LESLIE WEST WAS always an unlikely guitar hero. His massive physical presence — he weighed 300 pounds at the dawn of the Seventies — defied the longstanding vogue for undernourished-looking, rail-thin rock guitar slingers. And he never cultivated dazzling fretboard techniques, relying instead on pure soul, a powerhouse singing voice, and one of the meatiest electric guitar tones ever to burst from a speaker cabinet.
“I didn’t play fast,” West said in 2011. “I only used the first and third finger on the fingering hand. So I worked on my tone all the time. I wanted to have the greatest, biggest tone, and I wanted vibrato like somebody who plays violin in a hundred-piece orchestra.”
West, who died of a heart attack on December 22, 2020, at age 75, was a key architect of the heavy guitar aesthetic that coalesced in the late Sixties/early Seventies and has been a staple of rock music ever since. He was born Leslie Weinstein on October 22, 1945, in Forest Hills, Queens, and grew up in the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. He bought his first guitar with money from his bar mitzvah at age 13. With his brother Larry on bass, he formed the Vagrants in the mid-Sixties.
The Vagrants were a soul-inflected rock band in very much the same vein as the Young Rascals — major hitmakers in that era — and the Hassles, the band in which Billy Joel started out, playing Hammond B3 organ. The three groups worked the same club circuit in the metro New York area, and all drew extensively from the soul and R&B repertoire that record labels like Stax and Atlantic had brought to the fore at that time. The Vagrants scored a regional hit in 1967 with their version of the Otis Redding classic “Respect.”
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