Posted March 2016
Photo by Justin Borucki
One of the most talked about performances at Woodstock (but didn’t’ get to make it on the movie) is the eleven song set by Mountain. At the time, the band was mostly noted for it’s cover of the Jack Bruce tune, Theme for an Imaginary Western, as well as blistering guitar solos by the bands founder, Leslie West.
In the years that followed, the band continued to blaze musical trails, ultimately releasing eight studio and three live albums. It’s signature hit became “Mississippi Queen” that has been heard all over the world and used in movies, TV shows and commercials.
Leslie West also simultaneously launched a successful solo career, marked by fifteen solo albums – sixteen when you include his new monumental effort, “Soundcheck.” It was for “Soundcheck” that I recently contacted West by phone. In fact, I called him on the 45th anniversary of the passing of Jimi Hendrix. I was curious about your thoughts about him.
“Well, it was really sad. He died at almost 28 years old. I’ve since become friends with his sister, Janie. She came through New York recently – within the last year. They’re doing a documentary on the Atlanta Pop Festival – with Jimi there. They were interviewing people that played it. She’s such a sweetheart.”
Circling back to Jimi himself, West continued:
“Too bad he’s not still around. I have very fond memories. I played with him at a club in New York at, like, one in the morning. Just me and him. Him playing bass and me playing guitar. In fact, on MoutainRockBand.com – our website – there’s a picture of Hendrix playing bass and me playing guitar that night. It’s not the greatest picture but you can certainly see that it’s him and me.
“He went WAY before his time. Yeah, that wasn’t a happy day.”
Bringing the conversation to Leslie’s new CD, I asked him how many solo records this mad for him.
“I think it’s sixteen solo albums, believe it or not. I think. Somebody wrote that the other day. I started to count them but I feel really tired so I’m not going to start to count. Ha! Ha! The good thing is this one I’m really proud of. The sound is great and I’ve got some good people playing on it.”
When he says, “some good people,” West is referring to people such as Queen’s Brian May, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Bramlett, Jack Bruce and Joe Franco (via some resurrected studio tapes). When I said that having such a stellar group of artists willing to play on his album certain said a lot about the respect he has amongst such big names, Leslie said:
“On the ‘Going Down’ track with Brian May, a friend of mine was producing at the time and he got us all together. So, when I was doing this album, nobody had ever heard it, I don’t think. The song was written by Don Nix. Don sang it originally. But when we listened to the masters of it, he didn’t use Brian’s solo. Somebody else finished producing it even though my friend started it.
“So, when me and my engineer heard it, I was playing the solo on the first half of the song. There was a break and then Brian played the solo on the second half on out. We put it together and it was great! We’ve got Max Milton playing the intro on piano. I get really excited. That’s probably my favorite guitar song to jam on of all time.”
As we talked about the songs on the album, I mentioned how unique his treatment of the old song, “You Are My Sunshine,” was in its contrary delivery.
Photo by Justin Borucki
With a chuckle, Leslie shared the background to that version.
“I gotta give credit to Sons of Anarchy because I heard somebody doing it on there. Instead of the major key that the sounds so happy, it was in a minor key. I said, ‘Boy, I think I can really do a very, very ‘funerally’ – funeral dirge – some kind of sad version of it.’
“I called Peter Frampton because I’d done something with Peter the year before. I said, ‘Peter, I’ve got a version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that I’d love for you to play with me.’ I sent it to him. It really came out great. I’m really proud of it. Between the two of us – I think I started out playing the first solo and he played the second one. After the break in the middle, he plays the first solo and I play the last solo and we play the last line together.
“I’ve known Peter forty-five years – something like that. Even though we’d toured together, we’d never actually played together. He had this tour last year called ‘Frampton’s Circus’. He invited me to play a couple of shows on it. It was the first time we had ever played together. Now we’ve played together twice.”
After working with them on this record, are there any more plans to collaborate with any of these people in the future?
“Well, there’s a young guitar player – Jim Cook – a blues player. He’s going to be opening for me in New York when I play B.B. King’s. I play a track on his album. I think the kid’s gonna be something special. I’m looking forward to that.”
Having worked on all of the Mountain and solo records that he has – as well as appearing on many of his friends’ projects – I asked West how “Soundcheck” was different for him.
