Again a great musician has left us last December 2020. A man who had everything to become a plague in the musical world: he created a different, new and devastating sound, starting from blues and soul; he had a ragged baritone voice, nothing fashionable. His associates called him The Great Fatsby due to his size and that’s how he titled his second solo album, after his experience in Mountain. Fundamental for any music lover, Mountain was the band with which he positioned himself in the world of musical talent, making it clear that he was opening a new path, and that it would take him far… We are talking about the father of heavy metal: Leslie West.
He has been imitated, subtracted, and inspired so many musicians that any admirer of riffs at full volume could recite, like Jimmy Page, Slash, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Uli Jon Roth, Tommy Bolin, Tony Iommi, Joe Bonamass, Jared James Nichols and friend and collaborator Peter Frampton were influenced by that shy and quiet Jewish boy who let his guitar speak for himself. At nineteen, he and his brother Larry who played bass, were part of a project called The Vangrats, with moderate success on the East Coast. They were from New York. Felix Pappalardi produced some of his songs on his record label: Atco Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic. Highlights the recording, with Leslie as guitar and vocalist, of a stratospheric version of “Respect”, by the incomparable Otis Redding, and the song “I can’t make a friend”, which became a small event mixing familiar sounds with their own contributions.
The young Jew had changed his surname Weinstein for West, and as a hippie he yearned for California. A turning point, he once said, was seeing Cream at the Village Theatre (later the Fillmore East) in 1967. “My brother said to me, ‘Let’s take some acid before we go,’ ” West told Blues Rock Review in 2015. “So we took LSD and all of a sudden the curtain opens up and I hear them playing ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ and I see Eric Clapton and his buckskin jacket. I said, ‘Oh, my God, we really suck.’ After that, I started really practicing and practicing.” Leslie left The Vangrats and created his first solo album, with the iconic name that would later become his band: Mountain. The specialized critics and fellow workers praised that different and tremendous sound that came from Manhattan, when the normal thing at that time was for it to depart from Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood of hippie musicians in San Francisco.
Pappalardi returns to production after having crossed the Atlantic to make the masterpiece “Disraeli Gears” together with Bruce, Baker and Clapton. And he joins West and his new album as bass and keyboard player as well as producer, and N. D. Smart as drummer. They were preparing for Woodstock, the festival that was being prepared in the state of New York for that August of 1969. The band exemplified the musical ability of West and his producer. The organizers of the festival were convinced when they went to an off Broadway theater and saw everything that those three guys, joined by a studio keyboardist, Steve Knight, could develop and transmit on stage.
And the rock gods, whom Jack Black alluded to and invoked in that little gem called School of Rock, anointed the band two and a half months later, at Woodstock, on the boards erected on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York. York, on Saturday, August 16 at nine o’clock at night. They smashed the ears of the audience with their force and volume, and the applause thundered. And the Pappalardi-West duo signed a contract for their first album as a band, for which the now quartet had great material, both their own and imported from the British Isles, given the bassist and producer’s relationship with Jack Bruce, who was preparing the release of his first, and highly recommended, solo album: “Songs for a Taylor”. It would include a song that Eric Clapton refused to record. Mountain had played it at the festival, and it had appealed to all the specialized critics, practically forcing the compilers of the second Woodstock album to include it. Its title: “Theme from an imaginary western”.
Then came “Climbing!”, his debut album from 1970. Critics and the public were thrown into that different sound where the guitars rumbled or gave the sweetest sounds without interruption, and the voices of Pappalardi and West alternated creating a magical atmosphere. And since they had more than enough material, they recorded, between concerts, their second album, with the same critical and public success: “Nantucket Sleighride”, at the beginning of 1971. And they crossed the Atlantic as an event for bands like Black Sabbath or Queen, who heard that sound as a revelation. Drummer Corky Laing led the rhythm of the quartet and that enchanted dental prosthetics student Roger Taylor, who tried to do the same with his group, which had not yet been reached by John Deacon, also influenced by that new sound migrated from the East Coast.
