Leslie West, best known as the guitarist and co-vocalist of legendary Long Island, New York, hard rock pioneers Mountain, has died at the age of 75.
West suffered cardiac arrest at his home near Daytona, Florida, on December 21, and never regained consciousness.
West‘s brother, Larry West Weinstein, prefaced the news in a now-deleted Facebook post on Monday (December 21), which read: “I am asking for all your prayers. [Leslie’s wife] 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. His heart gave out and he’s on a ventilator. May not make it through the night.”
Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler was among the first rock stars to pay tribute to the influential guitarist, hailing West’s riff on Mountain’s hard rock standard Mississippi Queen, as “one of, if not the greatest, riff of all time.”
Joe Bonamassa also saluted West on social media: “Leslie West was a rock and roll hall of fame member that didn’t need a statue nor ceremony to prove it,” the blues guitarist wrote. “He just was and will always be.”
In 2011, Eddie Van Halen told Rolling Stone magazine that West was a guitarist he greatly admired. “Leslie West has this incredible tone in Mountain,” Van Halen said.
Born Leslie Weinstein on October 22, 1945, West began his musical career with Long Island rock ’n’ soul band The Vagrants, but was best known for his work with Mountain, the band he founded with bassist/vocalist Felix Pappalardi, who helped pioneer a heavy, sludgy, blues-based sound that would serve as a template for heavy metal. Having previously worked as a jeweller in New York, playing loud, distorted electric guitar was a more natural fit for the larger-than-life, gregarious West.
“Apart from maybe baseball, it was the only thing I could do well,” he once admitted to Classic Rock’s Dave Ling. “All my friends were skilled at three or four things, so my options were pretty limited. During my lunch-hour I’d walk to 48th Street and gaze at all the guitars in the stores; one day I guess I took too long and my boss told me not to bother coming back.”
“Felix Pappalardi used to say to me, ‘Thank God you can play the guitar, because I don’t see you doing anything else’.”
Mountain’s 1970 debut album, Climbing!, is acknowledged as one of the great cornerstones of American hard rock. Produced by Pappalardi, the album peaked at number 17 on the Billboard 200 album chart and featured the band's best-loved song, Mississippi Queen, which reached number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Instantly recognisable due to its iconic cowbell intro, the song, co-written by West, Pappalardi, drummer Corky Laing and lyricist David Rea, was later covered by Ozzy Osbourne and W.A.S.P. among others.
In the UK, however, Mountain’s best known song is arguably Nantucket Sleighride, the title track of their second album, which was used as the theme music to ITV current affairs programme, Weekend World. Written by Pappalardi and his girlfriend (later wife) Gail Collins, it’s a fictional account of a true episode involving 19th-century whaling ship The Essex, which left Nantucket on an ill-starred hunt that ended in cannibalism. For Mountain fans, the song is forever associated with tragedy, after Collins shot and killed Pappalardi in April 1983.
After Pappalardi left Mountain to concentrate on his production work, West and Laing recorded two studio albums - 1972’s Why Dontcha and 1973’s Whatever Turns You On - with Cream bassist Jack Bruce as West, Bruce and Laing.
A long-term sufferer from type 2 diabetes, West was plagued by health problems in the final decade of his life. In June 2011, the guitarist was on a 10-hour flight to Mississippi when his right leg began to burn, swell and turn blue. He lost consciousness, and on touchdown, his wife Jenni was given an ultimatum: sign off the amputation of his right leg at the knee, or let him die.
“They put me in a coma for four days,” West told writer Henry Yates. “I had a blood clot, they were trying to bust it up, and my blood got so thin that I was gonna die. So they woke me up. I was so out of it. And Jenni says to me, ‘Listen, I have to tell you something: if they don’t amputate your leg, you’re gonna lose your life’. So I said to her, ‘Ah, do whatever you have to do.’”
“I hadn’t been to a hospital my whole life, except when I had my tonsils out when I was two,” he noted. “All of a sudden, I’m a cancer survivor, I’ve lost a leg. It’s like a car. When a car gets 50,000 miles on it, things start to go. Y’know, everyone gets knocked down in life. It’s how you get up.”
Sad to hear of Leslie West’s passing. Such a lovely bloke. He was fantastic to us when Sabbath supported Mountain on our first US tour. He came to see us at Mohegan Sun, even though he was wheelchair bound. Mississippi Queen one of, if not the, greatest riff of all time. RIP pic.twitter.com/DZ3FLWeGpQDecember 23, 2020
With a heavy heart, we are saddened hear about the passing of #Dean Artist and part of the Dean family, Leslie West. Legendary and one of a kind. Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/sGmk4pF011December 23, 2020
Rest In Peace friend. Thank you for allowing me in your world. Leslie West was a rock and roll hall of fame member that didn’t need a statue nor ceremony to prove it. He just was and will always be. pic.twitter.com/PrMuxWnfXqDecember 23, 2020
R.I.P. Leslie West. We had some great times together onstage and some legendary laughs everyday on tour. Thank you for all the great music. My deepest condolences to the West family. @lwestmountain pic.twitter.com/7zDljGMRk1December 23, 2020
Leslie West was the very first US guitar player I met when Humble Pie opened for Mountain here. Leslie’s playing and sound had me glued watching everything he did. He was a sweetheart and an extremely funny man. I love you Leslie and will miss you dear friend. RIP @lwestmountainDecember 23, 2020
So very sad.Leslie’s tone could stop a rhino in a full charge. Mountain sound was massive. Leslie was a warm and lovely guy. Sad. https://t.co/uuzPBiJDghDecember 23, 2020
Rest In Peace #LeslieWest. His guitar tone on “Mississippi Queen” is hands down the BADDEST guitar tone on record. pic.twitter.com/JYSt8MDjv6December 24, 2020
Leslie West playing that Les Paul Jr with that tone and tenacity really moved me. Blessing to his friends, fans and family. #LeslieWestDecember 24, 2020
Rest in Power #LeslieWest! I love his playing, singing and writing. A big influence on so many musicians, including myself. Leslie had THE SOUND in his hands. Was so cool to hang out with him at a NAMM dinner in ‘09, what a great friendly guy and phenomenal musician. R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/WsV25hmnB9December 23, 2020