By Cliff Rhys James
Like the siren cracked wide open on a fire truck racing toward the inferno – you hear it long before you see it. So it is with Leslie West, aka the King of Tone where the big sound precedes the big man. I’ve seen him introduced at concerts and right after the MC says something like, “And now ladies and gentlemen, a big man with a big guitar sound — Mr. Leslie West.” – Right after that is when it happens. Long before he emerges from the wings of the stage it smashes into you with devastating effect; a
And so you experience an intense euphoric rush as bio- chemical neuro transmitters flood the zone that is your conscious mind causing synapses to fire wildly out of order triggering altered states of perception. You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. You’re on a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop – the twilight zone. But we MUST proceed with extreme caution because this is also the danger zone in the land of powerful forces free-wheeling in all directions where Leslie’s right hand pick attack ignites fully saturated electro-magnetic energy and sends it coursing through the guitar onto the pedal board, into and out of the amps and then yes – it goes straight through your head. That’s the goal you see – to alter your brain chemistry in ways that are perfectly legal but not well understood, and therefore potentially dangerous.
Then, after the first wave has crested and the force field has dissipated and you’re blinking like a storm survivor who’s had his molecules re-arranged you’re staggering back to your feet and gazing in open mouth astonishment at what unfolds on the stage. Then, yes even then, you shake your head once, twice and yet again trying to fathom how the ominous presence lurking in the shadows which you, me and everyone else thought was a colossal stack of Marshall Amps is, is –Dear God it’s moving! It’s bounding through the darkness and smoke like some mythical creature hell bent for glory, picking up speed headed straight for the spotlight –Good God – it’s ALIVE. It, he, whatever is at large and free among us, like a towering presence that seems to own the place. Dear Mary, mother of mercy, mother of grace… (At moments like this I often pray the Rosary and I’m not even Catholic)
This is no pale, skinny Englishman with stringy hair who looks like he needs a double cheeseburger almost as much as he needs a blood transfusion. No. This shaggy, hirsute, mountain of a man clad in a long coat / duster like some gunfighter straight out of Dodge City circa 1872 strides into the spotlight cradling a headless guitar the way most people hold a table spoon. Look at those mammoth hands and fingers. How does he do it? And then, just when you think it’s safe to exhale, when you’re checking yourself over for injuries, estimating property damage and puzzling all this out, damned if he doesn’t do it again – WHAM, like a Tsunami wave breaking over and submerging all that stands before it. But this time you actually see him do it; the aggressive drive, the sharp pick hand attack, the fret work, the way he bends those chords just two ticks short of the breaking point with that monster wang bar he abuses but loves so much; Okay, okay – Leslie West does own the place.
You know she was a dancer, she moved better on wine
While the rest of those dudes were gettin’ their kicks
Boy, I beg your pardon I was getting’ mine
I’ll tell you something else too. The multitudes of too hot to handle guitar slingers who’ve covered a certain blues rock staple entitled Red House Blues are legion. Across the years it’s been done many times by many artists and unsurprisingly I’ve long felt that the best version ever was summoned from the muse of Jimi Hendrix by Jimi Hendrix – that supernatural alien who rode a blazing comet through earth’s atmosphere only to burn out much too early from the heat of the fire. So now I’m gonna’ tell you the something else that I alluded to above – the something that’ll go straight through your head: Leslie West OWNS Red House Blues. That’s right, he owns this place, he owns Red House Blues, he owns that big tone. He didn’t rent it; he didn’t borrow it – he owns it. Can you say vibrato? Go ahead, say it. But then as soon as the word escapes your lips, bar the doors, shield the womenfolk, hide the children and hunker down because the Man – the Mountain – the Musician that is Leslie West is calling down the thunder and where he goes rock slides are sure to follow. (Which is another reason he remains uninsurable.) Roofs blowing off, buildings burning down, rock slides everywhere – see what I mean? Are you starting to see a pattern here? I’m good at pattern recognition and so I saw it many, many years ago. If you want me to be exact it was the summer of 1970 and the world was still aflame and burning bright in the afterglow of Woodstock.
