Leslie West, who died at the age of 75 after a cardiac arrest, could claim to be one of the creators of heavy metal. His band Mountain had a spectacular impact when they played their fourth concert at the original Woodstock festival in August 1969, alongside the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Physically enormous West had a powerful presence as a singer, but it was his massive, saturated guitar sound that became the group’s most memorable mark. Kiss’s Paul Stanley said: “Leslie’s tone could stop a fully charged rhino.”
Mountain’s original incarnation lasted only until 1972, but the band created memorable music in its short initial existence. Mississippi Queen, from their debut album Mountain Climbing !, was a thunderous blues classic that gave them their biggest hit, number 21 in the United States, and was permanently installed on rock radio stations.
The title track of his America’s Top 20 album, Nantucket Sleighride (1971), was another totemic song, a hard rock ballad about a nightmare whaling trip that became well known in the UK. Theme song from ITV’s current affairs show Weekend World. Woodstock’s recording of his song Long red it later became one of the most sampled tracks ever, appearing on over 150 hip-hop recordings by Public Enemy, Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest, and more.
West was born Leslie Weinstein in New York to Bill, a vice president of a carpet shampoo company, and his wife, Rita, a hair model. The family lived in several New York boroughs as Leslie grew up, including Queens, Forest Hills, and Long Island. Although his mother had given him a ukulele when he was eight, it was the revelation of seeing Elvis Presley on television that triggered his passion for the guitar. Cash gifts from her bar mitzvah allowed her to purchase her first instrument.
He changed his last name to West after his parents’ divorce, and after graduating from high school, he worked for a time for a Manhattan jeweler. However, music was his dominant interest. “During lunchtime, I would walk up to 48th Street and look at all the guitars in the stores,” he told Classic Rock magazine. “One day I guess it took too long and my boss told me not to bother coming back.”
His first band was The Vagrants, a soul-influenced combo he formed with his brother Larry, the bassist. They enjoyed little hits with the singles. I can’t make a friend (1966) and a Otis Redding’s version of Respect.
The Vagrants had worked with producer Felix Pappalardi, who was a close associate of the British trio Cream and producer of their album Disraeli Gears (1967). West was greatly influenced by Cream, especially Eric Clapton’s guitar, although he modestly never claimed to possess similar technical expertise to Clapton’s. “You could identify their sound as a signature,” he told the LA Times. “I wanted to have a sound that you could identify like that.”
When West left The Vagrants in late 1968 to make a solo album, Pappalardi was on board as producer and co-writer. The album’s title, Mountain, was a humorous allusion to West’s massive physique, as he generally weighed more than 20 kilos. With the album finished, West and Pappalardi formed the band Mountain, with ND Smart on drums, Steve Knight on keyboards and Pappalardi on bass. West’s album provided most of his performance at Woodstock, where exposure to the festival’s 500,000 people gave them an invaluable boost in his career.
The group’s debut album (with Corky Laing replacing Smart on drums) was Mountain Climbing! (1970), which peaked at number 17 on the US album chart and spawned the hit single Mississippi Queen. The next album, Nantucket Sleighride, rose one notch at 16, while Flowers of Evil (1971) reached 31. The live album Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On (1972) illustrated Mountain’s penchant for extended improvisations in the stage, among other things through a 17-minute version of Nantucket Sleighride. The song had become the highlight of their live shows. “I wanted us to be like a heavy rock orchestral band, so I made my guitar sound like a violin, a viola and a cello,” West said.
After the band broke up in 1972, West and Laing joined Cream’s Jack Bruce as West Bruce & Laing. Armed with a $ 1 million contract from CBS / Columbia, they released a couple of studio albums and a live album before disintegrating in 1973, largely due to the trio’s debilitating drug use.
West and Pappalardi formed a new mountain that recorded the live album Twin Peaks (1973) and the studio set Avalanche (1974), before West formed his own Leslie West Band. They recorded The Great Fatsby (1975) and The Leslie West Band (1976) before the drug-stunned frontman left the music scene for some time to recover from addictions to heroin, cocaine, and morphine.
West would reform Mountain at regular intervals with various lineups in the new millennium, including a 1994 version featuring former Hendrix bassist Noel Redding and veteran singer / guitarist Elvin Bishop. His last studio album was Masters of War (2007), which comprises a dozen covers of Bob Dylan songs. In 2003, West and Laing published their memoir, Nantucket Sleighride and Other Mountain-on-the-Road Stories, with lurid stories involving, among others, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and the Allman Brothers. West also got into movies, appearing in Family Honor (1973) and The Money Pit (1986).
He had to deal with a variety of health problems over the years. In the mid-1980s, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and in 2011 diabetic complications forced him to have the lower part of his right leg amputated. In the early 2000s, he survived bladder cancer.
Revered by an A-list of rock guitarists, from Peter Frampton to Joe Satriani and the band’s Robbie Robertson, West released Unusual Suspects in 2011, with guests from guitar stars like Slash, Joe Bonamassa and Billy Gibbons, while an album Later, Still Climbing (2013), found him alongside Johnny Winter and Jonny Lang. On Soundcheck (2015), he was joined by Queen’s Frampton, Bruce and Brian May.
In 2009 he married Jenni Maurer on stage at the Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in Bethel Woods Arts Center, New York State. She survives him along with Larry and a nephew, Max.
• Leslie West (Leslie Weinstein), musician, born October 22, 1945; died on December 22, 2020
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