Unsung Guitar Greats: Leslie West (with Classic Video)
Though in later years he became known for a wide variety of music genres--from blues-rock to heavy metal--Leslie is best known among rock aficionados as one of the premier founders of heavy rock music.
Beginning his musical pursuits in the early 1960s, Leslie’s musical career took it’s first major step forward with the first of his bands to gain public acclaim, The Vagrants, an R&B, “blue-eyed soul-rock” band said to have been influenced by groups like The Young Rascals--one of the few bands of the era to come out of Long Island rather than the Bohemian-centered Greenwich Village.
The Vagrants had two minor hits, one in ‘66 with "I Can't Make a Friend," and a cover of Otis Redding's "Respect," the following year.
Quickly nicknamed "The Fattest Fingers in Rock ‘n' Roll,” in 1969 Leslie hooked up with Remains drummer N. D. Smart and bass player/producer Felix Pappalardi (who had produced some of the Vagrants' sessions), forming the band Mountain--by some accounts a reference to Leslie’s formidable size. With Steve Knight on keyboards, the band performed on the second day at Woodstock, on Saturday, August 16, 1969.
Keeping Kinght but replacing Smart with cutting-edge rock drummer Corky Laing, the band released Climbing! the following year, an album which turned the entire American rock scene upside down with “Mississippi Queen,” the hardest-edge rock song most had ever heard, which was written and sang by Leslie. (It begins with the unmistakable banging of Laing's cowbell and West's incomparable "wake-up" guitar riff):
Mississippi Queen live
Although “Mississippi Queen” only reached #21 on the Billboard charts and #4 in Canada, Leslie was recognized as creator of a new, harder-edge genre of rock music. In January of 1971, Mountain released Nantucket Sleighride which featured “Don’t Look Back,” a driving piece of music that rivaled or exceeded anything heard in America at that time, further securing Leslie’s place as an original.
Later that same year, Mountain released the monumental Flowers of Evil, the second side consisting of material recorded live at New York City's legendary Fillmore East in 1971. This album contained three of Mountain’s most popular songs, “Flowers of Evil,” “One Last Cold Kiss,” and Cream contender, “Crossroader,” further spotlighting Leslie’s guitar prowess, and establishing Mountain as the forerunner of heavy metal music:
In 1972, Mountain disband, at which time Leslie teamed up with Jack Bruce (the writing and bass force behind Cream), and Corky Laing, resulting in two studio albums, Why Dontcha, and Whatever Turns You on, and a live release before disbanding in 1974, at which time Mountain’s last studio album, Avalanche, came about.
West, Bruce, and Laing
Virtually dropping out of sight for the next ten years, Leslie reformed Mountain in 1985 and has been releasing albums and doing the concert circuit ever since.
Leslie recorded with The Who during the March 1971 Who's Next New York sessions, taking a guest spot on their signature song “Won't Get Fooled Again.” Though the track wasn’t originally included on the album, it appears as a bonus track on the 1995 and 2003 reissues of Who's Next and on the 1998 reissue of Odds & Sods.
Leslie also played guitar on "Bo Diddley Jam" on Bo Diddley's 1976 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll all-star album.
In 2005, Ozzy Osbourne further immortalized Leslie’s contribution to the metal genre by including a remake of "Mississippi Queen” on his Under Cover album, with Leslie taking center-stage on guitar.
In addition to his ongoing work with Mountain, West continues to record and perform on his own, his latest solo album, Blue Me, released in 2006. In 2007, Mountain released Masters of War on Big Rack Records, an album featuring 12 Bob Dylan songs with Ozzy Osbourne providing guest vocals on the title track.
Leslie, circa 2008
Leslie was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15, 2006.
Johnny Ramone, of the world-famous Ramones, was quoted as calling Leslie, "one of the top five guitar players of his era.”
Today, Leslie continues to make occasional appearances on radio, notably on Howard Stern's radio show.
Images via Wikipedia.org and westfanbase.org
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