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The Gibson Classic Interview: Mountain’s Leslie West

Russell Hall
|
05.21.2011

Gibson.com is pleased to present “The Gibson Classic Interview,” where we open our archives and share with you interviews we’ve done over the years with some of the world’s biggest artists. This week, we revisit Russell Hall’s 2009 interview with legendary Mountain axeman Leslie West.

Had Mountain done nothing more than record "Mississippi Queen" — one of rock guitar's greatest-ever anthems — the band's place in music history would be assured. Comprised of guitar legend Leslie West, drummer Corky Laing, and the late Felix Pappalardi on bass, the group delivered some of the most explosive music of the late '60s and early '70s.

Later this summer West and Laing will take Mountain on the road, as they've often done during the past 40 years. In the following interview, West talks about his guitar playing, the writing of "Mississippi Queen," and his little-known collaborations with Jimi Hendrix and the Who.

How did you originally start playing guitar?

My grandmother's brother used to write for the comedian Jackie Gleason, when Gleason had his hour-long TV show. She took me to see the show, and I was expecting to see Gleason. I was around 10 years old at the time. The announcer made the announcement that Gleason was being replaced for the summer with Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey. So I got real upset. But then they said that that night's guest would be Elvis Presley. After I saw Elvis I got a ukulele. That was how I got started.

Did Elvis have his guitar players with him?

He had everybody with him, but all I remember is Elvis. I couldn't believe it. Seeing Elvis was like being hit with a ton of bricks.

What happened after you got your ukulele?

Eventually my grandfather got me a tenor guitar. My mother wanted me to take guitar lessons, so she took me to a guitar school in Hampstead, New York — a place called Arthur Murray Band Studios — where they had a guitar teacher. I took the two fat strings off the guitar, because I didn't know what to do with them. After all, I played ukulele. My mom went back the next week, and asked, "How's he doing?" And the teacher said, "You better take him home." I figured I could go back to playing ukulele, but she said, "No, you're going to have to learn to play the guitar. This is bullshit; you can't be ripping strings off the guitar. That's like taking two tires off a car.”

Mountain made its performance debut in 1969, at Fillmore West. Do you remember much about that?

Yes, I do. I remember that Albert King's amplifiers blew, and he had to use my amps. It was funny. I was supposed to get these Marshall amps, and they didn't arrive, so Sun had sent me some amps. I was pissed off when I got them, because it was actually a coliseum P.A. head they sent me. I thought, "Shit, what am going to do with this?" I had no choice but to use them, but it turned out that they gave me the signature sound that I used for years. They had four microphone inputs and a master volume, which sort of turned into what amps are now. You could get a particular distortion by plugging in the microphones and turning up the master volume. It was a mistake that proved to be great. Nobody else knew how I was getting that sound.

Of course you famously used that sound on "Mississippi Queen." What's the story behind that song?

Corky came up with the lyric when he was in his previous band, Energy. He was playing the drums at some club, and the power went out. He saw a girl dancing, and he wanted to keep her dancing, so he started shouting out this stuff. When we got together, he showed me the lyric. I already had the music, and we constructed the song in about 20 minutes.

Was there any concern that the song might be too raw for radio?

No. We just did what did. It was too heavy for radio; it was played only from midnight to 6:00 a.m. The song made it in spite of that. We were lucky. Memphis, Tennessee was the first place it went to Number One. It's funny. People in the states know that song well, but in England "Nantucket Sleighride" is a much bigger song. "Nantucket Sleighride" was the theme song for a British TV show called Weekend World, for about 18 years. Weekend World was a 60 Minutes-type show that was broadcast on Sundays, and before every commercial, they played "Nantucket Sleighride."

Later, in 1972, you formed West Bruce and Laing with Jack Bruce. Was there any musical philosophy you had in mind to differentiate the band from Mountain?

No, were just thrilled to be playing with Jack.

Is it true that the original idea was to form a band with Paul Rodgers and Mick Ralphs, who soon afterwards formed Bad Company?

That's right. We were supposed to get together. And in fact we did, in the studio, right before we started West Bruce and Laing. We were rehearsing one night, and Paul was there, along with a couple of the guys from Free. All of a sudden we were going to start a group. But we had already asked Jack. That would have been nice. I love Paul Rodgers; I think he's the best.

Not many people know that you were involved in the Who's Next sessions? How did that happen?

I got a call from the Who's manager, asking if I wanted to play on the album. I was like, "Well, they have a guitar player." But he said Pete didn't want to play lead guitar, that he wanted me to play. It was really funny, those sessions. I remember some of the shenanigans. [Producer] Kit Lambert ran around holding up signs, whenever we would be getting good take. He did that during "Won't Get Fooled Again," running around holding a sign up in everyone's face that said, "Good Job. Keep it Up." Townshend stopped playing, and said, "What the fuck are you doing?" Pete got mad.

Later, of course, they re-did the album with Glyn Johns producing. But Pete did release the original sessions, many years later. I gave him a Les Paul Junior, at those sessions.

Did Townshend ever tell you why he wanted you on the album?

No, we never discussed it. We just did it. I remember, though, that I was using a very small Sun cabinet, with one 12-inch speaker, and a 50-watt Marshall. And Townshend was using his Hi-Watt amps, and he said to me that he wanted to be the loudest. Afterwards he came over to me — I guess he was a little embarrassed -- and said, "Can you hear yourself okay?" I told him I could hear myself even if I was in Chicago.

You also got to play with Jimi Hendrix a couple of weeks before he died.

That's right. I remember walking into this club in New York, late at night, and Steve Miller was playing. And Hendrix said, "Do you want to jam?" I had met him at the Record Plant, when we were doing the Climbing! album. We didn't have any equipment, so went back to our loft in his limo, and stuck a couple of Marshall amps in the limo and went back to the club and played. Lots of good stuff was happening to me back then.

Did Hendrix play guitar during the jam?

No, he played the bass. I played guitar. That was something.

"Mississippi Queen" has one of rock and roll's all-time great guitar riffs. Do you think writing great riffs is a dying art?

I don't know. I can only talk about my own style. I play the guitar with only my first and fourth fingers, on my left hand. I never learned to use all my fingers, like you would playing a scale. What I try to do is play to my strengths. I can't play fast, so I try to play slow and melodic. I remember someone telling me that "less is more." In Alfred Hitchcock films the music is really intense, but then there will be this dead silence. You don't know what's going to happen, but that silence is deafening. I try to play around with dynamics in a similar way.

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