On October 22, 1945, Leslie Weinstein burst forth into the world as big, bold, bouncing baby boy who’d grow up (and out!) to change his name to Leslie West and revolutionize hard-rock guitar
West first initially won fame and an army of awestruck admirers by way of his favorite Gibson Les Paul Jrs. and Sunn amps as the front-beast of mighty proto-metal power trio Mountain. Leslie followed Mountain’s legendary run with blisteringly brilliant career as both a solo artist and absolutely combustive collaborator that continues, smashingly, today.
As mammoth as Leslie’s guitar sound has always been, his own super-sized physique seemed perfectly in keeping his tremendous musical talent. West has always joked his weight (notably, on the radio with long-time buddy Howard Stern).
For exampled, just in case anybody didn’t pick up on the good-natured, self-deprecating humor inherent in the band name Mountain (although it also matched their majesty and power), Leslie titled his 1975 solo classic after his own nickname: The Great Fatsby.
Let’s celebrate the larger (and louder) than life Leslie West now with a countdown of his most mountain-proportioned guitar moments.
“Dreams of Milk and Honey” – Leslie West (1969)
In a move that remains amusingly confusing, Leslie West released a 1969 solo album prior to Mountain’s official 1970 debut. The name of the album: Mountain. Playing bass on the album: Feliz Pappalardi, the thunder commander with whom he’d go on to form the band… Mountain.
Anyway, Leslie’s Mountain record is a tantalizing harbinger of heaviness to come and Mountain—the band—would perform its songs live throughout their career. Among West’s standout shred showcases on his maiden offer is the scorcher, “Dreams of Milk and Honey.”
The song, like the rest of the Mountain LP, made it clear that a new guitar monster had stormed the scene and there would be absolutely no way to not notice him.
“Why Dontcha” – West, Bruce, and Laing (1972)
After Mountain crumbled in ’72, Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing essentially traded out bassist Felix Pappalardi for Cream’s Jack Bruce, and hammered onward as a new power trio simply monikered, West, Bruce, and Laing.
WBL issued a pair of rock solid studio LPs, Why Dontcha (1972) and Whatever Turns You On (1973), along with the concert document Live ‘n’ Kickin’ (1974).
Each record delivers its pleasures (and you should definitely check out the cover of the second one, wherein the cartoon band members indulging their signature “turn-ons”), but the keeper is the debut. The title track, “Why Dontcha,” answers its own question with West blasting blues-rock fire over Bruce and Laing’s slamming undercurrent of giant rhythms.
“Never in My Life” – Mountain (1970)
When Leslie West unleashes a love song, you can be sure it impacts with (way) oversized wrecking ball force. “Never in My Life” is the big man’s electrifying declaration of passion for the special lady who makes him feel “like a bolt of lightning” by night and then supplies him with “the cider whiskey” come morning.
Leslie’s guitar rages on “Never in My Life” like a sky-high inferno, flaming as high and hard as the heart can pound, and hurling orange-hot cinders in every direction. By the end, the sound alone makes clear that Leslie West loves and/or lusts on scale that befits his abundance. He makes it official, as well, with the parting lyrics: “When I turned around to wake her/About the way she moves/I don’t want to leave her/but I want to love you too!”
In a bit of horrible irony, Gail Collins Pappalardi, then-wife of Felix, co-authored “Never in My Life.” In 1983, Gail fatally shot Felix in the neck, and ultimately did a year or so in jail for criminally negligent homicide. In 2014, Gail died in Mexico under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
“Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)” – Mountain (1971)
In the annals of nautical tragedy rock anthems, Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)” chums the choppy waters that separate Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The Owen Coffin of the title was a real-life 18-year-old sailor whose ship, the Essex, was rammed and sunk by the angry sperm whale the crew had been hunting. After months at sea on lifeboats, the shipmen turned to cannibalizing their dead. When the bodies ran out, they held a lottery to select a living sacrifice to shoot and eat next. Owen Coffin drew the short straw, and accepted his fate bravely.
The lyrics of “Nantucket Sleighride” speak from Owen’s point of view before the Essex went down. Leslie West’s guitar movingly communicates the teenage adventurer’s naiveté while also conjuring the unforgiving breakers and endless depths of the ocean, inflected with storm clouds of impending doom.
“Theme for an Imaginary Western” – Mountain (1970)
Co-written by Jack Bruce and inspired by Cream embarking on tour, “Theme for an Imaginary Western” initially appeared on the bass lord’s 1969 solo LP, Songs for a Tailor. It is a thing of beauty.
Remarkably, Mountain’s version manages to imbue even greater emotion into this epic, sprawling, heartfelt ballad in tribute to an intrepid band of travelers heading out into the great unknown.
“Theme” seems completely dominated by Felix Pappalardi’s earnest vocals and Steve Knight’s expansive keyboards right up until Leslie West takes his solo. Then there’s no question who’s king of this bold new frontier.
“House of the Rising Sun” – Leslie West (1975)
“House of the Rising Sun,” Leslie West’s cover of the possibly ancient folk chestnut (popularized in 1964 by the Animals) about a whorehouse of the damned, brings gothic spookery and ethereally looming doom to his otherwise overwhelmingly rump-stomping solo debut, The Great Fatsby.
West’s intricate fretwork transitions “House” from its foreboding organ into a spellbinding tale with only one possible ending (and it ain’t happy). He matches the guitar with some of the most honest and affecting vocals of his career, dueting with Italian songbird Dana Valery and guiding the other players toward the song’s cliff. From there, Leslie plummets over into darkness, and his eerie, spindly, web-weaving solo takes us down with him.
“Mississippi Queen” – Mountain (1970)
In guitar rock—especially heavy-blues, proto-metal, rampaging guitar rock—the riff is the thing. Few anthems in that particular earthquaking, soul-pumping, boundary-shattering musical subgenre, of course, boast a riff (or, really, anything else) that comes close to the cosmic bulldozer devastation and rocket-launch upshot of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.”
West’s opening blast—again, that riff—is pure rock eruption. After that comes the lava: a scorching lead driven by all-consuming molten licks that Leslie doesn’t seem to simply play so much as he just pours forth from himself through his Les Paul Jr. and out of his stacked-high Sunn amplifiers. These sounds scorch their way in our collective consciousness and hurl our collective humanity upward and onward by wordlessly commanding: “Boogie!”
“Mississippi Queen” is Leslie West’s signature anthem because it presents a table of contents for what this brilliant axe-master could do. It’s also an instruction manual for every generation of guitarists that has followed. And like the song says, “You know what I mean!”