That “little ol’ band from Texas,” ZZ Top, has been together for over two decades now, making more music, and money, than bands twice their size. Although many people may consider the three-piece unit just another boogie band from the South, the Top has some pretty impressive credentials. Their 1976 tour broke attendance records previously set by the Beatles; they were one of the first bands to realize the potential of music videos; and they were arguably the first blues band to successfully incorporate advanced electronics (e.g. synthesizers and drum machines) into their sound. But, regardless of these accomplishments, the band has stuck to their original philosophy: “Our message remains pretty much clear cut,” guitarist Billy Gibbons told Guitar Player. “We’re not attempting to deliver any sociological breakthrough other than, ’Have a good time.”’
Gibbons was born in Houston, Texas, and, after being bitten by the Elvis bug at the age of seven, began playing guitar. He formed his first band, the Saints, when he was fourteen and eventually moved on to the Coachmen. It was only a matter of a few years, however, before Gibbons was fronting his own James Brown-styled rhythm and blues group, Billy G and the Ten Blue Flames. By 1967 he was working with a trimmed-down, four-member psychedlic combo called the Moving Sidewalks. Their single “99th Floor” stayed on top of the Texas charts for five weeks and earned the band a spot as opening act for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968. Hendrix was so impressed with Gibbons’s fretwork that he cited the Texan as one of America’s best guitarists on a “Tonight Show” television appearance.
Gibbons’s unique style also caught the attention of Bill Ham, a local record promo man who knew a moneymaker when he heard one. Due to the Vietnam War, members of the Sidewalks were drafted and Gibbons was forced to disolve the band. He and Ham began auditioning drummers and bassists before settling with two veterans of the Texas blues scene, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. Hill, a Dallas native, also entered music after seeing a Presley performance on television and began playing the bass when he was thirteen. Along with his brother, guitarist Rocky Hill, they formed the Deadbeats before playing in Lady Wild and the Warlocks. After that band folded in 1967, the two joined drummer Beard’s American Blues Band. They picked up priceless experience backing up blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and Freddie King.
When the band broke up, Beard hooked up with Gibbons and told him of Hill’s availability. On February 10, 1970, the three musicians were united. “We threw a jam session together that fateful day,” Gibbons informed Guitar World. “We started off with a shuffle in C and
Group formed in Texas, February 10, 1970; members includeBilly Gibbons (born Houston, Tex.; guitar),Dusty Hill (born May 19, 1949, in Dallas, Tex.; bass), andFrank Beard (drums).
Gibbons formed first band, the Saints, at age 14; later played with the Coachmen and with Billy G. and the Ten Blue Flames; played with the Moving Sidewalks, 1967-70. Hill began playing bass at age 13; played in various groups, including the Deadbeats and Lady Wild and the Warlocks; played in the American Blues Band, 1967-70. Beard played in various bands before forming the American Blues Band, which backed numerous blues headliners, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and Freddie King.
Addresses: Record company; —Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
didn’t quit for a couple of hours. We decided that it was so much fun that we kept on cookin’.” They knew they had a great sound together, but they also realized that it takes even more to make it in the music world. Ham convinced the trio that his strategies would make ZZ Top a household name and he became their manager, controling every move and aspect of their careers. “We played a lot of the out-of-the-way places, playing for the people at people’s prices,” Ham told Chet Flippo in Rolling Stone. “It’s harder that way and takes much longer, but once the band has established itself as a people’s band, the people won’t leave you.”
The Top had a regional hit with “Salt Lick” on Ham’s Scat label, which prompted London Records to sign them. Their First Album LP received little fanfare as the band continued to hone their live show in juke joints throughout the South. Things began to pick up with their second album, Rio Grande Mud, which produced another Lone Star hit with “Francine.” Word began to spread as the Rolling Stones asked the boys to open for their 1972 tour. They scored a national hit with “La Grange” from the platinum-selling Tres Hombres. “Waitin “For the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago” included some harp work by Gibbons, but it was his incredible guitar playing that was drawing the people in. It was obvious by now that ZZ Top could play the blues as well as anyone, but they approached it without the scholarly attitude that causes so many other groups to sink. “See, for white boys playing the blues, you can only get away with it if it’s amusing,” Gibbons told Rolling Stone’s Daisann McLane.
