Leslie West: The Show Must Go On
These days, when someone asks Leslie West, “How are you doing?” it’s not just a casual greeting—they’re really asking how he’s doing. On June 18, the 65-year-old West—now and forever immortalized as the guitarist, singer and chief songwriter powering one of early hard rock’s great bands, Mountain—was on a plane to Mississippi for a gig when his right leg began to swell. Rushed to a Biloxi hospital upon landing, West, who is diabetic, underwent the amputation of his leg up to the knee when doctors determined that the limb could not be saved.
Most of us would be devastated by such a turn of events but just a month after the surgery, West was cordial and joking. He’d readily accepted the drastic change that this would mean for his lifestyle and was already planning to get back on the road, albeit with a new electric wheelchair. “It doesn’t have wheels on the side like a normal wheelchair. It’s like an all-terrain vehicle,” he says. “This thing can rock.”
So can Leslie West—still. And if anyone needs confirmation of that, listening to his new album, Unusual Suspects, should do the trick. Completed before the amputation but released afterward, the album matches West with five guest axe monsters: Slash, Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
West and the album’s producer, an old friend named Joseph Pizza wrote several of the new tracks. One, “Mud Flap Momma,” is co-credited to West and his wife Jennifer, whom he married onstage two years ago at Bethel Woods, the venue that now stands on the site of the Woodstock festival, where Mountain played its fourth-ever gig. “Third Degree,” the track featuring Bonamassa, is a blues co-written by Eddie Boyd and Willie Dixon. Bonamassa loved the version of the song that West had cut in 1972 with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce and Mountain drummer Corky Laing in their short-lived trio, and West was happy to revisit the tune. The album also has covers of The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and Willie Nelson’s “The Party’s Over.”
But perhaps the standout is a song that Pizza first began writing for West three decades ago. It’s called “Legend,” and what’s notable about it is that the humble, if still-imposing singer refuses to take on that designation, insisting that fans not call him a legend, that he “just came here to play.”
That pretty much sums up the attitude that the former Leslie Weinstein has projected since he first emerged in the late ‘60s as the leader of the popular Long Island-based blue-eyed-soul/garage combo The Vagrants. With a signature weighty guitar tone matched only by his girth at the time, West became—by the start of the ‘70s—one of the first heroes of heavy rock. He’s slimmed down considerably since those days, but his playing, as ever, is all muscle.
The Vagrants’ claim to semi-fame was their cover—on the Atlantic Records’ Atco subsidiary—of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Their recording predated (but was quickly buried by) Aretha Franklin’s version thought it later found love as part of the iconic, influential Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era compilation.
West remembers his random encounter with the song’s author. “One day I go up to Atlantic and 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 start shitting a brick. There he is in a sharkskin suit. I said, ‘Mr. Redding, this is my group’s single, “Respect.”’ He looked at it and he signed it, ‘To Leslie with respect.’ I wish I still had it.”
Although The Vagrants didn’t last much longer, one positive association came out of the group’s run: While at Atlantic, West made the acquaintance of producer/musician/songwriter Felix Pappalardi, whose credits included producing the monumental Cream album Disraeli Gears. After a few non-starters in the studio with The Vagrants, Pappalardi and West set about trying to create music together after the group ultimately disbanded.
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