Interview: Corky Laing of MOUNTAIN Tells the Tale of The Mississippi Queen and Woodstock -By: Rob Smittix
Written by Staff on October 11, 2022
RRX: I’m so happy to be talking to you.
CL: I’ve had 14 coffees so good luck to you.
RRX: (Laughs) That’s a lot of coffee.
CL: That’s lite for me.
RRX: So you’re playing at Pauly’s Hotel in Albany, this Friday October 14th at 8pm. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Pauly’s Hotel.
CL: I’ve heard a lot of good things. First of all, it’s small, it’ll be like a pre-European work-out. We’re doing a couple of dates. We’re doing Long Island at a small club and Pauly’s just before we head to Europe. It’s good to get warmed up a bit. It’s a great opportunity, a small hall apparently, the sound I hear is very good. So I’m looking forward to it, you’ll be there right?
RRX: Yeah, you know it! I’ve played there a few times myself the sound was always good. Also, Pauly’s is a very historical place, it’s like the oldest tavern in the area.
CL: That sort of goes with me because I’ll be the oldest drummer.
CL: The oldest living drummer I guess.
RRX: So speaking of playing drums for a long time, I stumbled on some information that you actually played with The Ink Spots at one point.
CL: The Ink Spots, yeah that was my first gig in the public. Well, I won’t call it a gig, I was actually in charge of the stage. My brothers were working at this cabana club north of Montreal and I would go up there; so they got me a job assisting the stage. Every weekend they’d have people coming up from the Catskills. This particular day when they had The Ink Spots coming, coincidentally at the time the unions were on strike, so they didn’t have a back-up band. So there I was sweeping the stage in the afternoon, they walked in and asked where were the musicians? Here I am 10 or 11 years old and I said I don’t know but I heard something about a union strike. They were like The Temptations of their time.
CL: They had their guitar player and he said “while you’re sweeping can you do a little brush work on the drum set?” So what happened at night time was I sat in, I had my bow tie on and everything. It was a dinner club, sort of a night club setting. Here I am a little white kid on the stage with The In Spots. There’s a photo in the book (we’ll get to that later), it must’ve been 1959 or 1960. That was the first time I played in front of an audience. I sat there, I looked out and I noticed that all of these people were looking at me and smiling. I’m sure they were thinking what’s that little white kid doing up there?
CL: But I didn’t give a sh**! Then the lead singer introduces me, “here’s little Corky Laing on the drums, he’ll be helping us out.” The audience loved it.
RRX: That is amazing.
CL: Warm applause and that was it, I was hooked.
RRX: That’s a hell of a first gig!
CL: A lot of people don’t even know who The Ink Spots are because we’re going way back. That was the beginning of the beginning, you know?
RRX: I’m a big Ink Spots fan, I dove into my parents music collection but my then I dove into my grandparent’s collection as well.
CL: I didn’t think of it at the time but as time moves on you realize if you remember that band, historically they were big in their time.
RRX: Most certainly. Now as far as musical success obviously Mountain is the band that you are known for and I read somewhere that before you joined Mountain that you actually wrote some of the lyrics for Mississippi Queen and some of the drum ideas.
CL: When I wrote Mississippi Queen, I was in a local band out of Montreal, we were playing Nantucket Island at the time. What happened was we were playing a cover song “Up on Cripple Creek,” and it turns out an artist friend had a girl come up from Mississippi. She was drop dead gorgeous and she was wearing like a see-through knitted dress and it was 130 degrees in this hot club. This really funky club. The lights went out on the whole island, it went black because that summer was the first summer that they used air-conditioning in Nantucket. I remember the emergency light was shining on her (Molly from Mississippi). So in the the middle of the song the f**king lights go out and the only thing left is the emergency spotlight on her. She’s beautiful and I’m looking at her like I don’t want her to stop dancing so I keep playing. The first thing that I hit was the cowbell because everybody knows when a cowbell is playing you’re going to dance. It implies dancing. So I’m hitting the cowbell and I’m screaming out “hey, Mississippi, Mississippi!” because there’s no mic, I had to scream. I had taken some soul pills that night, whatever that was. I remember screaming and losing my voice screaming “Hey Mississippi, Mississippi Queen, what are you doing?” Then I started singing these lyrics, it was like a rap song. “Mississippi Queen, you know what I mean,” that type of sh*t. She’s looking at me like I’m going to get lucky. She’s dancing with my friend but looking at me. Anyway he got lucky, he took her home. What I did was I took the lyrics that I remembered from that night.
