Dec 23, 2020: Leslie West, Mountain Frontman and Hard Rock Guitar Hero, Dies

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Mountain (l. to r.): Felix Pappalardi, Leslie West, Corky Laing

Leslie West, best known as the guitarist and co-lead vocalist of hard-rock progenitors Mountain, died December 23, 2020, due to cardiac arrest. West, who was in Palm Coast, Fla., at the time of his passing, was 75.

On Dec. 21, West’s brother, Larry West Weinstein, posted on his Facebook page, “I am asking for all your prayers. Jenni is by his side in Florida but it’s not looking good. Thanks Jenni, he wouldn’t have made it this far without you.” (Jenni referred to West’s wife Jenni Maurer. The couple wed onstage in August 2009 after Mountain’s performance at the Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in Bethel, N.Y.) Weinstein deleted the post the following day.

From the start of his career in the late ’60s, everything about Leslie West was larger than life. A plus-sized fellow, he had a guitar sound that matched—loud, fiery, fast and overpowering—and a voice that didn’t know the meaning of soft. When the history of heavy rock is traced today, it invariably points to him as one of the origin points—it was no accident that he called his band Mountain.

Born Leslie Weinstein in New York City on October, 22, 1945, West grew up in New Jersey, Long Island and Queens and first gained local recognition in the New York City metro area with the R&B-influenced Vagrants, who cut a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” that failed to chart nationally but later found new life due to its appearance on the influential garage-rock compilation album Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968.

This music journalist asked West how the recording came about. “We went up to Atco, Atlantic Records, in [New York City], with my manager at the time,” he said. “We rented the studio and while we were fooling around, Tom Dowd, the famous producer, walked in and heard us. He said to my manager, ‘What label are you guys on?’ My manager said, ‘We’re not on a label,’ and he said, ‘What’s the matter with Atco?’ We turned around and said, ‘Nothing.’ So, he signed us.

“Then when I recorded ‘Respect,’ one day I go up to Atlantic. I get out of the elevator—I was going to pick up copies of the single. Right in front of me is Otis Redding. I started shitting a brick. There he is in a sharkskin suit and I said, ‘Mr. Redding, this is my group’s single, ‘Respect.’ He looked at it and he signed it, ‘To Leslie with respect.’”

In the early summer of 1969, West released his debut solo album, simply titled Mountain, recorded with Vagrants (and Cream) producer Felix Pappalardi on bass, drummer N.D. Smart and an organist on three tracks.

Leslie West in a publicity photo taken only a few years prior to his passing

West, Pappalardi and Smart subsequently formed the band Mountain—with Steve Knight on keyboards—and immediately managed to land a gig at the Woodstock festival before most of the audience knew who they were.

“It was only our third or fourth show,” West told this journalist. “I don’t know if they got what we were doing because to tell you the truth I was so nervous. You could see maybe 40 rows in front of you. We got to go on at a great time because Jimi Hendrix’s agent was our agent. Jimi was like the unofficial headliner of Woodstock. So, he must have said, ‘If you want Hendrix, you have to take this other group, Mountain.’ They paid us $5,000 and we did get paid.”

Following the high-profile gig, Smart was replaced by drummer Corky Laing and the band released a series of albums that served as prototypes for the emerging heavy metal sound. Their 1970 debut album as an official group, Climbing!, established them as a rising-star act and vaulted to #17 on the Billboard chart. The album included such classic rock staples-to-be as the scorching “Never in My Life,” the midtempo “Theme for an Imaginary Western” (co-written by Cream’s Jack Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown), and “For Yasgur’s Farm,” a tribute to Woodstock.

Listen to Mountain perform their song “Long Red” at Woodstock

But it was the album’s opening track, “Mississippi Queen,” the blasting, cowbell-powered anthem, that emerged as the highlight of the album and became Mountain’s signature number. It reached #21 in the spring of 1970 and remained the group’s biggest hit single.

