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Leslie West, Mountain guitarist, dead at 75

Leslie West
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

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.”

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