Felix Pappalardi, Nantucket Sleigh Ride

Written by WL Woodward

A band named Mountain, that in its most potent form lasted from 1970-1972, was the absolute and undeniable Father of Heavy Metal. I usually leave some room for argument, I like to do that. Plausible deniability. But not today. I will entertain suggestions for Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But I will not encourage. Yer just wrong.

In 1970 I turned 16 and could work a regular job besides the slave labor of picking tobacco or delivering papers. This period was a revelation, a breaching of protocol between classes. As a high school freshman you could work at a drive-in theater with a guy who was a sophomore or even junior and become friends.   You know, like real Life. The same guy who 6 months earlier would beat you up if you offered him a free cheeseburger could become a fast buddy. There is nothing like the brotherhood forged by facing tyranny combined with the boredom at the base of the career ladder to bring out life’s little miracles, like discovering a person you’ve never known before has just as warped a sense of the comedy in the macabre.

Bruce was a guy from the next neighborhood over that was in a completely separate social stratum. He was a gearhead, hung out with gearheads, disdained anything non-gearhead and was 2 years older. I knew who he was. I’d seen him at school. Weird guy. Tall, lanky, walked like he was out of cigarettes and looked like he’d just said something to himself that pissed him off. Then one of my first real jobs was as a truck driver’s assistant for an airline caterer and Bruce was the lead guy who had to show me the ropes.

At first he was appropriately annoyed with this task. Teaching dweebs in delivering meals to an airplane was not why he had exited the womb. But when you spend a large amount of time carrying stuff and waiting on other stuff you have chances to get to know each other. Without delving too much into a midnight raid where a dead rat mysteriously appeared in a competing caterer’s meal carrier, conversation and coalition formed a friendship.

Bruce had a green convertible MG, a beautiful car and I told him so. He asked me if I’d like to take a ride some afternoon after work, cruise and listen to music. We lived in a small bedroom community surrounded by rural farm towns like Suffield. At one time there were so many cars filled with high schoolers smoking pot and drinking cans of Schlitz driving around Suffield they had to put up special warning signs for the locals. Dip in Road Ahead. On this day, he had a tape he had to show me on the new stereo system in his car. The system wouldn’t impress any audiophile, but suffice it to say it was AWESOME, because it was LOUD. That was all we really knew then.

Bruce popped the 8 track in (state of the art at the time), and a now iconic cowbell intro kicked into Mississippi Queen from Climbing!, Leslie West’s second Mountain album but first with Felix Pappalardi on bass and Corky Lang on drums. Turn it up.

That song grabbed your nuts right out of your pants, as long as you had it turned up loud enough. Whether or not you got it you still remember the song. Mountain’s sound was just so fat. Early on I heard rumors that West got that fat sound by playing notes with two fingers. He was incredibly emotive, and could do more with three notes than Clapton with 12. But I’ve watched him play on video and he does use two fingers to bend now and then but primarily plays single notes with one. Umm..he did have fat fingers. But that sound had more to do with Pappalardi.

Power rock trios had been done and had popular success, especially Cream. Led Zeppelin was a power rock trio with a vocalist. And because of that you can’t talk about revolutions in music, one thing leads to another. But these guys together, West’s best all time rhythm section, were coming out of black bottom earth. With only three guys in the real band you can’t point to a firm catalyst or a defining member, but Felix Pappalardi had created a bass bottom that along with Jack Bruce’s work created a new music. By the way, there was a connection between those two that was critical to both their success.

Felix was born in 1939, studied music in high school and then at the University of Michigan. At 25 he ended up in New York. 1964, the folk scene. Unable to find work as a conductor or arranger he fell into the world of folk performance. He did some touring, then arranging for folk artists, and soon Felix found a talent he didn’t know he had. After doing some producing for acts like Joan Baez, in 1967 he produced the first album by the Youngbloods. Next up, in the same year, he produced Disraeli Gears for Cream. He was the producer on two more albums for Cream, Wheels of Fire and Goodbye. Jack Bruce once said Pappalardi was the fourth member of the band during that period, much like George Martin with the Beatles and Eddie Kramer for Jimi Hendrix. Felix and his wife Gail wrote Strange Brew with Clapton. And there is no question Felix took a great deal from his time with Jack Bruce.

I remember I didn’t notice this, despite being an avid reader of liner notes, until Pappalardi hit it big with Mountain. Surely, the first thing I said when I heard Climbing! was ‘Who’s that guitar player?” but the close second was “Who is that on bass?” Then, going back and looking back at Cream liner notes, the name of Felix Pappalardi popped out at me.

When I started playing bass and ran into drummers who took me to the woodshed for being tentative and even insipid (I played the bass like a guy who wanted to play guitar, which I did), I took their advice and started listening to bass players in my favorite music. Certainly Pappalardi’s bass work on both Climbing! and Nantucket Sleighride (!!) formed a feel for holding the bottom down that stays with me to this day. In order to pull off a trio each player has to be able to stand alone and blend at the same time. There was so much true bottom fattidity (yes, that’s a word) here you could feel it from Mars.

This version of Mountain released Nantucket Sleighride (!!!), another classic, then a last album before breaking up in 1972. Drugs and hearing loss from touring with West left Pappalardi back in the producer’s chair. But drugs continued to plague and Felix never reached the same success. The drug problem seemed to permeate and perforate so many players from my generation, but truly it can be traced back to early heroin addictions in the 40’s and 50’s with fatalities throughout the history of music right to this day. There is a weird dynamic of creativity that creates a possibility of addiction in artists of all kinds, painters, writers, musicians and elephant trainers, and warrants study.

Corky Lang said in an interview in 2009 that Pappalardi’s early death was inevitable. “When you have guns, lots of guns, and drugs, and jealousy, frustration and depression, a disaster is going to happen. Then Felix met a girl he wanted to live with and made the mistake of telling his wife.”

On April 17, 1983 Gail Collins Pappalardi shot Felix once in the neck and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The speed at which lightning came and went during that period was amazing. I will forever feel privileged to have lived through it, even if I don’t remember all of it.

  1. I mentioned this a few times so I’ll put a cut here. Enjoy. Felix on vocals. Turn it up.

By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with the wilds of whaling back in the day, look up what a Nantucket sleighride was. You’ll get a good feel for the life and times of Felix Pappalardi.

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