Mountain Man Leslie West Once Had Houston at His Fingers

"You're in Houston, so let me ask you something," a gravelly, low voice asks on the other end of the phone. "Is the bed you're sleeping on from Finger Furniture?"

An odd question to hear outside of a TV commercial, to be sure. But even odder since the voice asking the question -- and now laughing -- comes from Leslie West, the classic-rock singer/guitarist best known for fronting the band Mountain of "Mississippi Queen" fame.

But it turns out that West has more than a passing interest in interior design of Texas homes, due to an interesting family tie.

"Bobby Finger was my cousin!" he says of the company's late President/CEO and well-known commercial pitchman. "My father married a woman from Houston, and my brother and I went down and lived there in 1958 for a year, right off of Buffalo Speedway. I remember Bobby's daddy had a helicopter that he used to fly around in, which I thought was really cool."

And that's his only tie to a historic Houston business. "My father also married into the family from Gordon's Jewelers," he continues. "And do they still have James Coney Island hot dogs there? I used to love those. But let me tell you something. The humidity in Houston is enough to kill you!"

After West finishes his trip down memory bayou, he's eager to talk about his new solo record, Still Climbing (Provogue/Mascot). The 11 tracks run the gamut from hard and melodic rock to ballads, featuring a stellar cast of guests including Johnny Winter, Dee Snider, Jonny Lang, and Mark Tremonti (Creed).

"I have always wanted to play with Johnny. And I enjoyed playing with Billy Gibbons too. He was on my last solo record, Unusual Suspects," West says of the Bearded One -- whose Little Ol' Band from Texas once opened a show for Mountain. The friendship was rekindled years ago when West inadvertently met Gibbons' parents at Hobby Airport.

Still Climbing also includes a re-recorded version of "Long Red," a track from Mountain's 1969 debut record that has had an inexplicable second life as a frequent sample in hip-hop songs: Jay-Z used it in "99 Problems," and so have rappers from Kayne West, De La Soul and the Game to A$AP Rocky and Common. Even Lana Del Rey has sampled it.

West is at a loss to explain its popularity, though he notes that it "does have a hip-hop beat" -- even if there was no hip hop around when he first recorded it.

"It's kind of unbelievable, the success it has had with sampling," he says.

Interview continues on the next page.

Mountain came storming onto the rock scene in 1969 with that debut record and a ferocious performance at Woodstock, though they do not appear in the film. "Mississippi Queen" ruled the airwaves the next year.

The band dissolved in 1972, and West has revived the group on and off since then, often with classic-lineup drummer Corky Laing. Keyboardist/producer Felix Pappalardi was shot to death by his wife in 1983.

And while the band is often mistaken for a power trio a la Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Grand Funk, West reminds that the group also had a keyboard player. But not for strictly musical reasons.

"Felix had produced Cream, and he didn't want us to look like them, so we had a keyboard player," West recalls. "But no one was going to mistake us for Cream. I mean, Eric Clapton was a thin, tall, good-looking guy. And I was fat!"

Mountain would have a number of other hits but remain best-known for "Queen," particularly when it was featured in both the Guitar Hero III and Rock Band video games. West believes that the revitalized interest in the song from the exposure led record companies to scramble to place songs in other games.

"Everybody should have one [big] song like that. But oddly, it's not our most popular track in a lot of Europe," West says, noting that distinction goes to "Nantucket Sleighride," the theme for a weekly BBC news program for nearly 20 years. The first time the group played it at England's Knebworth Festival, the crowd went wild -- and West had no idea why at the time.

These days, West is concentrating on his solo career and says flatly that Mountain is "finished," a decision that stems somewhat from an unfortunate circumstance in West's health. In 2011, he had his lower right leg amputated due to complications from diabetes.

And while he credits his wife, Jenni -- who he married onstage at the Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in 2009 -- with supporting him immensely, any sort of touring is not in the cards. Though he will do a number of dates to support Still Climbing.

"It's difficult for me to travel now, and I'm not really good with the prosthetic," says West. "So I play sitting down because I don't want to fall. I play in this electric chair... wait, that's not right. That's what they kill people in!"

West distinctive guitar playing is all over the record, but he himself is most pleased with his voice, which he says has grown stronger since giving up smoking seven years ago after a stint with bladder cancer.

"I can listen to my voice now and not cringe!" he laughs, while musing that the new record is available in a variety of formats including CD, downloads and also vinyl. It's a format he never thought would come back, but which he appreciates wholeheartedly.

"There is nothing like the sound of a record or holding one in your hands," he muses. "I was surprised, but it's not like cassettes would be coming back!"


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