Guitar legend Leslie West loves to take a song created and recorded by someone else and give it the ole Leslie West twist. Known for his tone and remarkable soloing, the founder of Mountain has always loved to wrap his fingers around a great tune, be it his own or ones belonging to some of his friends. On his latest album Soundcheck, West sidles up to songs by Ben E. King, Tracy Chapman, Gretchen Wilson and revisits a 1988 concert featuring his old friend, the late Cream bass player Jack Bruce. Together, the concoction is delicious. “I’m so happy with the sound of this new record,” West remarked upon the album’s release. “The guitar sound we captured is fantastic and my voice is feeling better than ever.”
Revered by guitar players of all ages and genres, he can ask just about any one of them to play on a song with him and they will say yes without a second thought. Previous albums have boasted Johnny Winter, Slash, Billy Gibbons, Mark Tremonti, Steve Lukather, Zakk Wylde and Joe Bonamassa in the credits. This new outing is not an exception with Brian May and Peter Frampton, not to mention Bonnie Bramlett, Max Middleton and Bobby Whitlock making appearances.
So what makes Leslie West so popular amongst his peers? Former Alice Cooper guitarist Steve Hunter told me in a 2013 interview for Glide that “Phrasing is the most important thing. It’s not even the notes you play, it’s how you play them. Some of our favorite solos of all time, we can sing them. If we can sing them, then the phrasing is perfect. I’ll give you a good example of a great guitar solo: the beginning solo in Leslie West’s ‘Mississippi Queen.’ That’s one of the best solos ever.” Jimi Hendrix remarked, “That’s a great riff,” after hearing “Never In My Life” while they were both recording at the Record Plant. And Ritchie Blackmore has stated, “I’ve always really loved Leslie West’s playing.”
Glide recently talked with West about Soundcheck, being inspired by Cream, playing Woodstock and his favorite guitar.
For someone who has been playing guitar for as long as you have, Soundcheck sounds amazingly fresh and vibrant. How do you keep doing that?
It’s great that you are aware of that because my first thought all the time is, I just don’t want anything I do to sound dated. You know, I listen to some songs from the seventies and I hear a song on the radio and I say, well, I know who that is. But I want to be able to listen to some of my stuff now and say, it sounds new and fresh and alive; and I work on that all the time – the sound of my records and the sound of my guitars, my voice.
You have been doing covers since the beginning. How do you pick which ones to do?
I like to call them interpretations because I don’t want to do a song somebody else did and it sound the same. So for example on the song I did with Peter Frampton, “You Are My Sunshine,” I did it in a minor key. Most people know it as happy-go-lucky but I was watching a TV show, Sons Of Anarchy, and I thought I heard them doing this song way in the background with acoustic guitars in a minor key and I said, “You know, I think I could do that.” So I made an arrangement of how I wanted to do it on acoustic guitar. I recorded it and I knew I wanted Peter Frampton to play on this track on the album. I’ve known Peter for over forty-five years now but we never recorded together. We’ve played together, we’ve toured together. His band and my band had the same agent, who is dead, we had managers that were friends, they’re dead. I played with Peter recently, like two years ago, and he asked if I would play with him at a couple of shows. He wanted to sing a couple of the Mountain songs and I said, “Sure, that’d be great.” And I said to him that night onstage, “Peter, your manager is dead,” and this is to the audience, “my manager is dead. We had the same agent, he’s dead. What the fuck are we still doing here?” (laughs) And Peter goes, “They can’t take our money now, mate.” So I send him the song and he loved the way I did it in the minor key. It changed the whole song around, this happy-go-lucky song, into a sad sounding song, like a New Orleans funeral.
So what I tried to do in the songs I wrote, the new ones, I wanted them to fit in with the songs I did. Like Gretchen Wilson wrote a song called “Here For The Party.” She’s like a biker chick, you know, a country biker chick. I haven’t changed the gender of the words because she’s talking about a girl’s point of view and I’m talking about it from a guy’s point of view and I came up with a real heavy guitar riff that would work and I wanted to make the song sound like it was mine, you know, not just someone else’s song. Doing it the same way wouldn’t do anybody any good. So that’s what I try to do: a good enough interpretation of the song that when I listen to it I don’t sound exactly like the one who did that. That’s what I try to do.
“Eleanor Rigby” you did as an instrumental
I didn’t do that. That is my bass player playing everything. He’s playing the melody, the rhythm. He does it onstage every night. Rev Jones, his name is, plays it onstage and I watch him do it and he’s playing the melody with one hand and he plays the harmony with the other hand and he’s tapping all at once. There are no overdubs on that. It’s a shame that people can’t actually see the visual of it but I wouldn’t even know how to play “Eleanor Rigby.” My engineer and my cohorts said, “Why don’t you let Rev do it.” He did an incredible job. When he plays it live and does that, I just watch him, my God, and I’m looking at the audience watching him too and their mouths are open, like how is he doing that? That’s all him.
Who is doing the dancehall boogie-woogie piano on “Going Down”?
