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Profile: Leslie West

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Leslie West in 1973

Leslie West in 1973

Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Imnages

You can take the boy out of the city, but ...?:

Leslie West was born in New York City in 1945, but he spent most of his early years in nearby Hackensack, New Jersey, and a succession of small burgs in Queens and Long Island, New York. His first professional gig was with a Long Island-based group known as The Vagrants, who played garage rock and recorded a few singles that were popular in the New York City area.

In 1969, West recorded his first solo album. Its title was his nickname, Mountain, but it would be another year before the band named Mountain (founded by West and the late Felix Pappalardi, bass guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer of Cream's 1967 album, Disraeli Gears) would release their debut album.

Mountain had yet to release their first album, and had performed in public just three times before they took the stage at the 1969 Woodstock festival. The crowd was thrilled with their performance, but it was not included either in the 1970 film, Woodstock or on the first release of the accompanying album. So the band didn't benefit from the recognition boost for artists whose performances were seen and heard on the film and album.

Mountain's debut album, Climbing! was released seven months after Woodstock, in March 1970, and even without benefit of the national post-Woodstock exposure, reached the Top 20 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album included "Mississippi Queen" -- the song that would become their best known, and most often covered by other artists. There was also an ode to Woodstock in the form of "For Yasgur's Farm" (in honor of the name of the festival's location near Bethel, New York.)
This 1970 performance of "Mississippi Queen" shows why it has always been a concert crowd favorite.

Success continued with their second release, Nantucket Sleighride in 1971, another Top 20 (#16) seller. Hoping to continue to ride the wave, their album, Flowers of Evil was also released in 1971, a partly-live, partly-studio recording. It peaked at #35. Within a year, the band split up. Although they would reform several times and release five more studio albums, they were never able to repeat the success of those first three albums.

Mountain slides, West soldiers on

The end (albeit temporary) of Mountain was by no means the end of Leslie West. In the years that followed, he recorded two studio releases and a live album with former Mountain drummer Corky Laing and former Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. West, Bruce and Laing split after a couple of years of inner turmoil fueled by the band's heavy drug use, one of the problems that had also led to Mountain's breakup.
Listen to West, Bruce & Laing's "Backfire"

Beginning with his first pre-Mountain release in 1969 and continuing to the present day, West's solo catalog includes 15 studio and live albums. He has always been known as something of as musician's musician, and his early solo albums reflected that with guest appearances by The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger on 1975's The Great Fatsby, Foreigner's Mick Jones on The Leslie West Band in 1976, and Jack Bruce (ex-Cream) on Theme in 1988.

Good times, bad times

Such was the significance of Woodstock in his life, West chose the 40th anniversary of the festival in 2009 to marry his fiance, Jenni Maurer on stage after a performance at the site of the festival, before 15,000 witnesses.

Just two years later, West learned that complications from diabetes would require that his right leg be amputated below the knee. His 2011 album, Unusual Suspects was finished and ready to be released in September, but at that point, West said later, he thought his days performing live might well be over. Barely four months after the surgery, he was on stage performing again, and fulfilled a 20-city tour commitment.

In the pre-release publicity for West's 2013 release, Still Climbing, West said, "It was a difficult struggle, and after the amputation I didn’t know whether I’d ever want to or be able to perform again. A month later I played at the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp in New York City, and I heard my guitar on stage and that was it. I knew I had to keep going.”
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