Okay – here it is: the opening paragraph of this piece is my current take on a You Tube video that I’ve enjoyed watching off and on for years. From my perspective it sounds good, looks good and it’s funny because after Leslie West – The Man – The Mountain – The Musician hits us with that opening slam handled power chord bent so far that it enters a state of harmonic convergence, he looks at his guitar in mock confusion and then steps up to the mic, “What the hell is this?” he asks no one in particular and everyone in general. He looks again at the headless instrument as if shocked by what he doesn’t see. “They keep sending me out here with these headless guitars,” he says. “What the hell am I supposed to do?” Then, he follows that up with, “Myles, why the hell do I have to follow those guys?” At which point Leslie West – the Man – the Mountain – the Musician yanks a written note from his pocket and unfolds it. “I want to dedicate this song,” he says carefully reading from the page, “to the one man who influenced my guitar playing more than anyone else”—- A long dramatic pause —— “ Barry Manilow,” He shouts triumphantly. “Barry, if you’re in the audience please stand up and take a bow.” The crowd is stunned. Is this guy serious? Of course not. Leslie West is merely offering up some levity. It’s his way of adding some balance to a show that is about to unleash devastation and destruction with roofs blowing off and rocks slides coming down from all directions. Where Leslie West goes – these things follow. That’s the pattern I’m talking about.
Moments later Leslie West – the Man – the Mountain – the Musician really, finally, truly is serious as all hell, “I want to dedicate the next song to my brother Felix Pappalardi who’s up there somewhere,” he says looking up toward the heavens. And then ladies and gentlemen, what follows is without question the best, most soulful, hauntingly evocative version of “Theme for an Imaginary Western” I’ve ever heard and yes – it too goes straight through my head. Now what I just said there to you the reader is almost precisely what I said to Leslie West to open the interview, followed by:
GC: Which is why that’s one my all-time favorite videos.
LW: You know what, that’s very nice man. Thank you, I appreciate it. And now that you bring it up I remember the concert was called “The Night of the Guitars” and I of course meant the Barry Manilow thing as joke. But word must have flown around because sometime later I’m waiting for my table at a restaurant out in Malibu and I spot Barry Manilow seated near a window with Suzanne Somers and so I send a note over to the table, saying something like, “Leslie West says hello.” After which I get a note back saying, “Leslie who? I don’t know any Leslie West.”
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Then as my party is being seated and I’m walking past their table, Suzanne sees me and says, “Oh Barry, do you know Leslie West?” And Barry says, “Yeah, he’s a real dick.” It was all in fun.
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GC: Listen, you’ve been through a lot lately from the standpoint of your health. How are you feeling?
LW: Okay man. What can you do? I’m just glad I lost a leg and not an arm. That would have been lights out for a guitarist. If I lost my arm I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.
GC: Have those serious medical problems changed your life much?
LW: I think so. I can’t tour as much as I used to and my physical mobility is limited. It was really bad for a while but some great folks helped me get a special ramp accessible vehicle and now I get around much better. Mark Buoniconti, the paralyzed football player and son of the great Miami Dolphin has one like it made by the same folks. Anyway, with all the problems that people in wheelchairs have getting around, this really helps. Of course I really like working in the studio and more recently interpreting other people’s songs.
GC: Which brings me to your latest album Sound Check in which you take some classics and run them through the Leslie West Mountain Machine of re-imagination. For instance, let’s start with your version of “Going Down”; didn’t you pull that out of the archives from a decade or so ago when you were in the studio with Bobby Whitlock – of Derek and the Dominos fame?
LW: Yeah, we had some great people on there: Bonnie Bramlett of Delaney and Bonnie; Bobby Whitlock and Max Middleton who reprised his amazing keyboard intro from the famous version he did years ago with Jeff Beck. I play guitar for the first two and
GC: You also did one of my favorites of all time, the Curtis Mayfield great, People Get Ready. Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck covered it masterfully and I’ve heard you do that song before in several settings Your version is powerful so I’m glad it found its way onto this album.
LW: Yeah, I love that song too. The lyrics are so great and I don’t always get drawn in by lyrics but on this one I do.
GC: You’re fully and emotionally committed on this one and it shows.
LW: My wife has been writing some great stuff over the past years which I’ve been reading and in fact the opening song of this album: Left by the Roadside to Die, well I’m reading her lyrics and I’m thinking how it might have been easy for someone to just leave me by the roadside to die and the whole thing was getting to me and so the lyrics have really taken on added meaning. Before I used to just sing them. Now I feel them and they have a deep impact on me.
GC: On Sound Check you also do the Willie Dixon classic Spoonful and I swear your guitar work sounds just like Clapton. I mean I don’t know if you want to hear that or not, but I swear I heard distinct echoes of Clapton’s guitar from the Cream days.
LW: That wasn’t accidental, it was intentional.
