Mountain’s Leslie West: The Solo Years & More

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Leslie West (r.) with Felix Pappalardi in Mountain

Our series on Woodstock, the greatest rock festival of all time, continues with the second half of our chat with the guitarist, singer and songwriter of Mountain.

In the first half of our interview with Mountain’s Leslie West, the legendary singer-guitarist-songwriter and hard rock pioneer talked about the origin of the band, their early-career performance at Woodstock and their huge hit “Mississippi Queen.” Here we asked him about the influence of Mountain on other bands, his solo career and more, beginning with the tragic loss of the band’s bassist and producer.

When Mountain bassist Felix Pappalardi was murdered by his wife in 1983, were you surprised?
No, because we had heard that he died like four times before. What happened was, we were in Indianapolis opening for Queen. It was maybe their first tour. I was waiting in the limo outside the hotel and Corky was late. I said, “Where the fuck is he?” He comes out and he says, “Felix is dead.” I said, “Come on.” He says that Gail, his wife, had shot him with the gun that he gave her. I called up John Johnson of Eyewitness News and I said, “John, I just heard that Felix Pappalardi was killed.” He gave me the precinct number and I called and I asked the guy who answered the phone. He said, “Let me switch you upstairs to the sergeant.” As soon as he said that, I knew. Sure enough, she shot him with a derringer he gave her.

She only got four years in jail.
She got nothing. It was one to four for negligent homicide. She said he was giving her a gun lesson and it went off by accident. A load of shit. She served a year waiting so she got off.

Related: 10 seminal hard rock albums

What was the high point of Mountain for you?
I think when we got our first gold record. We were at the Santa Monica Civic Center and we were on Bell Records at the time. Mountain Climbing! went gold and Larry Utall of Bell was gonna present us with the gold records on stage. Felix didn’t think the guy made a big enough effort, so he wouldn’t let him come onstage and give us the gold records. Now I’m real pissed off. I’m saying, “My big fuckin’ night and he’s gonna deny me.” But before that I went backstage and took my gold record. It’s on my wall here. Getting that, I said, “We did something.”

Leslie West in a recent promo photo

You influenced a lot of other bands. 
Black Sabbath’s first tour was opening for Mountain. When our agent, Frank Barselona of Premier Talent, said, “I have this group called Black Sabbath. I’d like them to open for you,” I thought they were an R&B group because I heard Black. So me, Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi and all those guys were friendly for all those years and I remember that Ozzy loved the sound of my Les Paul Jr., even though I now have my own Leslie West signature guitar with Dean. He’s the greatest fucking guy. In his book he says I was the first one to turn him on to cocaine. His road manager at the time gave it to me. I can’t deny it. We had fun, we got snowed in and played football and had the time of our lives. Ozzy remembers all this shit. He’s probably my favorite. He’s funny and he sings great. People don’t give him enough credit.

How did West, Bruce and Laing, with Corky Laing and Jack Bruce, come about?
Felix didn’t want to go on the road anymore. The last night Mountain played was at the Forum in Montreal, New Year’s Eve. The next day, Corky and I flew over to England. I knew we had to do something. I had a couple of choices. Should I call up Nicky Hopkins? Should I call this guy, or I can call Jack Bruce, who I’d met once. If I called him and he accepted, we had a group. So, I called Jack and he was going to Germany to play with Jon Hiseman and the group Colosseum. He said he’d be back in a few days and that’s how it came about.

Related: Jon Hiseman died in June 2018

Which solo album is your favorite?
I like Masters of War, where we arranged Dylan songs so I could sing them. I wasn’t such a big fan of his voice but my God, you look at the words. Holy shit! He’s written almost 800 songs or something like that. I did one called Blue Me. They used to make a joke: Have you heard Leslie West “blue me” yet? It was all blues songs.

Any favorite jam sessions you were part of?
Hendrix came into this club, Ungano’s. Steve Miller was playing that night. I went to see Steve Miller and after Steve finished, in walks Hendrix. I’d already met him at the Record Plant when I brought him in to listen to the album. He said, “You want to jam, man?” There were no amps but we had a loft on 36th Street where I had all my Marshalls. Me and Jimi get in his limo, go to the loft. At the time one of our road managers was a guy named Mick Brigden, who manages Joe Satriani now. He answered the door and he sees Hendrix with the hat and the fringe, and me standing there. He almost had a heart attack. I said, “Mick, we need to borrow two 100-watt heads if we can, and Felix’s bass.” So we put them in the limo and we drove up to Ungano’s and sure enough, if you look on the website you’ll see the picture of Hendrix playing bass and me playing guitar. How many people had the honor of playing with the guy? It was so freaky.

Watch Leslie West and Johnny Winter jam on Hendrix’s “Red House”

Too bad nobody was rolling tape.
Oh, my God. The only reason there’s a picture is because a newspaper called the East Village Other took it. It was on the back page and somebody sent it to me.

Most people don’t know that you did a session with the Who.
They were on Track Records in England and I got a call from their manager, Kit Lambert, and he said, “Listen, Townshend would like you to play guitar on these sessions.” I said, “You’re kidding. He’s a guitar player.” He said, “He wants to try not overdubbing and having you play lead.” So I went down to the Record Plant and Jack Douglas was producing it and I recorded with them. For some reason, some of the recordings didn’t come out well and they went back to England and re-recorded it, then they released the Who’s Next boxed set that included the stuff I did with them. I got a nice platinum record on my wall for playing with the Who.

Mountain live (from Leslie West’s Twitter page)

Does it bother you that Mountain is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Not really, man. I don’t think we sold enough records. Number two, I can name you five or six people that are in the Hall of Fame where I said, “Wait a minute.” It’s sort of getting watered down a little bit. It doesn’t really bother me that much. What I would love to do is to get a Grammy.

What’s changed the most for you since you had part of your right leg amputated in 2011?
It’s very difficult because things that you took for granted…like on the bed, my wife had to install a rail I can grip onto. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night and think I’m just gonna roll out of bed and go. You need something to block you from doing that, so you don’t fall on the fuckin’ floor. That’s a big worry.  So, it’s lifting yourself on the bed to the chair, the chair to the toilet and back. You’re doing it on one leg where before you had two. I might not be able to walk onstage but I can certainly ride my electric wheelchair. Somehow, I’ll be playing the guitar.

Watch Leslie West perform “Mississippi Queen” with Peter Frampton

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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