Leslie West kept listening to everything that came to him and giving it his touch, especially with a guitar, the Gibson Les Paul Junior, to which he got all his juice, and that other great guitarists did not use so as not to be compared. Influenced by the sound of progressive hard rock he did not handle another brand of instrument for many years. In the late nineties he replaced it with an Ibanez RG. It seems that Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or John Petrucci, from Dream Theater, were the ones who convinced him of the change. In a later stage he started using his own signature guitars.
But Leslie continued for three more years to discuss with Felix the sound, the mixes and the arrangement of his songs. After a successful album, live and in the studio, with the name of Baudelaire’s poems: “Flowers of evil”, they took some time to give us “Avalanche” in 1974, with which the first cycle of Mountain was closed and the last one with Felix Pappalardi. He had to quit when he complained of a deafness problem due to the high volume with which the band always seasoned their concerts, perhaps also because his Gibson EB-1 violin bass and Sunn amplifiers, which had belonged to Jimi Hendrix, had too much power and he couldn’t handle it.
Mountain disappears, and in 1974 West decides to re-record his second solo album: “The Great Fatsby”, under his own production and that of Bob D’Orleans, and with the participation in the composition, arrangement and rhythm guitar of Mick Jagger, always trying to find a new sound to bring to the Stones. And Leslie had one of his own, which Mick and Lenny Kravitz themselfs later used in their best-selling joint single: “God gave me everything, a quarter of a century later”.
The album “The Great Fatsby” is pure cult in which music greats have recognized its influence, beyond Jagger and Kravitz. Groups like The Black Crows, Judas Priest or Iron Maiden in the ranks of rock, but also Keith Richards or Sam Brown.
In 1976 he released his third solo vinyl that generated the same expectation, making clear the exceptionality of the overweight guitarist with a torn voice. The Leslie West Band was an event for the greats of rock, because West attracted the new sap of the sound of the electrified six strings: the aforementioned Peter Frampton, Jim Steinman and their inseparable Meat Loaf were influenced by this way of making direct , powerful and virtuous, because Leslie West was always an admirer of the great guitarists, from Paco de Lucía to John Scofield through Hendrix, Peter Green and their outstanding disciples, who received Mountain and West as someone to emulate in their search for the paths and ties between blues and hardrock. Thus, Gary Moore or Robbie McKintosh said that Green made them climb the rungs of blues and West raised them to the Olympus of rock. Even the magnificent bluesman Chris Rea speaks openly of Leslie West’s sound as the definitive one when it comes to finding his own way of going to the guitar and hence the purity of his work, as seen in some of the great solos of the New Yorker.
He then suffered a creative break, health problems that haunted him for the rest of his life, and the death of Pappalardi, who had helped him so much in his career and whom he respected so much, despite their creative and production differences after 1974. The murder of Felix by his wife after an argument at their home on New York’s East Side knocked out West for a short period of time. In fact, West had just reunited Mountain, albeit without Pappalardi, due in part to his deafness and in part to their differences over production and musical composition. To replace him he had called the great Mark Clarke, who had fled from Ritchie Blackmore and his Rainbow project, and left Uriah Heep to go to Colosseum, where his virtuosity was much more recognized; and arrived in New York to give force to the new Mountain.
They played all over the East Coast and then went to California and Canada, where everything heralded an imminent new album for the band. This was confirmed by Corky Laing, West’s drummer and eternal squire, when the murder of Felix Pappalardi took place. And everything stopped or actually slowed down. At least until West caught up with producer Pete Solley thanks to Frampton. They decided to record and release a powerful and seamless comeback album, respecting the band’s past but without forgetting the hard rock trajectory in the mid-eighties. In fact, Solley was coming off producing the latest from Motorhead. The album “Go for your life” received rave reviews, but it did not work in Europe as West and Solley thought.
Leslie, convinced by his friend Jack Bruce, decided to walk towards the blues in his fourth solo project: “Theme”, and offer together with the composer and founder of Cream a pure West album, with magnificent versions, his own compositions and an impeccable production. Along with West and Bruce plays the drums Joe Franco (The Good Rats and Twisted Sister). Joe also composes some of the songs with Leslie, highlighting the importance of Jack Bruce and his velvet voice, the one that fell in love with the late Pappalardi and who recited Pete Brown’s verses like no one else, as the peerless would recognize years later. Ginger Baker.