Back then we had no record deal, it was just a cover band. I remember taking it back to New York, where we were staying in a loft on 39th Street. It was really hot! This was August in New York, hot town, summer in the city. I was sitting there thinking I’ve got to finish this song, these lyrics. The reason why I liked it was because percussively the way it sounded you could dance to it. With the band I said you’ve got to help me finish this, I have “went down and around Mississippi” but I needed a city way down south. It needed two syllables, it had to be percussive. A friend of mine David Rea, who I was down there hanging with says wait a second, in Mississippi there’s a town called Vicksburg. That’s a real percussive word Vicksburg, so I stuck that in the lyrics at the time. There’s was nothing going on with the band by the way at that time, this was just dreaming. I remember telling David I’m going to give you ten percent of the song if anything ever happens. Ten percent for Vicksburg! Well wouldn’t you know it! After all these years go by, life goes on and it became something. I don’t think he believed me but I’m from Canada so I’m true to my word.
So anyway I wrote all of the lyrics at that time. Fast forward to when I hooked up with Felix, Leslie and the band. We’re sitting in Leslie’s apartment, just Leslie and myself. Leslie says “we’re going to have to write some songs, we have no material,” he asks “do you have any lyrics?” Sure enough, wouldn’t you know it I had the entire Mississippi Queen song written out. I pulled the sheet out and Rob… within five New York minutes we had the “buh na na nahp” (guitar riff). He screamed out the lyrics as he was playing the guitar. It wrote itself.
That was the song and we brought it into Record Plant where we were recording “Mountain Climbing.” We told Felix we’ve got a song. He listened to it, of course he didn’t write it so he wasn’t that excited. He says “it’s alright, take it home and work on it.” I said “that’s it Felix, this is what we have!” So anyway we put down the track and sure enough that was the track.
If I’m rambling on you know I did tell you about the coffee.
CL: At Record Plant Jimi Hendrix was recording “Band of Gypsys” with Buddy Miles, we were right next door. Felix says to me “I know you’ve crossed paths with Jimi up in Montreal years ago, maybe go and ask if he wants to listen to Mississippi Queen.” I said “well, okay.” I knock on the door, “Mr. Hendrix could you possibly just take a minute to listen to a song that we just finished?” Jimi had already played with Leslie on stage in a club that summer, so he knew sort of who we were. So he came in the studio with me and of course all of the guys were f**king shaking. He sits down behind the desk and we put on Mississippi Queen, the final mix. He’s listening with his head over the board and there’s nothing, total silence. At the end of the song he picks his head up Rob and says “cool.”
RRX: Wow. That is so cool though.
CL: Needless to say we all looked at each and thought well if Jimi Hendrix thinks it’s cool, it’s f**king cool!
RRX: Ain’t that the truth?
CL: And I don’t mean to drop names or be that kind of guy. I was just very lucky to play, record and perform with a lot of these amazing players. I don’t like to boast but at this point in my life, why the f**k not?
RRX: Now I know Mountain played Woodstock and Jim Hendrix of course as well but you were just shy of doing that right?
CL: (Laughs) Just shy? I’ll tell you a quick story. Dig this, on the Woodstock record they put Felix’s version of Yasger’s Farm. So I was there in spirit because he played a song I co-wrote. I hope you’re taking notes. So I hook back up with Felix and Leslie again in the studio recording “Mountain Climbing.” Next door they’re mixing the Woodstock album, the first one. There was a track by Ten Years After called “Going Home,” but what happened live at the show was the microphones on the drums didn’t work. They somehow broke down, so they didn’t have a drum track. They knock on our door and ask “Corky, can you help? Can you take a few minutes and put drums on this song?” I go next door and sit down at the drums, I asked what’s the song called? They say “Going Home.” I said okay how does it go? They replied, “going home, see my baby going home” I said that’s nice how does the chorus go? They said, “going home, see my baby going home” I say, that’s a piece of cake, how does it break out? They say, “going home…” I say okay.
The only thing I didn’t know was what sort of medication Alvin Lee was on because the song went on for like nineteen minutes, it kept speeding up and if you know anything about trying to play along with a track, it’s not the easiest thing. I finally got the whole thing down and they said Corky thank you so much let’s fill out the papers and we’ll get you paid up. I said forget about that I’m going home.
About two weeks later I get a knock on the door and there’s a big brown package. I open it up it’s the gold record for “Going Home” at Woodstock. I said wow I didn’t expect this. I said that’s fantastic. At the time I managed to snag a beautiful old apartment in the village with brick walls. I put this beautiful gold record on the brick wall and Rob did it shine, boy! I thought Corky you are happening! Two weeks later another knock on the door and another brown package. Do you know what it was Rob? It’s another gold record for Yasger’s Farm because I co-wrote the song. I said wow! I take this second gold record from Woodstock and I hang it beside the other gold record. I’m looking at these gold records Rob. I’ve got two beautiful gold records for Woodstock and I wasn’t even f**king there!
RRX: That’s great!
