Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Canned Heat had left the stage on Saturday night to thunderous applause, and it was going to take some really big sound to fill those great big shoes. Thankfully, the festival's lineup was perfect that day... up next was Mountain. After Mountain would come the Grateful Dead.
Who is Leslie West?
It is impossible to talk about Mountain without talking about Leslie West. West was born Leslie Weinstein on October 22, 1945, in New York City. He spent his formative years in New Jersey and on Long Island, and attended Forest Hills High School. West was afflicted with a glandular disorder that affected his weight, and has joked that he was always "big-boned."
West's first band was a mid-'60s garage band called the Vagrants, one of the many Long Island bands making the local scene in those days, completely separate from the folk scene in Greenwich Village. The band was made up of Peter Sabatino (vocals and harmonica), Leslie's younger brother Larry (bass), Jay Storch (organ), Roger Mansour (drums) and Leslie West on guitar. The Vagrants got their start in August 1964 when Sabatino and his buddy Larry saw The Beatles at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. Like so many other young men in those days, they decided then and there they were going to put a band together. Larry's older brother Leslie was already a pretty good guitarist, so he was recruited. Storch played piano and told the guys he had some songs, so he was in. The final piece fell into place when the guys were called to the principal's office one day about their long hair. There, they met Roger Mansour, who had already been playing drums for a while in another band. The Vagrants were born.
Their first paid gig was at a Sweet 16 party, and by the early part of '65 they were playing one of New York's coolest clubs, The Scene. The Vagrants had a rabid local following, and always seemed to be on the verge of a breakout. Their sound was primarily R&B and they often appeared onstage with bands like The Vanilla Fudge and The Rascals. In the summer of '65, they caught the attention of two guys who had their own label called Southern Sound, who asked if they were interested in making a single. The answer was yes. The band recorded a single on that label called "Oh Those Eyes." They then signed with the Vanguard label, home to what were primarily folk artists. They recorded a few singles for Vanguard between 1965 and 1968, and had a minor hit with a song called "I Can't Make a Friend," but still, success eluded them.
In 1968, the Vagrants signed a deal with Atlantic Record's Atco label, thanks to their friends The Rascals. Atco thought they looked like a hot ticket and called in musician-turned-producer Felix Pappalardi, who had produced two Cream albums; 1967's "Disraeli Gears" and 1968's "Wheels of Fire" (he would also go on to produce their final album "Goodbye" in 1969). Pappalardi, his girlfriend Gail Collins, and Bert Sommer collaborated on a song for the Vagrants to record called "Beside the Sea." The Vagrants also recorded a number of other tunes for Atco, but none of them did particularly well, with the exception of their 1967 cover of "Respect," a song made famous by Aretha Franklin.
Frustrated and feeling like he was spinning his wheels, Leslie West left the Vagrants late in '68 to record a solo album prophetically titled "Mountain." West's playing had been influenced up to that point by both Elvis and Keith Richards, but it was a Cream show at the Village Theatre (later called the Fillmore East) featuring Eric Clapton that inspired West to take his already solid guitar work to the next level. Pappalardi produced the album and also played bass. The album was a solid, blues/hard rock affair that sounded an awful lot like the now-defunct Cream.
West is recognized as being one of the greatest axemen ever. Ranked #66 on the "Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," he has jammed with everyone from Hendrix to Slash of Guns N' Roses. Guitar greats like Eddie Van Halen, Richie Sambora and Michael Schenker have all said that West was a tremendous influence on them.
A Band Called Mountain
The July 1969 release of West's solo LP "Mountain" gave birth to Mountain the band. The band was made up of West on guitar and vocals, Pappalardi on bass, N.D. Smart on drums, and Steve Knight on keyboards, the same lineup featured on the album (Knight played the Hammond organ on three tracks). Pappalardi had brought Knight in to round out the band's sound with his more formal, less improvisational approach to music, and to try to deflect some of the power trio, Cream references.
When West suggested they go on the road, the band lined up a couple of late summer dates on the West Coast through some connections that Pappalardi had. Mountain's very first gig was at the Fillmore West, quite the coup for a brand new band. The band's heavily Cream-influenced sound was enthusiastically received by the crowds that heard them.