“It’s not so much different than the last one I did, ‘Still Climbing,” because that was only two years ago. The machines and everything else – every two weeks there are new things to try out. We’re pretty much on ProTools. The secret to making a good album is a good engineer. I can just play and Mike can edit where I need editing. Putting songs together is a lot easier now that it used to be years ago.”
As a “calling card” for the entire record, Leslie offered his choice of song:
“The first cut, ‘Left by The Roadside to Die’. It starts with a synthesizer. I actually played that part on the guitar and had my keyboard player start to play it. So, right off the bat, I guess you’d expect to hear a guitar from me. This, at least, you hear that synthesizer come on and then I start playing some slide and it gets heavy. It shows some different phases of what I can do in one song. I would hope that would get you to listen to the rest of the album!”
The best of the best guitarist are sought after by the various guitar manufacturers. It’s no surprise that Leslie West has a signature line through Dean Guitars. When asked how that line was doing, he said:
“Great. We ran about five models. From very expensive, to the middle, to very inexpensive so everybody can play it. Even the less expensive ones have great graphics on it. The newest model is the Leslie West Peace guitar. It has my logo. The logo looks like a peace sign but, if you look closely, one of the lines on the circle is left out so it looks like an LW. It’s a black guitar with a silver peace sign on it. It looks great! It’s been a lot of fun. I mean, I feel sorry for Jimi Hendrix. He’s dead and he never had a model while he was alive.”
Photo by Justin Borucki
Jimi Hendrix came up in the conversation about signature guitars when West started talking about what a Hendrix signature model might be.
“They were upside down Stratocasters. They weren’t left-handed. He would take a regular Strat and just re-string it. A guy like Albert King, he used to turn the guitar upside down and play it backwards. I don’t know how the hell he did that! He had the big Flying V and just turned it upside down so, where the fat E string would be, he had the little, thin E, first! I wondered how he stretched the strings that far.
“The first gig we ever did was with Albert King. Fillmore West. Mountain’s first gig. I watched him play. I had been trying to develop my vibrato and stretch the strings. I wanted to stretch them as much as he could. When I found out that he was doing it from the opposite way, it made it a lot easier. I didn’t see that until I watched him. I wished that I had saw him before. It would’ve made my life a lot easier and simpler!”
Circling back around to Hendrix, again, Leslie said:
“Yeah, if Jimi was still around, I kinda know what his Strat would be like.”
Our conversation turned to another great, legendary guitarist – one who recently passed away and who, like West, played at Woodstock: Johnny Winter.
“I was on Johnny’s last album. ‘Long Tall Sally’. And Johnny played on my last album on the song, ‘Busted, Disgusted or Dead’. My engineer mixed Johnny’s last album and got a Grammy for it. We (Johnny) were pretty close. I actually helped Johnny get himself straightened out, drug wise. He didn’t die from drugs, man. He just died of natural causes. He wasn’t doing to well, health-wise. Neither was I, but, somehow, I’m still around!”
That last comment gave me the opportunity to ask Leslie how he was doing. As some of you may not know, West has had some serious health problems over the last several years – including the loss of a leg - so I asked how he was doing. His initial remark blindsided me.
“I was going to ask you, Randy: Did you find it (his leg)?”
Then, on a more serious note, he added:
“My balance is terrible and I haven’t been able to use the prosthetic so I have to sit in a chair to play, unfortunately. But it hasn’t stopped me from playing. That’s a good thing. In rehab, they put me in the parallel bars with the prosthetic leg and made me put the guitar on. I put the guitar on and they wanted to see how long I could stand and play the guitar without falling. I didn’t last thirty seconds.
Photo by Justin Borucki
“I said, ‘You know, this isn’t going to work on stage. I don’t want to be worrying about falling when I’m trying to play.’ Even though you have a prosthetic, it feels like an alien to you.”
Then, after sharing more about his adjustment to losing his leg, he said:
“Life is precious, Randy. Thank God for the guitar, right?”
I know you have many more years of work left in you but when you finally do go to that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?
“When the time comes, and they cover me with dirt and grass, to all my critics that didn’t like the way I played, they can kiss my big . . . “
I’ll leave it to you to figure out what else he said.