GC: Your sound is so distinctive and individualistic that frankly I was shocked you could do something like that. I mean for a few moments there you stepped outside yourself to produce a sound from another source.
LW: Well, you know what, Jack Bruce died not too long ago and anyway I was once recording a version of Spoonful with Jack and my friend Joe Franco on drums in upstate NY. There was a club in Poughkeepsie and they asked us if we would drop by unannounced for a short gig. We said yeah, and word must have spread because when we showed up there must have been 500 people jammed into this place. Fortunately, it was recorded in stereo and I wanted to make sure that we saved it because it was apparent that Jack might not be around for much longer. The whole thing really got to him, me, it got to all of us.
GC: In addition to your years with Mountain and then as a solo performer, you also made a big splash with West, Bruce and Lang. Jack meant a lot to you didn’t he – both professionally and personally?
LW: Yeah, Mountain breaks up, Cream breaks up and next thing I know West Bruce and Lang is doing Madison Square Garden. I was thinking how lucky I’ve been to play with some really great bass players. But maybe from their perspective they weren’t lucky to be playing with me because think about it, I played with Jack Bruce and he died. Before that I played with Felix Pappalardi and he died. As many know, I also played with another excellent bass player named Randy Coven, who worked with people like Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai and others – and yep, he too died not long ago. So these people who work with me keep dying —————– Laughter ————– I’m only kidding. Back to your point, yes, Jack meant a lot to me.
GC: Well, since you’re on the subject, we also recently lost Steve Knight and Alvin Lee – another one of your fellow breakout guitarists from Woodstock.
LW: Ah yes, Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, they burned the place down. I was close to Alvin. In fact, he was also at the Night of the Guitar Concert and in that video you mentioned earlier.
GC: I know. I remember it well because at one point in the video when Alvin takes the lead you bound up to the on stage camera man urging him to move in close to catch Alvin’s flying finger fretboard work.
LW: You’re right. Man, you really did study that video.
GC: Hell yes, I meant it when I said it was one of my favorites. Was Woodstock really Mountain’s 4th gig together as a band?
LW: Yes, I think we had only played The Fillmore West, The Whiskey a Go-Go on Sunset and Winterland up in San Francisco before that. It just so happened that Jimi Hendrix’s agent Ron Terry was also our agent and he managed to book all of us at Woodstock. I think we had flown into New York from Chicago and like everyone else, found the roads totally clogged and impassible heading north. And so, we chartered a helicopter and flew in and I remember looking down at all the beautiful trees and green fields and then coming in over this vast opening and seeing, what was it, 400,000 plus people and being totally blown away by it all and thinking, whoa, what is this?
GC: You guys did something like ten or eleven songs didn’t you?
LW: We did a long set and I remember going on before the Grateful Dead around dusk on Saturday night when the weather was good and really nice with the lights just coming on. I also remember that I had two stacks of Sun Amps and Felix had his two stacks and when I did my first guitar solo a sound tech switched me into all of them at once and it nearly blew my off the stage. It was like I was standing in front of a storm and could feel the force of the air movement shoving me. Man, talk about a big sound. And then being backstage with all the bands was a real trip in more ways than one. But yeah, we were on the album and then they did a 40th anniversary album and I got a call from Jimi Hendrix’s old producer and he says, “hey man, you’re not going to believe this but we found some old tapes of you guys at Woodstock that were originally missed somehow.”
GC: Speaking of Woodstock, what did Felix Pappalardi mean to you?
LW: At first he was my hero. He was an amazingly gifted, classically trained musician who could do anything. Hell, not long before I ran into him he was in the Original Rag Quartet which opened shows for Dinah Shore in Vegas. We were the perfect pair because he knew it all and I hardly knew anything.
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He produced many albums including three for Cream and he also produced my first album with the Vagrants. I remember we were at Atco and when he first walked into the room I thought it was Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher. He was about the same size, had many of the same mannerisms and then when I heard him play it was like WOW. Felix really taught me a lot; what to do as well as what not to do. He used to say that a good solo was like a little ride you went on that brought you back home again within the song. He helped me to understand how to play lead guitar because he’d worked with Clapton and Cream and so how to enter those spaces and come back out again in ways that allow you to compliment the song and not cover up the vocals. He really encouraged me to go with the lyrical solos that stayed with you like a melody. But later he had all kinds of problems with his wife who of course famously ended up shooting and killing him. What a tragedy. But anyway, she recently died thank God.
