It's a common misconception that Mick Mars was Mötley Crüe's guitarist from day one. But, in truth, it was Greg Leon, along with Tommy Lee, who formed the band. And though he didn't stick around long enough to play an actual show, Leon still holds an important place in the band's history.
"I was in a band called Suite 19," Leon tells Guitar World. "And at some point, this skinny kid who had been a fan started hanging around and bugging me. He showed up at all our gigs, and at some point, he said, 'Hey, I'm a drummer.' Not too long after, our drummer left, and I ran into Tommy again and said, 'Hey, we need a drummer. Do you want to get together and jam?' So we got together and it was great. The kid knew all the songs and fit right in."
Having discovered Lee with Suite 19 was the start of their relationship. But things didn't heat up until Leon's stints with two other L.A.-based outfits – Quiet Riot and Dokken – ended. Once again on the market, Leon summoned Lee to the table to be his drummer in Mötley Crüe. But Lee fell in love with the striking style of Nikki Sixx, while Leon insisted that the glammed-out bassist's chops weren't up to snuff.
"I was looking to put a great band together like Rainbow, Deep Purple or Humble Pie," Leon says. "Nikki Sixx simply was not capable. So I told Tommy, 'If this is the guy you want, I'm leaving.' Nikki was incapable of musically executing what I envisioned. All he was doing was quarter and eighth notes. But Tommy liked him, and they hit it off when they talked.
"So again, I said, 'Look, Tommy, I'm not gonna play with him. Do whatever you want, but I'm not doing it. He's not musical enough for me.'" Leon walked, leaving the door open for Mick Mars to waltz through.
Leon's talent has kept him a darling of his contemporaries, but the large-scale success experienced by Mötley Crüe has eluded him. One can't help but wonder if Leon made the right choice. Regardless, the veteran guitarist remains unbothered, steadfast in his observation that Sixx didn't possess the skill set to execute his vision.
To that end, Leon dialed in with GW to discuss his early interactions with Tommy Lee, the formation of Mötley Crüe, and what he thinks of John 5 replacing Mick Mars in the modern era.
Why did you and Tommy part ways after the end of Suite 19?
"After playing together for a few years and making a name for ourselves around Hollywood, I got an offer to replace Randy Rhoads in Quiet Riot after Randy went off to play with Ozzy [Osbourne]. And, man, I remember Tommy was mad as hell. He and his folks didn't want to see me or talk to me. We went from being good friends to never talking. I was dead to him. So I said, 'Listen, Tommy, let me make a name for myself, and I'll come back and get you once I see this through.'"
What ultimately brought you and Tommy back together?
"[Quiet Riot vocalist] Kevin DuBrow was impossible to work with. And then, before George Lynch came along, Don Dokken kept calling me, asking me if I was interested in joining his band. So I played some European dates with him. But the labels kept telling us they wanted new wave bands and weren't interested in what we were doing. I was tired of labels telling us they weren't interested in Dokken, so I contacted Tommy and put Mötley Crüe together."
When did Nikki Sixx enter the picture?
"We were looking for a bass player, and we went to the Starwood one night, and Nikki's band London was doing their farewell gig. I wasn't impressed with Nikki at all; he was awful. While we were hanging out, I don't know why, but Tommy just loved how Nikki looked. He was gung-ho about him, saying, 'This is the guy we should get.' But I felt we should back off as we'd already auditioned Nikki twice. I said to Tommy, 'He looks great. He's great on stage. But he can't play bass at all.'"
A common misconception is that you gigged with Nikki – but you never played a show with him, right?
"I never played a show with Nikki Sixx. Tommy and I played together many times, but I was gone as soon as Nikki entered the picture. But they couldn't find a guitar player or singer initially, so they kept calling me. But I refused. And then they met Mick [Mars] and Vince [Neil], and they were off and running. The way I saw it was that my guitar playing would get me through; I didn't need a guy like Nikki dragging me down. I had seen London many times, and I knew I wanted none of it."
Did you stay in touch with Tommy?
"Tommy invited me to the studio while recording Theater of Pain. And when I got there, it wasn't Nikki playing bass. I won't mention the guy's name who actually played bass, but it wasn't Nikki. I remember asking the guy, 'Hey, what are you doing here?' And he was like, 'Oh, I'm playing bass on the Mötley Crüe record.' It shocked me, but the producer instigated that as Nikki wasn't up to snuff.
"I didn't know about ghost players then, but it was way more common than people knew. But it would usually get squashed whenever Tommy tried to hang out with me. It was like, 'Why is he here? We don't want you playing with Greg.' I'm not sure what they were afraid of."
I assume you didn't get the call when Mick left Mötley Crüe.
"No, definitely not. I knew it wasn't great between Mick and the guys, but I didn't think it was that bad. Mick is a hell of a nice guy and a great player. I've only met him a few times, but I've always found him to be a total sweetheart. It sucks what happened to him. But even if they did ask me to join, I'd decline. I'm not into all the phony stuff with the tapes and shit."
How do you feel about John 5 playing with Mötley Crüe?
"I don't think John 5 is the right guy. He's not tough enough. There's no aggression in his playing. That band needs a player with attack and fire. John 5 is not that guy.
"I remember jamming with Mick at the studio during the Theater of Pain sessions, and he was having trouble getting his sound. And Tommy said, 'Get Greg in here; he can make anything sound good.' So, I went over, messed with Mick's amps, and dialed them in. Those guys were jumping for joy to the point of hugging me and screaming, 'Nobody touch those controls!' Then they went and got a magic marker and marked where all my settings were. So, yeah, I'd be an excellent fit for Mötley Crüe because I get the sound. John 5 doesn't, but whatever…"