In Memoriam: Leslie West (1945 – 2020)


Leslie West, an iconic guitarist-vocalist who was behind several ’70s rock anthems including “Mississippi Queen” with the popular band Mountain, has died. He was 75.

West was born in New York City to Jewish parents, but grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, and in East Meadow, New York, Forest Hills, New York, and Lawrence, New York. After his parents divorced, he changed his surname to West. His musical career began with the Vagrants, an R&B/blue-eyed soul-rock band influenced by the likes of the Rascals that was one of the few teenage garage rock acts to come out of the New York metropolitan area itself (as opposed to the Bohemian Greenwich Village scene of artists, poets, and affiliates of the Beat Generation, which produced bands like The Fugs and The Velvet Underground). The Vagrants had two minor hits in the Eastern United States; 1966’s “I Can’t Make a Friend” and a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” the following year.

Some of the Vagrants’ recordings were produced by Felix Pappalardi, who was also working with Cream on their album Disraeli Gears. In 1969, West and Pappalardi formed the pioneering hard rock act Mountain, which was also the title of West’s debut solo album. Rolling Stone identified the band as a “louder version of Cream”.[4] With Steve Knight on keyboards and original drummer N. D. Smart, the band appeared on the second day of the Woodstock Festival on Saturday, August 16, 1969 starting an 11-song set at 9 pm.

The band’s original incarnation saw West and Pappalardi sharing vocal duties and playing guitar and bass, respectively. New drummer Corky Laing joined the band shortly after Woodstock. They had success with “Mississippi Queen”, which reached No. 21 on the Billboard charts and No. 4 in Canada. It was followed by “Theme For an Imaginary Western”, written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Mountain is one of the bands considered to be forerunners of heavy metal.

After Pappalardi left Mountain to concentrate on various production projects, West and Laing produced two studio albums and a live release with Jack Bruce under the name West, Bruce and Laing. West, along with keyboard player Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears, recorded with The Who during the March 1971 Who’s Next New York sessions. Tracks included a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” and early versions of “Love Ain’t For Keepin'” and The Who’s signature track “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Though the tracks were not originally included on the album (recording restarted in England a few months later without West or Kooper), they appear as bonus tracks on the 1995 and 2003 reissues of Who’s Next and on the 1998 reissue of Odds & Sods.

West suffered a heart attack in his home near Daytona, Florida on December 20, 2020 and was rushed to a hospital in nearby Palm Coast where he never regained consciousness. After being contacted by Rolling Stone, West’s brother Larry West confirmed that Leslie West had died. A report by Variety based on social media posts made by Larry West states that Leslie West died on Tuesday, December 22, 2020.