GC: Speaking of that incident, I remember you once recounting a conversation you’d had with Felix when he was talking about buying her a hand gun for personal protection in which you said something like “Hey man, buy your girl a ring or a car if you want, but don’t ever buy her a gun.”
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LW: That’s right, “Felix,” I said, “for God’s sake buy her a Porsche, buy her a push up bra, buy her a diamond ring, buy her any damn thing you want, but don’t buy her a fucking gun.”
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GC: Is it true that you had a relative who wrote for the old Jackie Gleason TV Show and that he came up with the famous line, “Pow, right to the moon Alice,” with which Jackie would always threaten Alice in his honeymooner sketches?
LW: No, but you’re close. My great uncle Will, who was my grandmother’s brother, wrote for a TV show called the American Scene Magazine which was a Saturday night live show that incorporated all of Jackie’s characters; the Honeymooners, Joe the Bartender, everyone – and anyway not many people realize there were only 39 episodes and I watched them all. But once when I was around eight or nine years old my grandmother took me into NY to see the show and when we got there the MC announces that Jackie would be off for a while on vacation and that the evening’s guest host was Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. I think I started to cry but then the MC says, ‘ and tonight’s special guest performer is Elvis Presley.’ So there I was in the audience with Elvis performing and that’s when I knew I had to do something with guitars and music. Not too long after that, my grandmother bought me a Ukulele which is how I started.
GC: In my humble opinion, not enough people know the degree to which you and Mountain directly influenced so many famous musicians. I’m talking about giants of Rock like Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple; Pete Townsend of the Who, Martin Bare of Jethro Tull as well as many others.
LW: Yeah, Warren Haynes once told me that he formed Government Mule because of Mountain.
GC: Tell us about Pete Townsend and the Who and your involvement with their masterpiece: Who’s Next.
LW: In 1971 when the Who was in New York at the Record Plant for their first recording session for Who’s Next, they invited me in. I got to be friends with Pete and later gave him a Les Paul Junior with one pick up which he used on that album. Later, when I was in London working with the boys in the studio and this was around the time that everyone was talking about how to capture my big tone, me and Pete are both wailing away until he suddenly stops in the middle of a song and we’re all thinking, uh oh, what’s wrong. Then Pete looks at me and says, ‘but I want to be the loudest and have the biggest tone.’
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GC: Hilarious. That reminds me of two little boys who get into a pissing contest.
LW: That’s exactly what it was. But there was another funny incident in which the Who wanted me to play guitar with them on an album, but somehow got confused between Felix Cavalieri, who sang and played keyboard with the Young Rascals as well as with Joey Dee and the Star-lighters when they had the big hit, “Peppermint Twist” – and Felix Pappalardi, the record producer and bass player for Mountain. So my Felix ( Pappalardi ) shows up with me and I think they’re expecting him to sing until he says to the OX – John Entwistle, ‘ hey man, I’m the fucking bass player around here.’
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In fact, Pete Townsend would publicly comment more than once that he used three guitars on Who’s Next: The Les Paul Junior given to him by Leslie West, a Fender Strat given to him by Eric Clapton, and his original Gretsch Chet Adkins model. “They were all great instruments and I still have them to this day,” he’s said.
Then of course there’s the incontrovertible fact that none other than Jimi Hendrix himself was also a fan of Leslie’s playing. They first met at the Record Plant recording studios in NY when Mountain was recording Climbing in one studio while Hendrix was next door recording Band of Gypsys. “Felix told me Hendrix was next store and so with some coaxing I worked up the courage to go over and invited him to come by for a few minutes. When he showed up, I was into the middle of the lead guitar part of Never in my Life and when the song was over, he came up to me and said, ‘That’s a great riff man.’ Well, my head instantly swelled up and I started shaking like I’m having a seizure.
———————————————- Laughter —————————————
Sometime not too long after that I’m in some blues joint in NY late at night and in walks Jimi around closing time. This time, he strolls up to me and says, ‘hey man, you want to jam?’ Do I want
GC: What’s surprising, not to me, but to some is the number of guitarists from several generations who cite you as a major influence. You just mentioned Joe Satriani, who of course is one. Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads are others from that generation. But there is one from the older generation of 60s and 70s guitarists who mentioned you as an influence and this one surprised even me – John McLaughlin, the great jazz rock fusion guitarist who Jeff Beck thinks is the greatest guitarist alive.