“Tush” is a fine example of the warped lyrics that have helped ZZ Top become a party favorite. The song, along with “Blue Jean Blues,” helped to keep their 1975 release Fandango on the charts for an amazing eighty-three weeks and to eventually sell more than a million copies. The album contains one studio side and the other recorded live at New Orleans’s Warehouse. Their next tour, the 1976 World-Wide Texas Tour in support of Tejas, was an enormous undertaking that established ZZ Top as one of rock’s premier live acts. With a giant Texas-shaped stage adorned with actual cattle, bison, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and tarantulas, the tour proved to be one of the most successful ever by grossing over $11.5 million.
In what may have seemed like an unwise business move, the band took the next three years off as Ham tried to break away from London Records. Gibbons spent time working on his guitar collection, which totals over 300 instruments. In addition, the former University of Texas art student has nine design patents and is a board of trustees member for the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. As they travelled the world and enjoyed their time off, Ham secured a contract with the prestigious Warner Bros, label. They returned to the studio to record 1979’s Degüello, perhaps their finest effort yet. “[Degüello] sounds as if they spent all three years playing the blues on their front porch,” wrote Robert Christgau in his Record Guide. “I’ve heard a shitload of white blues albums in the wake of Belushi and Aykroyd (the Blues Brothers). This is the best by miles. A-.” From the sweetness of “A Fool For Your Stockings” to the raunch of “Hi Fi Mama,” the Top’s palette of different sounds was remarkable for just a trio, prompting Lester Bangs to describe their sound in Rolling Stone “as truly violent music and whang-dang beyond mere professionalism.”
Their next album, El Loco, was very similar to Degüello but not quite so strong. The band opted for a radical change in 1983 for their Eliminator LP. With the aide of Tom Scholz’s Rockman (a guitar effects unit), Gibbons decided to turn up the heat. “Basically it was a more vicious sound I was after,” he told Steven Rosen in Guitar World. In addition to the extra crunch, the band’s lyrics had progressively been moving away from the typical rock fare while still maintaining their trademark sick edge. “I think that we may have been able to refine our music writing abilities to more genuinely reflect a truer sense of our honest emotions,” Gibbons said to Rosen. The new moves were supported by the group’s humorous use of videos—” Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “TV Dinners,” “Legs” —through the then-untested MTV market, which helped to boost Eliminator sales to ten million copies, peaking in Billboard’s charts at number 9 and remaining in the Top 20 for over a year. The ensuing tour included a giant replica of Gibbons’s hot rod’s dashboard and a huge Sphinx that engulfed the stage.
After dabbling with the Moog synthesizer on Eliminator, they dove headfirst into the elctronic age on Afterburner. The group employed drum machines, sequencers, and computer sampling (like the slamming of a 1968 Buick Electra 225 car door) while still maintaining the crunch of Gibbons’s six-string. “All of a sudden you’ve got a second generation wave of synthesizers that offer the kind of manipulations where a more human touch can be put into it, to make it pliable for a ZZ Top-styled band not to lose their integrity,” Gibbons told Guitar World.
The band paid tribute to their roots in 1989 with the Muddywood Tour. After visiting the late Muddy Waters’s birthplace on Stovall’s plantation in Mississippi, Gibbons took a plank of wood from the cabin that Waters was raised in and had it made into a guitar. It was displayed in cities throughout the world with proceeds going to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. ZZ Top had played with Waters several times in the late seventies and decided to pay back a little to the music they owe so much to. “Try as we might to spice it up with synthesizers and high-tech thises and thats, it basically comes down to a few moments of bluesiness that we want to at least make an attempt to hold onto for as long as we can,” Gibbons told Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player.
First Album, London, 1970; Warner Bros., 1980.
Rio Grande Mud, London, 1972; Warner Bros., 1980.
Tres Hombres, London, 1973; Warner Bros., 1980.
Fandango, London, 1975; Warner Bros., 1980.
Tejas, London, 1976; Warner Bros., 1980.
The Best of ZZ Top, London, 1977; Warner Bros., 1980.
Degüello, Warner Bros., 1979.
El Loco, Warner Bros., 1981.
Eliminator, Warner Bros., 1983. Afterburner, Warner Bros., 1985.
The ZZ Top Sixpack, (digitally remastered versions of the first five albums and El Loco), Warner Bros., 1988.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Guitar Player, February, 1981; August, 1984; March, 1986.
Guitar World, May, 1984; March, 1986; November, 1986; April, 1988; March, 1989.
Rolling Stone, August 26, 1976; March 10, 1977; March 6, 1980; May 1, 1980.
