Featured Interview – Leslie West

If only they could talk.

If they could, the bandstands at legendary venues like the Fillmore (East and West), the Warehouse (New Orleans) and the Kinetic Playground (Chicago) would tell tales of the big man’s unholy and never-to-be-duplicated vibrato.

The hastily hammered-together planks in Bethel, New York would speak of how he stood on them and played in front of nearly 500,000 people on the second day of the unforgettable Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in 1969.

Yes, Leslie West has stood on those bandstands – and a whole heck of a lot more over the course of the last four-plus decades – playing his thunderous mixture of blues and rock-n-roll for hordes of fans.

He’s jammed with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Slash.

He’s been called ‘The King of Tone’ and ‘The Fattest Fingers in Rock-N-Roll.’

But as West explains, there’s another title he holds – maybe un-officially – and it’s one that most of his fans might never have dreamed of.

Leslie West, King of Hip-Hop?

“I wrote a song in 1969 that was on the first Mountain album, called “Long Red.” Well, it’s been sampled some 400-plus times by hip-hop and rap artists. If you look on www.whosampled.com, you’ll see that artists like Kayne West, Common and Jay-Z have used it. Jay-Z took that song – and Billy Squier’s “Big Beat” – and turned it into “99 Problems.” It’s sold like six-million copies. So there was something about that song (“Long Red”) that appealed to rappers. I think it was Rick Rubin, the producer, who sampled it first. And then everybody else started after that,” West recently said. “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 may want to make sure that he’s got enough wall space to accommodate all the accolades that his latest – and 16th overall – solo album, Soundcheck (Provogue Records), looks like it’s poised to garner.

Although he lost his lower right leg back in June of 2011, due to complications from diabetes, the former Mountain man – who recently celebrated his 70th birthday – refuses to slow down and is still intent on creating new works of art in the studio.

“Well, since I lost my leg, it’s not that easy to tour anymore. But I do love going in the studio, it’s really simple, for me, to sit there with an idea and turn it into a song,” he said. “It’s (going in the studio and recording) something that still turns me on, even after all this time.”

The inspiration for a good bit of West’s material these days doesn’t come from hours of laborious toil in some studio without windows. Rather, it comes from a couple of things that just about everybody can hopefully relate to; getting up in the morning and then kicking back on the sofa in the evening.

“Yeah, waking up. That’s what me and my brother say, ‘Everyday above ground is a good day.’ That’s a good start to get the juices flowing. And then I have what I call a ‘couch guitar.’ When I sit down on the couch and watch television or whatever, I automatically grab the guitar,” he said. “I’m not even thinking (about writing), but something subconsciously might come up and I’ll go, ‘Whoop, I better hit the recorder and get this down so I don’t forget it.’ The couch guitar is good motivation for me.”

That environment of couch+television+guitar= song birthed one of the biggest surprises on Soundcheck – a song that probably everyone knows by heart – and one that the late, great B.B. King favored to play on his last handful of tours – “You Are My Sunshine.”

“Yeah, everybody knows that song. I was watching Sons of Anarchy – the motorcycle-gang show – and somebody was playing that song in the background, but doing it in a minor key. Everybody knows that song as a major key song. I said, ‘I really think I can do something with that,’ and I started fooling around with it,” West said. “I knew I wanted Peter Frampton to play on this album – I’ve known him for a long time, like 50 years – so I sent him the song and he wrote back and said, ‘Man, that’s incredible, changing the key like that.’ I told him I couldn’t take credit for that ( changing keys), but I would gladly take credit for the arrangement of the song. It just worked out perfectly; he’s the perfect guitarist to have play with me on that. I’m playing slide and Peter is playing regular guitar on it.”

Taking such a well-known cut and giving it a fresh paint coat of paint to customize it into something that stays true to the original, but yet also has your own mojo all over it can be one heck of a daunting task. The way that West sees it, the approach to such a task has to be started with the way you view the job.

“I don’t like calling them ‘cover songs.’ I call them ‘interpretations.’ It’s taking something that someone else wrote and seeing what I can do with it,” he said. “I mean, what’s the point of doing a song if it’s exactly the same (as the original)? I think the songs that I wrote for the album fits in really well with the interpretations on it. Then you have a song like “Going Down” which is one of my favorite guitar songs … ever … to jam on.”

“Going Down” has long held a lofty spot in the pantheon of blues and rock-n-roll, thanks to the work of Freddie King and Jeff Beck. On Soundcheck, another guitarist of equal stature plays foil to West on the jam-heavy track.

“I did that (the version of “Going Down” on Soundcheck) a long time ago, like 10 or 11 years. It has Brian May (Queen) on it and it was originally for an album that the guy who wrote the song – Don Nix – was doing. My friend Jon Tiven produced the track, but it never got used. Well, I was talking to him (Tiven) on the phone one day and said that I’d like to have the master to the track. So he said, ‘I’ll send you the master tomorrow and then you go into the studio and sing it,'” said West. “Sure enough, he sent me the files and I noticed that Brian May was playing on the second-half of the song. I’m not sure whether Don Nix realized that or not. So he called Brian and said that I wanted to use the version of “Going Down” with him and me on it and Brian said, ‘I’d be honored to be on that with him.’ So you have me playing until around 2:48 or 2:50 (time into the song) and then Brian takes it from there. And Bonnie Bramlett sings background harmony on it and Max Middleton – Jeff Beck’s piano player who played on his version – is on there. That’s my favorite intro (Middleton’s piano part) to a song … ever. So I was lucky that track was laying around. A lot of things have to fall into place for something to work out, you know?”