They didn't have a lot of time to work out any kinks. Their next gig, and only their fourth together as a band, was Woodstock.
It was only our third or fourth show. I don’t know if they got what we were doing because to tell you the truth I was so nervous. You could see maybe 40 rows in front of you...We called it Mudstock. We went on Saturday night but they lost our film so we weren’t in the movie.
— Leslie West interview with Jeff Tamarkin, "Best Classic Bands"
Mountain Performing "Beside the Sea"
Mountain was so new as a band, nobody knew what to expect, though folks from New York may have seen West play locally and anyone familiar with Cream might have recognized Pappalardi's name. But, by the time Mountain wrapped up their set, they had a sea of converts among the crowd.
The band took the stage about 9:00 p.m. and played an energetic one-hour set. West killed it, sending out wave after wave of guitar riffs and muscular vocals unlike anything since the demise of Cream. This was blues rock at its very best, and the crowd ate it up. They opened their set with "Blood of the Sun," then moved on to "Stormy Monday," a West Coast blues number written by T-Bone Walker. Crowd pleaser "Long Red" was followed up by "Beside The Sea," a song co-written by fellow Woodstock performer Bert Sommer. A sublime solo by West preceded the closing number "Southbound Train."
Mountain Performing "Southbound Train" at Woodstock
Life After Woodstock
Not long after Woodstock, Pappalardi replaced Smart with Canadian drummer Laurence "Corky" Laing, a powerhouse of a drummer who he had first met when Laing was in a band called Energy. The new lineup began touring immediately and laying down tracks for an LP. Recorded through 1969 and 1970, the band's official debut "Climbing" was released in March 1970. The LP featured the tune most associated with band and their signature song "Mississippi Queen." Laing had written the drum part and some of the lyrics before joining Mountain, and he and West hammered out the song. Both that single and the album charted, with "Mississippi Queen" reaching the #21 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Climbing is such a classic LP, and a must for any fan of Mountain. More cowbell!
Mountain continued their heavy touring schedule, finding time to enter the studio again to begin laying down tracks for their followup "Nantucket Sleighride." Released in January 1971, the LP reached the #16 spot on the album charts but didn't yield any hit singles. Drug use within the band was on the increase and cracks began to appear, with West growing ever more weary of Knight's by-the-book approach to playing, and Pappalardi growing tired of life on the road.
The band's third album, "Flowers of Evil," was released in November 1971, and consisted of a mix of studio and live recordings from the Fillmore East. You could tell they were worn out and not collaborating the way they had, as the LP contained only four new songs, and the inclusion of already-taped live stuff made filling out an album easy. By the time February 1972 rolled around, they had all had enough. They disbanded that month after a tour of the UK. A final live LP came out in April that contained tracks recorded at Woodstock, and at shows in New York and London.
Knight abandoned rock and returned to jazz, the music he knew and loved best, and Pappalardi retreated back into the studio. West and Laing headed to England to join forces with ex-Cream man Jack Bruce, creating one of the first super-groups, West, Bruce and Laing. The partnership was a profitable one that spawned two studio LPs and one live one, but the band's drug use led to the collapse of the band less than two years after it formed.
Mountain got back together briefly in 1973, but Pappalardi and West were the only two original members. There were conflicts between Laing and Pappalardi's ever-influential wife Gail (among her contributions was the art work for the band's final album), so he refused to join them. A tour of Japan by the new lineup led to the release of a double-live LP recorded there called "Twin Peaks." The tour had ignited a desire to tour again, but West refused unless Laing was with him. The band—with Laing this time— hit the road again with a two-guitar configuration. They began a tour of North America in November of 1973 and didn't stop until almost a year later. While on the road, they released "Avalanche,” their first all-studio album since “Nantucket Sleighride” in July of 1974. The best cut on the otherwise ho-hum LP is a West cover of “Satisfaction,” a scorched-earth piece that is one of the best Stones covers ever. When Pappalardi announced he was leaving at the end of the tour, the band soldiered on as a three-piece, with their final show in December of '74. Mountain wasn't resurrected again until the early '80s.