West was asked how the song came about. “Corky Laing had this lyric and he came to my apartment in Manhattan. He says, ‘Look, I have this lyric, ‘Mississippi Queen.’ He said when he was in Nantucket and playing this bar and the power went out, he was just playing the drums and shouting the words ‘Mississippi Queen, do you know what I mean?’ He’s watching this girl dance—this is what he says. So, I started fooling around with the guitar in the apartment and I came up with this riff and it’s three chords. We went really quickly into the studio and Felix told him to count it off and he counted it off with a cowbell. We left it in there.”

Related: Rockers pay tribute to West

Mountain’s sophomore album, 1971’s Nantucket Sleighride, bested the debut by one point, hitting #16, but produced no hit singles. It was followed by Flowers of Evil (also 1971), and the 1972 release Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On, culled from tracks recorded between 1969 and ’72. By the time of its release, the band had already split.

West spent the rest of 1972 in a trio with Bruce and Laing—appropriately called West, Bruce and Laing—which stayed together into 1974 and released three albums, but West had also reunited with Pappalardi to form a new lineup of Mountain beginning in August 1973. With Allan Schwartzberg now on drums and Bob Mann on keyboards and guitar, the new Mountain toured Japan and released another live album, titled Twin Peaks, which failed to rise above #142 on the charts. Laing returned for the followup, 1974’s Avalanche, which also featured David Perry on second guitar, but the band broke up at the end of that year.

Leslie West (r.) with Felix Pappalardi in Mountain

In 1981 West and Laing would reboot Mountain again, with Miller Anderson on bass, but it was short-lived. (Meanwhile, Pappalardi’s life came to a tragic end in 1983 when he was shot to death by his wife, Gail.)

Although there would be other attempts to re-form Mountain, West primarily maintained a solo career into the current century. He released numerous albums, and—always wielding his axe of choice, a Les Paul Jr.—performed live in a number of configurations, steadily gaining recognition as a pioneer of heavy rock guitar.

Related: Which Woodstock performers are still with us, and what are they doing now?

In 2011, however, West had his lower right leg amputated as the result of worsening diabetes. Undeterred, he continued to perform until late in his life, playing guitar from a seated position onstage.

Listen to Mountain’s “Theme for an Imaginary Western”

Related: Musicians we lost in 2020

Bonus Video: Watch Leslie West and Peter Frampton duel it out on “Mississippi Queen” in 2013

Related: Listings for 100s of classic rock tours

Another Bonus Video: Listen to West perform on lead guitar with The Who in the Record Plant recording studio in New York in 1971

Related: Read the first half of our interview with Leslie West here, and part two here

Jeff Tamarkin

19 Comments so far

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  1. Jake
    #1 Jake 23 December, 2020, 20:10

    I own a copy of Nugguts Psychedelic Album It could be one of the Greatest albums ever!
    Mountain is an amazing Band
    He will be missed!

    Reply this comment
  2. Bob
    #2 Bob 23 December, 2020, 20:22

    Mississippi Queen was probably the most copied song by garage bands this world over

    Reply this comment
  3. Samuel Wyatt
    #3 Samuel Wyatt 23 December, 2020, 21:25

    I saw Mountain and Jethro Tull 1970 at Red Rocks needless to say we indulged in some mind altering drugs we were 8 rows from the stage great concert will always hold a special place for me Leslie West could sure play that guitar

    Reply this comment
    • melf
      melf 24 December, 2020, 01:17

      That is a great combination of musicians! Saw both also but not double billed. Saw West at a smaller venue in NJ and it reverberated the floor. He will be missed.

      Reply this comment
  4. Papajack
    #4 Papajack 23 December, 2020, 22:14

    Leslie was a force of nature. He was a one and only all to himself. This voice sprang from inside him…unique!! R.I.P

    Reply this comment
  5. Entubari
    #5 Entubari 23 December, 2020, 22:40

    RIP Leslie. There’s only one Great Fatsby!

