Leslie West, guitar hero of pioneering 'Mississippi Queen' hard rock band Mountain, dead at 75

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·6 min read
Leslie West performs with Mountain at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Calif. on January 1, 1969. (Photo: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Leslie West performs with Mountain at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Calif. on January 1, 1969. (Photo: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Leslie West, co-founder and co-vocalist/guitarist of Mountain — the “Mississippi Queen” hard rock band credited as one of the godfathers of ‘70s heavy metal — has died at age 75. The sad news was first shared by Dean Guitars, with whom West had an endorsement deal, on Wednesday afternoon. West’s health was known to be in decline for some time (in 2011, his lower right leg was amputated as a result of diabetes complications), but his official cause of death was heart failure, according to a statement later made by his brother, Larry West Weinstein, to Rolling Stone.

On Monday, West suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to a hospital in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he remained unconscious until his death. That day, Weinstein had written in a Facebook post, “I am asking for all your prayers. [Leslie’s wife] Jenni is by his side in Florida but it’s not looking good. Thanks Jenni, he wouldn’t have made it this far without you. His heart gave out and he’s on a ventilator. May not make it through the night.” On Wednesday morning, West’s friend Dee Snider tweeted, “The final hours on this earth for the amazing Leslie West of MOUNTAIN. His voice and guitar will be silenced but his music will live forever. I am heartbroken. Prayers for him and his amazing wife, his rock, Jenni who is with him now.” Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and Slash also tweeted their support for “the great Leslie West” in the hours before the rock legend’s passing.

West launched his music career with the Vagrants, a Long Island rock ‘n’ soul combo that scored two minor hits in the mid-‘60s with “I Can't Make a Friend” and a cover of Otis Redding's “Respect.” In 1969, West and a producer who had worked with the Vagrants and on the landmark Cream album Disraeli Gears, Felix Pappalardi, co-founded Mountain, naming the band after West’s debut solo album. That same year, Mountain performed a now-legendary 11-song set at Woodstock, right before the Grateful Dead, which was only their third public concert. Forty years later, West and the then-current Mountain lineup would return to Woodstock stage for an anniversary concert in Bethel, N.Y., where West married Jenni Maurer in front of 15,000 fans.

In 1970, Mountain released what would become their biggest hit, the cowbell-laden scorcher “Mississippi Queen,” which reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100; appeared on dozens of movie and TV soundtracks; was covered by artists like Ozzy Osbourne, W.A.S.P., and Bachman-Turner Overdrive; and was sampled by the Beastie Boys on the Paul's Boutique track “Lookin' Down the Barrel of a Gun.” Another Mountain classic, the live recording of “Long Red,” was even more popular among rap artists; it featured one of the most-sampled drum breaks in hip-hop, used on tracks by Jay-Z, Kanye West, De La Soul, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Game, ASAP Rocky, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and many others.

After their initial breakup in 1972, Mountain reformed with various lineups over the decades, always with West at the helm. (Mountain’s last album was 2007's Masters of War, featuring twelve Bob Dylan covers and a guest appearance by Ozzy Osbourne.) West was a true guitar hero among both his peers and disciples, with his bluesy style, which incorporated everything from finger-picking to power chords, influencing Eddie Van Halen, Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, John McLaughlin, Johnny Ramone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, and many others. Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and Ozzy guitarist Zakk Wylde all appeared on West’s 2011 solo album The Usual Suspects, while West’s final album, 2015’s Soundcheck, featured fellow guitar legend Peter Frampton. Just 10 days before West’s death, the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and producer Greg Kurstin covered “Mississippi Queen” for their “Hanukkah Sessions” web series.

West and Mountain were also popular among comedians. Dennis Miller had Mountain perform on his talk show in the early ‘90s, Sam Kinison covered “Mississippi Queen,” and one of Mountain’s most vocal longtime fans was Howard Stern. In 1987, West actually was the band leader for the five pilot episodes of Stern’s proposed Fox network late-night show; although those episodes never officially aired and the series was not picked up by Fox, West continued to make appearances on Stern's radio program over the years.

As news of West’s death circulated Wednesday, fans and friends of the guitar great took to social media to grieve and pay tribute.

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