LW: That’s because long ago after I had met Jack Bruce, he and McLaughlin were in the same band and planning to play some larger venues but Jack knew that John had never gotten deeply into equipment and guitar tone projection and so he asked me if I could help John out a bit – which I was happy to do. Believe me, I’m nowhere near the technical player that McLaughlin is, but this was a case where he needed some advice and pointers on how to sound big and still sound good in a larger venue.
Mississippi Queen and Mountains in between
Leslie doesn’t mention them in our conversation but at least two other famous examples of the “Leslie West Effect” are worth noting and so I’ll tee them up here: Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and one of the original giants that ushered in the hard rock / heavy metal sound has publicly stated it was Leslie’s phenomenal playing on Mississippi Queen which hit him like a bolt of lightning causing the band to change directions and reshape the sound of their album Deep Purple In Rock. “I’d always really loved Leslie’s playing,” says Blackmore. “I remember being in some place in Germany with Ian (drummer Ian Paice) having a few drinks. In those days you could go to a club and listen to new records that had just come out in their entirety. Paice and I heard Mississippi Queen and we both went white! We were thinking, ‘Who the hell is that?’ It had such a big sound for three guys and was incredibly heavy. And Leslie’s vibrato is of course just great. And so hearing Mountain directly influenced our direction with the end result being the harder rock sound of Deep Purple In Rock.”
And then there’s the case of Martin Barre of Jethro Tull. “Meeting and listening to Leslie in 1970 really served to inspire the writing and playing on Aqualung,” Martin has said. It would go on to be the most successful album in the band’s fabled history. “I absolutely loved Leslie’s playing,” he continues, “he was well known for his association with Les Paul Juniors and so after meeting him I picked up a 1958 Junior because his sound was so incredible. I would have to say he’s the only guitarist who ever directly influenced me, and that influence was big.”
GC: Okay, so how do you generate the legendary Leslie West tone? Is it the P-90 pick-ups combined with Sun Amps or what?
LW: Well now on my new albums I have my own pick-ups. But Larry DiMarzio once told me he thought much of my tone came from my right hand action and the angle of attack I use with pick against the strings. My own pick-ups are humbuckers that sound a bit like the P-90s but remember the P-90 was not a humbucker. You can play it very softly or dial it up and go big.
GC: But go back to the beginning. How was this mammoth sound created?
LW: We’re getting ready for our first Mountain concert at the Fillmore West and I receive this box with a Sun Colosseum PA Head. What the hell am I going to do with this, I’m thinking. But I had no choice. It had four mic inputs and one master and so I plug into the mic input and presto – the first amp with a pre-amp. It had a gain and master volume and we overdrove the hell out of it. Unbelievable. That was the secret to the sound. I used it for all the early stuff and loved it for solos but it was kind of muddy for chords and so I later changed and went to Marshalls and now I have my own amps.
GC: So over the years the equipment set up has changed but the big tone remains all Leslie West. What are some of your more recent highlights or thrills from the business?
LW: I was recently playing at BB King’s club in NY and I hear that Paul Allen plans to attend the show. (For those gentle readers unfamiliar with the name, Paul Allen, along with Bill Gates, was one of the original founders of Micro Soft. He also happens to be a huge rock n roll fan who collects guitars and is the man responsible for the Jimi Hendrix Museum in Seattle.) So when the lights are turned down he comes in between songs surrounded by four body guards. He also has this beautiful woman on his arm. Later as we’re closing the show with a Willie Nelson song but before the lights come back up I see them leaving with the body guards. Then after the show as I head back into my dressing room, there he is with the same beautiful woman and we had a nice visit during which I asked him if it was true that he was the one who convinced Gates to drop out of Harvard in order to start Micro Soft. “You bet,” he says, “and I had to personally talk with Bill’s parents who told me I was going to screw up their son’s future.” Anyway, as time would pass I would go about changing the strings on my guitar and he would go about changing the world.
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GC: Mississippi Queen is on Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 rock songs and you’re ranked number 66 in their list of top 100 guitarists. When are you going to be inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame?
LW: I don’t know, but I called Slash and told him he was # 65 and that I was 66 and he says, “hell, I’m lucky to be on any list.” He’s such a great guy. I mean you look at him and there’s a real rock star and we’re really good friends. Listen man, we’ve run way over what I originally planned, which is fine because I’ve really enjoyed the interview – great interview – but I’ve got to stop. Go ahead and send me your e-mail address and I’ll send you those photos we talked about.
GC: Thanks a ton
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