    Reply this comment
  6. Stevo
    #6 Stevo 24 December, 2020, 04:31

    I was lucky to see West play a solo gig at a little casual rock bar called Sneakers Austin Texas. Great show. I loved that bar.

    Reply this comment
  7. Da Mick
    #7 Da Mick 24 December, 2020, 07:52

    That tone, that tone….. Having one of the greatest guitar tones of all time would have been enough to give Leslie a place with the Rock immortals, but then he had that incredible voice too. Probably one of the greatest, and most underrated rock voices ever.

    Reply this comment
    • Jambaya
      Jambaya 25 December, 2020, 16:17

      Mountain was really cool. Rolling Stone had a picture of a young, well endowed woman “streaking” across the stage which showed Felix’s tongue hanging out while Leslie remained focused on the guitar.

      Reply this comment
  8. Hemingway
    #8 Hemingway 24 December, 2020, 09:35

    Don’t forget the band ‘West, Bruce and Lainge’ formed after Mountain. Check out “Why Dontcha”. Classic Leslie!

    Reply this comment
  9. Woody
    #9 Woody 24 December, 2020, 09:56

    I was stationed in England in the 70s, and we went to the Rainbow in London. We had tickets to see West Bruce and Laing. As it happened, my sister was visiting, and this was her first concert. They put on a helluva show! Loud as f***! Jack Bruce was drinking out of a wine bottle, and when it was gone, he threw it out into the crowd! They were awesome.

    Reply this comment
  10. Spider
    #10 Spider 25 December, 2020, 00:12

    Humble Pie was one of my favorite 70’s kick-ass , hard rockin’ bands . Our band had an open night on this evening that Humble Pie was playing the Philadelphia Spectrum (through the fog of time I’m guessing this was in about 1971 or 1972) . Tickets for this concert were about $5 . The line-up was Black Sabbath opening (may have been their Phila. debut) then the great Leslie West & Mountain with Humble Pie headlining . That was my first time seeing Leslie play live and I immediately became a lifelong fan . Mountain just killed then The Pie did their usual ass-kickin’ , nobody sitting set . What a great freakin’ show .
    Yo Leslie , rest in rockin’ peace bro .

    Reply this comment
  11. Paddy
    #11 Paddy 25 December, 2020, 00:19

    Saw Mountain and Procol Harum together in El Paso Tx in 1970 or ‘71. Still one of the best concerts I’ve ever experienced even after all these years. Leslie West was a truly dynamic musician and true legend. Funny too! Miss him already…

    Reply this comment
  12. Tom H.
    #12 Tom H. 25 December, 2020, 02:32

    Saw Leslie and Mountain @ The Long Beach Arena in around ’71 with a bunch of my friends. I’ll never forget the huge stacks of Marshalls he had on-stage that night. And when the band hit the encore, “Mississippi Queen,” those riffs blew the roof off! Leslie was a true “player.”. Loved what he brought to the guitar. RIP

    Reply this comment
  13. Jay Ess
    #13 Jay Ess 25 December, 2020, 08:37

    My older sister had the album with Nantucket Sleighride live on it. I played the song a lot, loved the bass playing on it.

    Reply this comment
  14. Kathie
    #14 Kathie 26 December, 2020, 10:28

    Dear Leslie, you and your music will be missed. Rest in peace. Kathie and brother, Phil

    Reply this comment
  15. Baybluesman
    #15 Baybluesman 26 December, 2021, 23:22

    Mountain was my coming of age rock band In 1971.
    I played the “Flowers of Evil” and “Nantucket Sleighride'” LPs so much, it seems as though I knew every guitar chord, bass line, organ run, and drum beat on those albums.
    I even recorded the LPs onto 8-tracks in order that I could play them mobily.
    Our high school concert faculty member (I was on the homecoming concert committee) who was also the Spanish teacher, was so entertained by my lobbying to get them to play at that concert, that he called me, from thereafter, Senor Montana (pronounced Montanya)
    Great times for music.

    R. I. P. Leslie, as The Road Goes Ever On……

    Reply this comment

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