Soundcheck features mostly tunes with lyrics, but there are a couple of instantly-catchy instrumental workouts on the disc, including “A Stern Warning” which is a cool blending of blues and classical music.

“For the last several years, my wife Jenny has written some really good lyrics. I never really used to think about lyrics so much, but now I do, so more than likely, the songs I write will have lyrics with the melody.” he said. “There’s an instrumental on this album (“A Stern Warning”) and then my bass player, Rev Jones, does a version of “Eleanor Rigby” on it. He also does it on stage and it sounds like four bass parts all at once. But he didn’t overdub it; that’s all at once. I watch him do it on stage and it just amazes me, so much so that I just have to laugh sometimes.”

West was also a longtime friend – and one-time bandmate of (in West, Bruce and Laing, back in 1972) – the amazing Jack Bruce. The iconic bass player’s resume certainly speaks for itself and West honors his musical running partner on Soundcheck with a song that both Howlin’ Wolf and Cream made famous – Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.”

“It really broke my heart when Jack died. I had this version of “Spoonful” that I did, I can’t tell you how many years ago, with him. It has Joe Franco on drums and it was about 16 or 17 minutes long. Me and my producer (Mike Goldberg) went through and edited it down to about a seven-minute version,” said West. “It’s like having a great tribute to Jack Bruce on there. When I was playing that song, I was thinking in my head that I was Eric Clapton. That’s what I tried to visualize.”

The song that opens the album – the grimly-titled “Left By The Roadside To Die” – was very much inspired by West’s lengthy hospital stay and the decision to have part of his leg amputated.

“That’s what I thought when I lost my leg … Jesus Christ! I was down south in Biloxi, Mississippi and it was supposed to be Mountain’s last show at the Hard Rock Casino. They had to put me in a coma for four days to see if they could save my leg by using what they call ‘clot-busters.’ And it didn’t work. My wife told the doctors they had to wake me up from the coma they put me in, because she needed to tell me something,” West said. “The doctors told her either they amputated my leg, or I would die. My blood was so thin (from the drugs used to induce the coma) that they couldn’t do that anymore. They woke me up and she said, ‘We have to amputate the leg or we’re going to lose you.’ So I said, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’ I was really pretty high at that time (from the medication), so I said, ‘Do whatever.’ So the next day I said, what if I had said, ‘Jenny pass the salt – you evil bitch – you cut my leg off.’ But that’s the way I felt … just leave me by the roadside to die … fuck it. I was actually able to write a song about that.”

For a large part of the 1970s, West was known for his love and his use of Les Paul Juniors. The guitar’s P-90 pickup helped stamp West’s unique playing onto classic cuts like ‘Mississippi Queen,” “Blood Of The Sun” and “Never In My Life.” These days, West has his very own line of custom made Dean guitars.

“Yeah, I have about five models now, along with my own guitar pickups. I mean, how cool is that? Most people would love to have their own line of guitars and I have five of them. If you go to www.deanguitars.com you can look up the different models,” he said. “They’re in all price ranges, because I didn’t want to have just one model that was $5,000 and normal people couldn’t pick up. We have them for a whole price range and I play them all. It’s not like I’m playing something that someone can’t get their hands on or afford. I know what I want a guitar to sound like and these guitars are it.”

There have always been a rainbow of different styles and textures that make up the ‘Leslie West sound.’ At one moment he’s heavier than the baddest death metal band on the planet and the next, you might swear he was playing in a country band. But through it all, there has always seemed to be a core of the blues at the heart of West’s guitar styling.

“That’s just how it comes out, man. You don’t have to be dead broke or black to have the blues,” he said. “You can be a middleclass Jewish kid from Queens, New York and have the blues. I just love the way that the blues sound … I always have. But I listen to some of these country bands today and they think they’re rock bands. Miranda Lambert has been doing “Mississippi Queen” on stage for a couple of years now. Well, I recently played with her at Mohegan Sun (resort in Connecticut) and we did “Mississippi Queen” and it was fantastic. The band she has is a kick-ass rock band. They told me they thought of themselves as a retro classic rock band from the ’70s.”

Over the years, West (who is also the announcer on VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show) has amassed a huge legion of fans – from blues and rock lovers to iconic names like Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Warren Haynes and John McLaughlin – just to skim the surface. Heck, a pre-Foreigner Mick Jones was even a member of the Leslie West Band before he went on to become rock-n-roll royalty. They all wait with baited breath for West to roll into town to play a show or for a new album to hit store shelves. But even the most die-hard of West’s fans would probably had understood completely had he decided to call quitting-time after his recent spate of health woes. So, did that thought process ever enter West’s mind?

“You know, if it was my arm, instead of my leg, that would be a different story. I was lucky in that aspect. But I really don’t know what my considerations were at that point,” he said. “As long as I still love to play guitar, that’s what I’m going to do.”

They sure didn’t sound the same – Mountain was at the ‘heavier’ end of the spectrum, while The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was at the ‘bluesier’ end of things, but both groups left huge footprints on what we now consider to be ‘classic rock.’ Both bands set the wheels in motion for countless other acts to follow and their impact on modern music can’t be underscored enough. Even though it has been slow going, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may be beginning to catch on and The Butterfield Blues Band finally earned a spot inside the organization’s doors.

Can the entrance of Mountain’s classic lineup (West, bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing) into the Hall also be looming on the horizon?

“Yeah, that’d be great, man,” West said. “We’ll see … we’ll see.”

Visit Mountain Band’s website at www.mountainrockband.com/

Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2015

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