Leslie West is an exceptional guitarist, perhaps his music is not as well remembered as other artists of the time but his influence over several generations of guitarists is tremendous. He took over from Cream and hardened their music towards heavy. Everything about West is big, from his evident weight problems to his incredible tone, one of the greatest, and most recognised in history. But the thing is that when gents like Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Pete Townshend and Ritchie Blackmore talk with respect and admiration about someone, it’s because that someone is very big.
Born with the name Leslie Weinstein on October 22, 1945 into a Jewish family from New York, his first revelation came when he was a boy and his uncle, a screenwriter for television, invited him to see his program the same day Elvis Presley was due to perform. He became a fervent believer in rock & roll and did not stop until his grandparents bought him his first guitar. Before becoming of age he became, like his whole generation, a lover of all the ‘British Invasion’ bands like the Beatles, and The Who. He shared his passion with his next-door neighbour Bobby Wachtel, and every time he listened to a new song by the Fab Four he would rush over to his house to see how he got it perfectly on guitar and then Wachtel taught it to him. They went together to the Beatles concert at the Paramount on September 20, 1964, neither were aware that over time, they would rub shoulders with their idols, with West becoming a star with Mountain, and Wachtel, better known as Waddy Wachtel, turned out to be one of the most important session guitarists around, having collaborated with Fleetwood Mac, Iggy Pop, and the very own Rolling Stones.
It was actually Wachtel who taught him how to play the guitar so well, and convinced him to trust in his ear. He was also the friend who brought him the guitar with which he is most associated. After buying a 12-string Rickenbacker, like George Harrison’s, Wachtel sold his Junior Les Paul to West, who had just formed his first band, The Vagrants. They were a typical American garage band, and being New Yorkers their big heroes were the Rascals, with whom they sometimes shared the stage and the sound of the Hammond B-3 organ. Even in those first occasions you could see the progress West was making as a guitarist, as seen on his first single, Oh Those Eyes, where he used a 12-string Danelectro Bellzouki. In 1966 they had regional success with I Can’t Make a Friend, becoming regulars at the Action House in Long Island alongside groups like Vanilla Fudge, or the Hassles with a young Billy Joel.
But his big break came in 1967 when Tom Dowd signed them to Atlantis Records, where they recorded a cover of Respect, by Otis Redding, a little garage rock nugget, which led to one of West’s favourite anecdotes... when he went to get a few copies of the single at Atlantic headquarters he ran into Otis in person, who signed him a copy saying, “To Leslie with respect”. But it was his next meeting that would change his life, Atlantic found them a new producer for his next single, one Felix Pappalardi. He together with his girlfirend Gail Collins would write Beside the Sea, their next single, in which Leslie’s fuzz guitar plays a much heavier role. That same year Pappalardi would produce (and write 2 songs with Collins) Disraeli Gears by Cream. The Vagrants didn’t make any waves but Pappalardi saw something in West and didn’t hesitate to tell him if he started something new, to call him.
The band went nowhere and dissolved in 1968, the same year West saw Cream live for the first time, and clearly saw what he wanted to do. After teaming with a drummer and bassman, he called Pappalardi and showed up at the studio, but the producer was none too impressed. So he changed musicians and went again to Pappalardi, but he was still unconvinced, so a mutual friend said to him, “Why don’t you take the bass and try it yourself ?”. It didn’t take more than one song to see that it worked. Cream had just split up and they were ready and willing to take over. The first record was recorded in early 1969, and appeared in July under West’s name, but titled Mountain, the name chosen by the trio, with N.D. Smart on drums, to begin performing their first gigs. After just three they got their first big break, Woodstock. Mountain performed on August 16, and opened the show with the same song on their debut album, the remarkable Blood of the Sun, there was also time to redo the song that first brought them together, Beside the Sun. By then West already had his Les Paul Junior Sunburst and his well-known Sunn heads, which would be instrumental to his sound. But let’s not forget that West worked himself to death to get his amazing sound.
It would be on the following album where he would perfect his style. West wanted to be as recognizable as a violinist, he wanted the biggest tone possible, and to get a vibrato of his own. His technique was rudimentary, he didn’t use the little finger on his left hand at all, but he managed to get his own tone, one of the best of all times. With Climbing!, his 2nd record, he got the songs to develop that tone. Both Mississippi Queen and Never In My Life are two absolute classics that show off West’s spectacular riffs, The Laird resembles the contributions of Pappalardi to Cream like Strange Brew and especially World of Pain, with a psychedelic touch, while his cover of Theme for an Imaginary Western by Jack Bruce is perfect. While Jimi Hendrix was recording with his Band of Gypsies in the adjacent studio, Pappalardi asked West to invite him over. Once inside, Pappalardi played Never In My Life and Hendrix surprised West by saying with a smile “That’s a great riff man!”. A few weeks later, after a Steve Miller concert, West and Hendrix would share the stage in a jam that has a privileged space in West’s memories.
By that time Smart has been replaced by Corky Laing and Steve Knight was still on keyboards, both Mississippi Queen and the album were a big success and the group became a live sensation, led by West’s guitar. That same year they recorded their 3rd album, Nantucket Sleighride, released in January of 1971. That year their opening acts were none other than Black Sabbath, with West having a great time with Ozzy Osbourne. West had become a point of reference for English guitarists, people like Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople and Martin Barre of Jethro Tull could not hide their admiration for him, and would end up buying several Les Paul Jrs. It would be that same year when he got a call from one of his idols to play with his group. It was Pete Townshend in the middle of recording Who’s Next inviting West to the studio. Although it would not be published at the time, his contribution is fantastic on numbers like Love Ain’t for Keeping, on the electric version with Townshend as lead singer, or the cover of Baby, Don’t You Do It. The experience would be so gratifying that West would end up giving his legendary Les Paul Junior with just one pickup to Townshend. Together with an old Strat that Clapton gave him, and the Chet Atkins Gretsch that Joe Walsh got him, it was one of the 3 electric guitars he used on that epic album.
Flowers Of Rain, Mountain’s 4th record in little over two years, proved that the formula was running dry, but the seed had been planted. West and the band had been the link between Cream and the rising Heavy scene. No wonder another British guitar player decided to flip his band’s music after listening to Mississippi Queen. Ritchie Blackmore stated that hearing Mountain led him to apply its brutal hard rock intensity to the next Deep Purple album, the influential In Rock. Of course the most bizarre influence in his career was the one that he led, involuntarily, to hip hop. In 1972 the record Mountain Live was released, that album contained his performance of Long Red in Woodstock. The song opens with a funky drum beat and West leading people to clap shouting “Louder!”, well, that little piece has been sampled in more than 600 hip hop songs, including names such as Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Nas, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Eminem. He himself says with surprise and pride, I have a few platinum records thanks to those songs.
But it was Leslie West’s guitar that has finally gone down in history as one of the founding stones of hard rock and heavy, becoming a reference for his first examples like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, or his second wave at the end of the seventies led by Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes. West has continued his successful career, having a band with Jack Bruce and recording with giants like Ozzy, Slash, and Joe Bonamassa. Any guitarist with a good ear can recognise the value of the ‘fattest’ tone in the history of rock, no hidden meaning here. Not even his tragic leg amputation in 2011, from diabetes, got him off the stage. Although he now plays with his signature Dean, his tone remains perfect, showing, once again, that the magic is in the fingers, especially if those fingers belong to Leslie West.