgusting were some of the toilet-sized clubs the Vagrants played, though they managed to put out one sorta-semi-local-hit single, a four-piece rock cover of Otis Redding's "Respect."
"Our manager was greedy," is how he tells it, "and he put out the B-side of 'Respect' as a single because he had the publishing rights on it. Then Aretha cut 'Respect' and Jerry Wexler put hers out and it was a hit."
That became one of the last in a series of setbacks that finally fractured the group: "We'd done two singles with Felix Pappalardi, and we were gonna do an album at the time when Wheels Of Fire [the second Cream LP Pappalardi had produced] was Number One. He had two weeks to produce an album for us, and we had no songs; so [laughs] we tried to write some. That's when we broke up. We couldn't record, man; we just couldn't get on tape what we were live."
Back to the drawing board, and on with the beginnings of a new group: "I'd put Mountain together with an organ player who played bass pedals and a drummer, and called Felix immediately -- he'd told me to call him as soon as I had anything going. This was after he did Goodbye by Cream. So I played him some of the stuff: yeah, great, went into the studio with these two guys.
"Well, the drummer wasn't good enough; he threw us out of the studio again [laughs]. So Bud Prager, my manager at the time, said, 'You can't throw Leslie out again -- he'll kill himself.' I mean, I'd practiced my ass off for this session. So I conned Felix into playing bass, and that's how we did my album. How'd I con him? I said, 'There's never been a fat and a skinny guy onstage; we can't miss.' I was terrified, but he bought it hook, line and sinker. That's how it all started."
"It" being the real Mountain, of course, whose short lifespan ( 1969-73) produced one of the raunchiest tracks ever to clock in at Number One, "Mississippi Queen."
That cut, as well as their albums, helped define the riff-based harder rock emerging at the time-a trend that would evolve into heavy metal. West himself sees his role in that transition with typically good-natured candor.
"I just took over where Clapton left off when he quit. To make up for my lack of speed I added in a lot of vibrato from the blues guys like a chef adding ingredients to a stew, you know -- and worked on my squeals and pig grunts," he laughs, referring to the octave-harmonic scream he used to stab home many a riff and solo.