Well, the guy that wrote the song, his name was Don Nix and he didn’t play any instruments. I did the song maybe fifteen or twenty years ago and the guy who introduced us was a friend of mine, Jon Tiven, and the guy that played the intro is Max Middleton and he’s the original piano player with Jeff Beck. Brian May from Queen, he was also on the track, and Bonnie Bramlett from Delaney & Bonnie. So I called my friend Jon Tiven up who produced it originally and I said, “Jon, I would love for you to do that track.” And he said, “Well, you have to sing it.” And I said, “Well, in order for me to do that I need the masters.” He said, “I have them in my office next door. I’ll send them to you tomorrow.”
So I sang it and then I’m playing the lead guitar from the beginning to around, I’d say, two minutes and fifty seconds in, something like that, and Bonnie is singing background with me. Then in the middle of the song, Brian May plays when I stop and he takes it from there and finishes the song. It’s got also Bobby Whitlock, who used to play with Derek & The Dominos, and Max Middleton and Bonnie Bramlett and it was great the way we were able to take it and me re-sing it and redo it. That might be my favorite piano intro from all time on that song because when I do come in, you can hear my guitar just jump right in as soon as he finishes the intro.
You heard about Allen Toussaint passing away?
Yeah. You know, we did an Allen Toussaint song on an album, “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” My partner that passed away, Felix Pappalardi, the bass player in Mountain and producer, he was a big fan of Allen Toussaint. And Allen’s a big New Orleans guy, like the King of New Orleans. I just turned seventy last week and I’m thinking to myself, all these people dying – Johnny Winter died. He played on my last album. Jack Bruce who I got to play with in West, Bruce & Laing. That’s why I put that song “Spoonful” on there, as my tribute to Jack. We played a club up in upstate New York. He flew over to play bass on an album I was working on and I guess the promotor in the club asked if we would come over and do an impromptu set, no advertising. Basically the club will hold two hundred some odd people and there must have been five hundred people there. My engineer recorded us on a stereo tape deck so it was only a stereo recording and it really sounds great. My friend Joe Franco played drums and I started to tear up when I listened to it because knowing that Jack just recently died. It was about fifteen minutes long and we cut it down to seven minutes. So that was a tribute to Jack on the album.
Wasn’t it because of Cream you found your so-called sound?
I was in a group called the Vagrants and I went to see Cream with my brother. Before the Fillmore East was named Fillmore East it was called the Village Theater in New York and my bass player Felix had produced two songs for my group the Vagrants. Then all of a sudden I saw on the back of this Cream album, Disraeli Gears, which was my favorite album, produced by Felix Pappalardi and I’m saying to myself, This can’t be the same guy that produced us. I asked my brother and he said, “Yeah.” My brother was in the group too and I said, “How come we don’t sound like Cream?” And he said, “We don’t practice enough.” So I started to practice and practice. I went to see Cream at the Village Theater and they opened up with “Sunshine Of Your Love.” My brother told me to take some acid when we go see them, and oh my God, when they came out and played and opened with “Sunshine Of Your Love,” I wanted to quit. I said to my brother, “We really do suck.” So I started practicing six hours a day every day of the week for I don’t know how long, until I felt like I could hold my own. And that’s how it happened.
When did you start learning to play guitar?
I started playing on the ukulele. My grandmother’s brother wrote a television show called The Jackie Gleason Show. Jackie Gleason was a comedian and it was an hour long TV show. I don’t know if you ever saw on TV a sitcom called The Honeymooners. That’s Jackie Gleason but he also used to have other skits that he did and it was called The American Scene Magazine. So my grandma took me and my brother to see what I thought was Jackie Gleason live. He did a live show on Saturday evenings in New York City. So we got there and the announcer said, “Jackie Gleason will be replaced with Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey and their orchestra.” I was eight or nine years old and I started crying. “Grandma, I don’t want to see this.” But in a live television theater you just couldn’t get up and leave. It wasn’t like a taping. Then the guy says, “Tonight’s guest is Elvis Presley.” So I got to see Elvis Presley play and that made me want to learn how to play guitar. I started out with the ukulele and learned “Heartbreak Hotel.” He started me going.
In your career, what was your most treasured guitar?
It’s sitting in my living room right now. It’s a reproduction of Eric Clapton’s guitar that was painted by The Fool and The Fool was a group in England that made all the stuff when The Beatles had the company Apple. They had Apple before Apple. Apple Records was the first label for James Taylor and The Fool were artists and they painted clothes and they painted different things and they painted Eric Clapton’s guitar and Jack Bruce’s bass. And for my birthday last year my wife got me a reproduction of Eric Clapton’s guitar. If you saw it, you’d flip out. It’s something else. It’s an exact copy of Clapton’s guitar so I have to say it’s probably my most prized possession now. Todd Rundgren got his hands on the original somehow and Eric Clapton wanted to buy it back from him for a million dollars and he wouldn’t sell it to him. I think Eric wanted to donate it to his foundation for drug rehabilitation. But he was never able to get it back.