—Calen D. Stone
Members: William F. Gibbons, guitar, vocals (born Houston, Texas, 12 December 1949); Joe Michael (Dusty) Hill, bass, vocals (born, Dallas, Texas, 15 May 1949); Frank Beard, percussion (born Frankston, Texas, 11 June 1949).
Genre: Rock, Blues
Best-selling album since 1990: Rhythmeen (1996)
The trio ZZ Top is a little band with a big sound. With the same members since the band's inception in 1970, ZZ Top remains a constant in an industry fraught with change. They have broken concert attendance records, sold millions of albums, and played a presidential inaugural ball; yet the blues-rocking ZZ Top remains today what it has always been: a Texas good-time band with a sense of humor.
ZZ Top formed in Houston, Texas, after guitarist and vocalist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard—all refugees from other Texas bands—decided to meet for a jam session in February 1970. The trio's first session together was a tremendous success, and they began to tour Texas, building a loyal following and gaining a reputation as a spirited boogie band that, on the strength of Gibbon's solid guitar work, could also play some serious blues.
After ZZ Top had gained some national exposure with "Francine," from their second album, Rio Grande Mud (1972), the Rolling Stones asked them to open for them on their 1972 tour. ZZ Top followed that successful tour with the release of Tres Hombres (1973), which contained their first hit, "La Grange." Based on a trademark blues riff sometimes credited to John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" but also found in a variety of blues standards, "La Grange" is arguably ZZ Top's most identifiable song.
Wherever they played, the trio seemed to embody the image of a rowdy Texas bar band. By the time they released their next album, the half-studio, half-live Fandango (1975), ZZ Top was filling sports stadiums and other large concert venues with adoring fans who could not get enough of their raucous shows. In 1976 they shared the stage with long-horned steers, bison, coyotes, and rattlesnakes as they embellished their concerts with a stronger sense of Texas. That tour, which promoted their new release, Tejas (1976), broke concert attendance records previously held by the Beatles.
ZZ Top scored another hit with the droll "Tush," from Fandango, yet another in a long stream of riffed-up basic blues. "Tush" also remains one of the band's signature songs. Its primary message, "I ain't askin' for much . . . just looking for some tush," is emblematic of the playful lyrics found in much of their music. Many of their song messages are expressed simply by their impetuous titles: "She's Got Legs," "Cheap Sunglasses," "Tube Steak Boogie," and "Jesus Just Left Chicago."
Although there has always been a glut of southern boogie bands, ZZ Top manages to rise above the pack. One of the reasons for their success is that accompanying the "don't take us too seriously" message is a rhythmically strong bottom beat and the thick, dirty guitar funk of Gibbons, one of the world's top blues guitarists. Every song contains an opportunity for him to solo, and he finds remarkable variety within the sameness of the blues structure that ZZ Top's music generally employs.
ZZ Top's success stems not only from talent but also from some clever marketing. Recognizing the potential in the growing MTV video marketplace of the early 1980s, ZZ Top used music videos to brand themselves as fun-loving, pleasure-seeking hipster icons. Each member of the band went public with a look of exceptionally long beards, Stetson hats, crisp suits, and black sunglasses. Their MTV videos were replete with over-the-top gorgeous women whose limited acting duties were focused on their lavish attentions to the band. However, unlike other rock or rap videos, the content of ZZ Top's videos seemed to convey a nonthreatening attitude toward their female subjects. They left the impression that the band simply enjoyed the girls' company and sent them off with a peck on the cheek.
Adding emphasis to ZZ Top's laissez-faire attitude was the manner in which they approached the performance of their music, seemingly playing their instruments with bemused nonchalance. This further enhanced an image of cool and helped endear them to millions of fans worldwide. ZZ Top concerts continued to fill arenas and break financial records into the new millennium.