Laing worked as a session player and even released a solo album, 1977's “Making It on the Street.” West went on to release two solo LPs, “The Great Fatsby” in '75 and “The Leslie West Band” in '76. On April 17, 1983, amid rumors of an affair and impending divorce, Pappalardi was shot to death by his wife Gail in their East Side apartment, with a gun he had bought for her a few months before.
Mountain without Pappalardi became a reality when West and Laing were joined by former Uriah Heep bassist Mark Clarke. Through the '80s and '90s, West appeared and disappeared, sometimes with Mountain, sometimes as a solo act. When Clarke left, Laing and West were joined by former Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding. That lineup had such promise, but was short lived. Mountain, in whatever form, finally ceased to be in 2010.
In 2011, owing to complications from diabetes, West's lower right leg was amputated. Proving you can't keep a big man down, West has released two albums since, "Still Climbing" (a reference to Mountain's "Climbing") in 2013 and "Soundcheck" in 2015. The latter, West's 16th solo LP, reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Blues Album chart. Soundcheck is pure magic, and featured guests include Peter Frampton and Brian May. The real treat is a live version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” featuring ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce.
Five Musical Facts
- Other notable musical alumni of Forest Hills High School include Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon.
- “Long Red” has been sampled more than 400 times by rap and hip-hop artists, including Kayne West and Jay-Z. As a result, West now has six Platinum albums on his wall from other artists sampling his songs.
- The immediately recognizable cowbell intro to "Mississippi Queen" was added by Laing when he became frustrated by Pappalardi's request for numerous takes in the studio. Pappalardi liked it so much that he left it in.
- West had been a massive Who devotee since that band first appeared on the scene, and in 1971, West had a dream come true when he was invited to appear on the "Who’s Next" LP. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked this album #28 on its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list. West played on two tracks laid down during the Record Plant sessions, "Baby, Don't You Do It" and "Love Ain't for Keeping." The very best collection of Who's Next songs is on the 2003 deluxe edition, which contains outtakes from the Record Plant sessions and live tracks recorded at the Young Vic Theatre in London.
- On August 15, 2009, West married his fiancée Jenni Maurer onstage after Mountain's set at the Woodstock 40th anniversary show. The couple passed beneath a line of guitars held aloft by musical luminaries including Corky Laing, Levon Helm and Larry Taylor.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 06, 2019:
Yes, he had a very unique style. I recall reading an interview and he was telling the interviewer that he only used the first and third fingers on his fingering hand, and always went for tone and vibrato. He did some crazy things with amps too...big sound!
He messed up the lyrics in "Southbound Train" at Woodstock :-)
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on May 04, 2019:
Leslie West had the blues rock vocals and guitar sound down very well. Just wailing away. It must have been a blast. He's always been someone I've read about in guitar magazines, and he was always praised for getting a really distinct tone from his guitars, amps, and hands.
I like that I'm not overly familiar with the particular songs you selected.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 01, 2019:
Hi Flourish, the Woodstock 50 financial backers pulled out. Rumor has it that area officials would only issue a permit for 75,000 tickets at Watkins Glen to allow room for camping etc. onsite, since there aren't nearly enough hotels nearby. The backers apparently needed a minimum 100,000 tickets to make it work. But the promoter (and one of the guys involved in original Woodstock) says the show will go on! The shows at Bethel Woods theatre (completely separate outfit), the site of the original Woodstock, are going ahead; Ringo Starr, Santana, Doobie Brothers, John Sebastian and others.
FlourishAnyway from USA on May 01, 2019:
More cowbell indeed. Some of the personal anecdotes in this are sad. I guess it shows no matter how talented we all have conflicts and personal problems. Is it true that the Woodstock reunion show is off? Heard that as a rumor on the radio and thought of you.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 01, 2019:
West is super talented and has a very unique style. I have always loved Mountain.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 30, 2019:
West was obviously talented and I like their music. This is another interesting article about Woodstock performers.