When Mountain played at Woodstock, because the crowd was so massive, how did you guys get to the stage? Did you have to be helicoptered in?
We were very rich. We hired our own helicopter in New York City and we flew up. I guess we got there around 6:30 in the evening and went behind the stage and they told us just to not stay all together cause if they saw our group all together they might make us go on because it was so hard getting people in and out of there. So we stayed and what was great was when we finally went on and I think it was right before it got dark. The lights came on, you could see the lights. The Grateful Dead came on before us and after us came Creedence Clearwater. Jimi Hendrix played the last night, except he went on early in the morning on Monday morning. He was the reason we were on the show. His agent was our agent so he made them hire us. “If you want Jimi Hendrix, you have to take this group Mountain.” It was really great and nobody knew who we were. I believe it was our third or fourth show. So we had our own helicopter but it was too dark after the show and we stayed overnight because the helicopter pilot didn’t want to fly at night because he could crash into the mountains. There were no lights. So we went back early, early Sunday morning. We were on Saturday night, the nicest night of all. We were very lucky.
So you just hung out and watched everybody
I watched everybody. It was the first time I ever saw people holding Bic lighters up when they wanted people to come back for an encore. It was Sly & The Family Stone. It was amazing, 400,000 people standing there with lighters. That night the Who went on, Creedence Clearwater and us and it was quite something.
The song that you performed, “Blood Of The Sun,” what can you tell us about that song?
Well, my partner’s wife wrote the lyrics to that. I wrote the music but it was about someone reaching for a gun and what was going on in the city and I don’t know really. She died and I don’t know really what she had in mind but I sing it now and it’s a totally different meaning. I don’t think of what she did.
In regards to “Mississippi Queen,” is there a version by someone else that you think ranks right up there with your version, which is iconic, or maybe even a little bit better?
You know who did it? Miranda Lambert has been doing it onstage now live for the last three years and her head of security used to be Secret Service in the White House and he worked for me and we were good friends and he called me up one day and he says, “You know, I’m on tour with Miranda Lambert,” and this was last April. “She’s doing ‘Mississippi Queen’ every night and I told her that you and I were friends.” And she was finishing up a tour that night playing at Mohegan Sun, a casino in Connecticut, and he says, “Miranda wants to know if you’ll come down and do it.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
It was the last night of her tour and the band got really excited and she is so talented. Unfortunately, she had a party after the show cause it was the last night of the tour and they usually have a last night party, and I was backstage and it took her a long time [to come back out] and I said to Tom, the security guy, “Listen, I want to leave pretty soon but I want to say goodbye to Miranda.” And he says, “She’s talking to Blake in the dressing room. She’ll be out soon.” Sure enough, she came out. Her band did a great version of “Mississippi Queen,” so all I had to do basically was, since they knew the song already and had been doing it, I do it a little different than we do on record, but they did a great version of it. I haven’t heard anybody do a better version. I did one with Van Halen once in New York and jammed with them onstage and we did “Mississippi Queen.” That was a great version but I’m also not looking to see if anybody does it better or good. But a lot of people have done that song, I can tell you that much.
What song in your catalog, either from your solo work or with Mountain, do you think should have gotten more attention or recognition than it did?
Great question. I would think “Theme For An Imaginary Western” is a beautiful song and even though Jack Bruce wrote it, we really made it famous. And it’s about, believe it or not, Cream going on the road. “When the wagons leave the city, For the forest and further on,” that’s when they went on tour. And the guy that wrote those words wrote all the words of “Sunshine Of Your Love” and a lot of Cream songs. His name is Pete Brown and I think that the song had a great meaning because I know what the song is about. I don’t know what other people think but that’s what it’s about and at the time Jack Bruce told me Eric Clapton didn’t want to do it because it was not a regular blues song. It had a lot of beautiful chord changes that Jack had written on the piano and he didn’t want to do it. So better for us.
Noel Redding played in Mountain for a while, didn’t he?
Noel Redding played with us for a year and it was one of the worst, the point of Noel Redding playing with us, he was such a weird fucking guy. He would bring a bass to a show, Fender was sending him basses to use on the tour, and Noel would sell the bass after the show. And every show we went to he didn’t have a bass and I’m carrying fifteen guitars and Corky Laing had all the drums. And I said, “Noel, what are you doing?” And he was drinking beer, he had beer in his attache case he used to carry around. As it turned out, on a lot of the Jimi Hendrix records, Jimi played the bass on a lot of them. It wasn’t Noel.
Which guitar did you use primarily for the Soundcheck CD?
I have my own line of guitars made by Dean, the Leslie West Signature Series. It’s like six different models. I use a Larrivee acoustic guitar and it’s made in Vancouver, a big, jumbo acoustic guitar. But I have my own models of Dean guitars and they’re all different and I use them primarily.
What are your plans for the coming months?
I’m getting ready to do shows and play guitar in clinics with the new album coming out.
Photo of West and Miranda Lambert courtesy of Leslie West