CL: True story and I’ll stick to it. You know when people say I wasn’t there, you bet the f**k I was, I’ve got two gold records on this beautiful brick wall. Anyway that’s the story, it worked out even better. Every time I see him over the years he’s like “Corky why the f**k are you telling everybody that it’s you on that record?” Hey, it wasn’t my fault, it’s a great story, I’m not going to give up a great story, that’s all we’ve got in this business. We’ve got t-shirts, posters and stories! Hope the stories are the most colorful.
RRX: Speaking of stories, you’re still making stories. You have a book and you are working on another.
CL: The book that I wrote with my girl. Years back she found letters that my mother kept that I wrote her over the years of being on the road from 69′ until 98′. Whether I played a show at an armpit in Nebraska or at Carnegie Hall, I would go back to the hotel and it would always be tremendously quiet and lonely. So depending on what I was smoking, I’d sit down and write my mother letters that I didn’t know she kept over the years. Tuija my girl found this box of letters as it was passed on after my mother passed away. She said Corky this is much better than a memoir, use these letters. The book is called “Letters to Sarah.”
Each letter talks about a certain place or show, whether it was the Atlanta Pop Festival or Radio City and I’d talk about what I was doing, what songs we played, that kind of thing. It’s in the book. The book has been around for about a year or two and it’s been revised a bit. It will be available by the way, on Amazon and if I sound like a promo slut, I am. It’s really something, it’s a good book and it has the stories, probably some of the same ones I’m telling you but what the hell, right?
So that’s that book but then I get a call from an English publisher. They want to do a quintessential Mountain book. You know when you go and get a book about the Grateful Dead, a book about nothing but the band. I’m working with this publisher and we’re writing a Mountain book, going through the albums underneath the undertones of the band. We’re doing a comprehensive book about Mountain. I like the idea because there’s no book out there and of course there’s nobody around to write that book except me. I seem to be the last man which I’m not very happy about, I’d love the band to be together. We were best friends. A lot of bands claim to be brothers and sisters, whatever and it’s bulls**t. It was a very strange combination of symbiotic relationships of music, habits, wives and drugs. It was quite something. It wasn’t just Mississippi Queen and that’s it. We were starting to build the Nantucket Sleighride. We were on our way right up the scale with what I consider some credible, melodic, beautiful rock.
CL: That’s the way I like to think about it. Of course everything goes through changes. With Leslie I went through like ten marriages, fourteen contracts, divorces, all these things. Yeah they’re ups and downs and ins and outs but they’re stories. It’s almost biblical. It’s 50 years, you know? Leslie just passed away a couple of years ago and we’re doing a tribute. A friend of mine is doing a tribute in Staten Island this weekend actually on Sunday to Leslie. I wouldn’t call them cover bands or tribute bands but they’re doing shows with Mountain material. Which is really good. The shows that I’m doing like at Pauly’s Hotel is Corky Laing’s Mountain. I’m not professing to have the same vibe as it was in 69′ or 70′. What’s past is past, but what I’m doing Rob is I am just keeping the repertoire. That to me is the goal. A lot of people don’t realize how many songs were classic songs all over the world. I didn’t even realize but if you go to Spotify there’s 180 million Spotify hits for “Never In My Life.” So I’m keeping the repertoire alive. We still jam out on it the old fashion way. People like Gov’t Mule and Warren Haynes are still major fans of Mountain. As a matter of fact he invited me to play Nantucket Sleighride New Year’s Eve 2011. I remember Warren saying to me, “do me one favor Corky, before you get on this, learn your f**k’n part.” He’s a perfectionist. Leslie and I took some of those songs and jammed a little too much.
RRX: You were having fun! Real quickly tell us about the guys that you’re traveling with now.
CL: A fellow by the name of Richie Scarlet, he played with Ace Frehley for years and he played with Bonnie Parker, a lot of Long Island bands. He’s a star himself playing guitar but Richie played bass during the 90’s with Leslie and myself for years. So when the time came he was one of the few people that could get Leslie’s tone. Then we have our friend Mark Clarke back in the loop. Of course he was playing with Colosseum and Uriah Heep during “The Wizard” days. A great player and a great singer, so we have him for this show at Pauly’s. It’s a great pleasure for me to have these guys. I thank my lucky stars!
RRX: Anything else you’d want to promote while we still have time?
CL: Well I have a new album I just finished in Finland called the “Finnish Sessions,” there also are the “Toledo Sessions” which I put out right before Covid, so that’s still hanging around because nothing much was happening. I love both of them, I can’t stop playing Rob or I’m going to die if I stop. I love writing and at this point Rob, I’m sort of on my own. I don’t have a band, I don’t have any sort of brand to match up to or feel obligated. Frankly the freedom is sometimes very scary because you don’t know which way to go.
RRX: Thank you so much.
CL: It’s an honor to be able to play anywhere at this point. Thank you very much for the support!