He released “Alligator” and a couple of live shows where he showed, once again, that mixture of virtuosity and rhythmic guitar playing, on the same level as Clapton or Gilmour in the first, and Richards or Van Zandt, in the second. Leslie West was already a legend as well as a reference. All the renowned musicians wanted to record and play with him, or were inspired by him and his way of seeing this art.
From the nineties West, with the soul of the song always placed on the guitar neck and riffs capable of making experts of blues, rock, hard rock and heavy metal rise from their seats; He combined his solo albums with collaborations on the works of others. Among them: Ozzy Osbourne, who recruited him to record with him a version of his first big hit with Mountain, “Mississippi queen”; Ian Gillan, in his Toolbox; or Joe Bonamassa, whom he sponsored on his debut album “A new day yesterday”.
He continued touring alone after two new albums in which people from the nobility of rock collaborate such as Joe Lynn Turner, Leo Lyons, or Randy Coven, who had already been with him in the last round of concerts as a member of Mountain. And then he took a little break before recording again with his old band to start the millennium. “Mystic fire” was the group’s penultimate work, the seventh, but it was also the last with original material.
The eighth: “Master of war”, is composed of versions of the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Bob Dylan. Some collaborations stand out, such as those of Ozzy Osbourne and Warren Haynes; and the arrangements, acoustic and electric, for two of his Blowing in the wind tracks, undoubtedly exquisite.
In between, he recorded and did a series of concerts on the American blues circuits with his solo work “Blues to die for and “Got Blooze”. The first consists of a collection of songs that he gives force to with his Les Paul Junior guitar. And in the second he returns to rock without abandoning the blues. He records with two renowned musicians in both styles, Tim Bogert accompanying him on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and recording the sound he likes the most: “pure soul” as Butch Vig, music producer of the most famous trio album, would define it. Classic rock from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nevermind, from Nirvana.
Then he began to have serious health problems due to his poorly cared for diabetes and excessive hours on his feet. As a result, his left leg had to be amputated below the knee. He had to stop the recording of one of his most reputed solo albums and that would earn him some of the best reviews of his career.
But “Ununsual Suspects” was too good to be paralyzed by a missing foot, as he put it, and everyone returned to the studio as soon as Lenny, as he was called by those close to him, was discharged. Together with him and giving his personal stamp to each version: Joe Bonamassa, Slash, Billy Gibbons, Steve Luthaker and Zakk Wylde. All of them “unusual suspects.”
Then came his thirteenth solo album, with new songs, almost all composed during his convalescence and his relocation to Florida. The climate there, milder than in his native New York, made him relax and definitely forget about continuing to tour, which he had been doing since 1965, almost like Jerry García and his legendary Grateful Dead. In addition, he covered the mythical theme par excellence of Judy Garland Over the rainbow or the soul classics When a man loves a woman and Feeling good.
And, after working as a guest on the album by the eclectic singer, guitarist and producer Eli Cook, in 2014 he faces a new album, his fourteenth solo. A climax to a wonderful career: Soundcheck.
When musicians of the stature of Brian May, who had always wanted to work with him, as we have already mentioned, after Mountain’s first visit to the UK in 1971; Peter Frampton, who took the form of playing on Leslie’s boards to compose the sounds of the guitar protagonist of the film Almost Famous, with the connivance of screenwriter and director Cameron Crowe; or the always enormous Jack Bruce, who, now deceased, left us this gift that his friend included in this prodigious swan song.
And with this, Leslie West retired to his home state, of Florida. He achieved so much in his career; pioneered the sound of Hard Rock, played from Woodstock to Hammersmith, created timeless songs like “Mississippi Queen” and “Theme from an Imaginary Western”, having his own signature guitars, played with big names, influenced many from oldies like Mick Jagger to young ones like Jared James Nichols. Why this great musician is still not in the Hall of Fame is a mystery to me and many. But maybe soon he will be.
If you want to learn how to play guitar like Leslie West, then click on this text and you will be directed to the Truefire online guitar lessons where they have 29 Hard Rock/Heavy Metal and 167 Blues Rock lessons waiting for you from amazing teachers.