West was born in New York City, to a Jewish family. He 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 US: 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". 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 the Jack Bruce-penned "Theme For an Imaginary Western". 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 Cream bassist Jack Bruce under the name West, Bruce and Laing. Mountain reformed in 1973 only to break up again in late 1974. But since 1981 it has continued to reform, tour and record on a regular basis.
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 also played guitar for the track "Bo Diddley Jam" on Bo Diddley's 1976 20th Anniversary of Rock 'n' Roll all-star album.
Leslie West teamed up with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame, to co-write and play guitar on the song "Hang Me Out To Dry" from the Gillan album ToolBox, released in Europe in 1991.
Leslie West and Joe Bonamassa recorded Warren Haynes' "If Heartaches Were Nickels" together. West released it on Guitarded (2005), and Bonamassa on A New Day Yesterday (2000).
West contributed the music and co-wrote the lyrics to the song "Immortal" on Clutch's 2001 album Pure Rock Fury, which was a reworked cover of the song "Baby I'm Down" on Leslie West's first album.
In 2005 he contributed to Ozzy Osbourne's Under Cover album, performing guitar on a remake of "Mississippi Queen"
In addition to fronting Mountain, West continues to record and perform on his own. His solo album, entitled Blue Me, was released in 2006 on the Blues Bureau International label. In 2007 Mountain released Masters of War on Big Rack Records, an album featuring 12 Bob Dylan covers that saw Ozzy Osbourne providing guest vocals on a rendition of the title track.
West had acting roles in Family Honor (1973) and The Money Pit (1986).
West was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15, 2006.
West married his fiancée Jenni Maurer on stage after Mountain's performance at the Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in Bethel, New York (August 15, 2009). Over 15,000 people were present and the couple walked through a bridge of guitars held by Levon Helm, Larry Taylor and Corky Laing among others. West now lives in New Jersey.
Johnny Ramone, also from Forest Hills and a fan of West, has called him, "one of the top five guitar players of his era".
West continues to make occasional appearances on radio, notably on Howard Stern's radio show.
In May 1987, West played the band leader in a series of late night pilot shows for Howard Stern on the FOX network. He taped a total of five shows with Stern, which never aired. Stern went on to form a new show dubbed the Channel 9 show without Leslie.
On June 20, 2011, West had his lower right leg amputated as a result of complications from diabetes. West made his first public appearance after his surgery on August 13, 2011
In 2014, West was a guest performer on Eli Cook's album, Primitive Son.
His 2015 album, Soundcheck, peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart.
In addition to these accomplishments, Leslie West and Mountain created one of the most sampled drum breaks in Hip Hop with the intro on "Long Red". The list of early to current beat creators, producers and artists who have sampled these drums and vocals is long, helping create many an anthem within different musical genres.
West is renowned for helping popularize use of the Gibson Les Paul Jr. guitar with P-90 pickups, along with the use of Sunn Amplifiers, to create a tone which became his trademark sound.
West frequently used two Les Paul Juniors, one "TV Yellow" and the other a sunburst. West also used a modified Gibson Flying V, with the neck pickup removed (he used the hole for an ashtray) and a P-90 pickup fitted at the bridge position, West also had a two-pickup Flying V which he used after the ash tray vee broke (the s/n of that flying V is s/n 906965). West also used a plexiglass Electra guitar, which is a Japanese copy of the better known Ampeg made Dan Armstrong guitar, for slide.
West also played a Westone Pantera guitar. From 1977 to 1982, he used a signature on-board effects MPC model guitar, created by the Japanese company Electra. He currently uses a signature model from Dean Guitars, the USA Soltero Leslie West Signature model, fitted with a custom-designed Dean pickup called "Mountain of Tone." Based on an endorsing contract in the Seventies, West played British made Burns guitars.
West has also long favored "headless" guitars, and can be seen playing them on some of the videos he has appeared in. In an interview segment on "Night of the Guitars – Live!" West stated that he had narrowed his commonly played instruments down to two: an off-the-shelf Steinberger and an Ed Roman LSR with DiMarzio pickups. So impressed was he with the LSRs that he agreed to serve as spokesperson and de facto salesman, the specific styles with his name on them available only directly from Ed Roman or else from West himself.
In 2005, West received a sponsorship with Carlsbro amplifiers, and could frequently be seen playing through "Carlsbro 50 Top" valve heads. His studio amplifier is a Marshall JMP. Live, he used Marshall JCM 900s. He started endorsing and using Budda Amplification in 2008. He was also associated with Sunn amplifiers, and used a Sunn Coliseum PA head, when it was shipped to him by accident. He claims that this is the amp that gave him his signature sound in this Gibson Interview with West.
West uses octaver, chorus and delay effects.
For his work with Mountain and West, Bruce and Laing, see their pages.1969 Mountain
1975 The Great Fatsby
1976 The Leslie West Band
1989 Night of the Guitar- Live!
1994 Dodgin' the Dirt
1999 As Phat as it Gets
2003 Blues to Die For
2005 Got Blooze
2006 Blue Me
2011 Unusual Suspects (UK chart peak: #153)
2013 Still Climbing