Returning to Roots
The band entered the 1990s in a quandary. Portrayed in popular videos throughout the 1980s as a lovable cartoon of a rock band, they had begun questing for a more serious image by sporadically experimenting with various electronics such as drum machines, Moog synthesizers, and sequencers. The release of Recycler (1990) marked a firm return to the music of ZZ Top's boogie rock/blues beginnings. It is where they have remained. One song, from Recycler, "My Head's in Mississippi," pays homage to blues legend Muddy Waters. This tribute was part of a continuing effort by ZZ Top to keep Waters's music alive and to acquaint a wider audience with the roots of blues. The previous year they had visited the Mississippi childhood home of the great blues legend and obtained a plank of wood from the cabin in which Waters once lived. Gibbons arranged for it to be fashioned into a guitar that was later displayed in various cities across the country. The proceeds of that traveling exhibit were distributed to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Throughout the 1990s ZZ Top remained a huge concert draw; their albums Antenna (1994) and Rhythmeen (1996) sold well. In 1998 they were inducted into the Music Hall of Fame. ZZ Top celebrated their thirtieth anniversary with the much-anticipated release of XXX (1999). The album is an honest return to their early work and, like Fandango, is part live, part studio. One of the four live songs is a bluesy version of Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear," a tribute to the king of rock and roll, who influenced the lives of all three ZZ Top members. Of the eight studio songs, only "Fearless Boogie" was released as a single for radio play. The album's tour was canceled midstream in the summer of 2000 after the discovery that the band's bassist was suffering from Hepatitis C and needed to rest. The band took a hiatus until Hill recovered, and then they began a series of short tours. One of those was a European tour to fulfill a commitment to fans and promoters after the XXX tour had been canceled. In late 2002 ZZ Top was recording a soon-to-be-released album through RCA Records and planning the album's promotion with a world tour starting sometime in 2003.
ZZ Top is a remarkably consistent group whose straightforward music and lighthearted attitude have exemplified good-time rock and roll for more than thirty years. While they have managed to stay popular through innovative marketing strategies, their musicianship should not be undervalued. ZZ Top is a top-notch and well-respected blues band.
First Album (London, 1970); Rio Grande Mud (London, 1972); Tres Hombres (London, 1973); Fandango (London, 1975); Tejas (London, 1976); The Best of ZZ Top (London, 1979); Deguello (Warner Bros., 1979); El Loco (Warner Bros., 1981); Eliminator (Warner Bros., 1983); Afterburner (Warner Bros., 1985); Recycler (Warner Bros., 1990); Antenna (RCA, 1994); One Foot in the Blues (RCA, 1994); Rhythmeen (RCA, 1996); XXX (RCA, 1999).
From respected roots rockers to bearded music video age icons, this Texas band maintained a consistently successful career throughout the 1970s and 1980s, embracing many new trends that crossed its path. While not as active in the late 1990s as they were in their prime, ZZ Top's three members (Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard on guitar, bass, and drums, respectively) remain one of the few groups to have its original members intact after 25 years. Existing throughout the 1970s as a critically acclaimed, popular Texas blues-boogie band, the band updated its sound to include propulsive synthesizer rhythms. Further, ZZ Top was one of the first pre-music-video rock bands to immediately take advantage of the advent of MTV.
In the late 1960s, Billy Gibbons played in the Texas psych-punk band The Moving Sidewalks, and Dusty Hill and Frank Beard were the rhythm section for American Blues. Future ZZ Top manager Bill Ham brought the three together in 1970 and, due to Ham's plan of constant recording and ceaseless touring, by the decade's end the group had carved out a sizable niche as a popular blues-boogie band. In 1970, ZZ Top released ZZ Top's First Album, and by its third album it struck gold with its first major hit and concert staple, "La Grange," a tribute to an infamous whorehouse. "La Grange" (whose signature riff was based on the John Lee Hooker song, "Boogie Chillen") set the fire that would culminate in one the 1970s most successful tours, the year and a half long "Worldwide Texas Tour."
While their string of hits never abated through the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, it was the group's 1983 Eliminator album that propelled ZZ Top to superstardom. That the group adopted synthesizers and drum machines to augment their sound didn't hurt, but what perhaps helped most was their videos. With sunglasses and long beards, ZZ Top had a perfect made-for-music-video image, and they filled their videos with scantily clad, sexy women—a perfect formula for early MTV success. Eliminator contained a number of hit singles and videos, including "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Gimmie All Your Lovin'." Choosing not to disrupt their successful formula, the group made their 1985 Afterburner in the image of their multi-platinum predecessor, and the album spawned the hits "Sleeping Bag," "Velcro Fly," "Rough Boy," and "Stages." Predictably, the group applied its "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy to Afterburner's videos as well.
ZZ Top never climbed the commercial peaks of its mid-1980s period, but they continued to be a big concert draw, and their albums continued to sell respectably. The 1996 release of Rhythmeen, a back-to-basics album, cleared the table of the high production sheen and synthesizers that characterized their Afterburner and Eliminator period. The album was critically acclaimed and demonstrated that Billy Gibbons was certainly one of the most talented white blues guitarists this side of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Blayney, David. Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top behind the Scenes from Blues to Boogie to Beards. New York, Hyperion, 1994.
Sinclair, David. The Story of ZZ Top: Tres Hombre. London, Virgin, 1986.