Leslie West, the mammoth guitarist whose ringing guitar tones and gravelly voice propelled the rock band Mountain, has died at 75. His death was confirmed by Dean Guitars. His family later confirmed that he died of a heart attack.
“With a heavy heart, we are saddened to hear about the passing of #Dean Artist and part of the Dean family, Leslie West. Legendary and one of a kind. Rest In Peace.” Dean Guitars CEO Evan Rubinson shared his personal condolences via Twitter writing, “To a man that I truly loved more than most — the funniest, most honest guy I’ve met.”
West suffered a cardiac arrest at his home in Florida. He was rushed to a hospital but never regained consciousness.
West will forever be known as the roaring voice behind the bar band classic Mississippi Queen, a cut on Mountain’s debut album. Years before Blue Oyster Cult made the cowbell a cultural joke, drummer Corky Laing of Mountain used the instrument to kick off the song. It went on to become a staple of the rock canon, and has been used in countless film and television shows throughout the years.
West told Guitar Player magazine that the song “has just everything you need to make it a winner. You’ve got the cowbell, the riff is pretty damn good, and it sounds incredible. It feels like it wants to jump out of your car radio. To me, it sounds like a big, thick milkshake. It’s rich and chocolatey. Who doesn’t love that?”
But West was more than one song. He was considered one of the top guitarists in an era that spawned Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, among others. His talent overshadowed a physical appearance that was unlike the standard skinny rocker of the era, and West’s frizzy hair and imposing presence belied a sometimes graceful, melodic style of playing that won him a wide following.
Born in New York as Leslie Weinstein in October 1945, West began his career as a member of the Vagrants, a blue-eyed soul band in the mid-’60s. The group had two minor hits, I Can’t Make a Friend and a cover of Otis Redding’s Respect, which was soon eclipsed by Aretha Franklin’s version.
Cream producer and bass player Felix Pappalardi met West when he was producing the Vagrants, and the two soon formed Mountain, jokingly named after West’s huge size.
Mountain went on to appear at the Woodstock festival on its second day, between Canned Heat and the Grateful Dead. That put them squarely in the pantheon of major rock acts, and cemented West as a guitar superstar of the first order.
West battled health issues and a heroin habit through the years, but kept constantly working, and even started a minor acting career. As he lasted, his legend grew, and his 2011 album The Unusual Suspects included contributions from Slash, Billy Gibbons and Zakk Wylde. His final album, Soundcheck, featured Peter Frampton.
West is survived by his wife, Jenni Maurer, whom he married onstage at a Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in 2009.