June 5, 2019 | by Texas Music Admin
They’ve Got Legs

Fifty years on, the bluesy blue-collar trio from Houston is ready to take it up another notch. BY NATHAN SMITH

They’re known far and wide as “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” but to rock ’n’ roll fans from Laredo to Luxembourg, ZZ Top happens to be the band from Texas. Since the early ’70s, the decidedly less-than-holy Tejas trinity of the Rev. Billy F. Gibbons, Frank Beard and Dusty Hill has sold more than 25 million albums in the U.S. alone, roughly tying them with Nirvana and Mötley Crüe.

The only Texas acts who’ve sold more are three members of the Country Music Hall of Fame — George Strait, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers — plus three more who ought to be in there: the Dixie Chicks. No other Texas rockers come close.

The enduring popularity of the bawdy, bluesy thump of songs like “Tush,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Just Got Paid” has afforded ZZ Top a career longer than those famous beards. And this summer, the trio will begin a tour that will take them from Dallas to London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their union.

Most marriages don’t last that damn long. How do you keep a band together while touring the world for five decades? To Gibbons, the man behind the polished-wood steering wheel for ZZ Top since the beginning, the answer is characteristically simple and binding.

“It was groove at first sight,” the Reverend says.

Gibbons had been searching for that groove most of his life. Born in Houston, he was the son of Freddie Gibbons, a concert pianist and orchestra conductor who had worked for Samuel Goldwyn at MGM Studios. When Gibbons was just 5 years old, his mother Lorraine took him to a concert by Elvis Presley, and a couple of years later, his father brought him along to a recording session with B.B. King. After that, there was never much soul-searching about what he wanted to do with his life. He got his first guitar — a Gibson Melody Maker — for Christmas in 1963. He was 13.

Not long after, Gibbons was sent to Warner Brothers’ art school in Hollywood, California, where the burgeoning British Invasion inspired him to form his first rock ’n’ roll band. Trying out a blues-based sound copied from the Rolling Stones, first came the Coachmen, then Billy G and Blueflames. By the time he turned 18, Gibbons was back in Houston, soaking in the sounds of one of popular music’s most potent eras.

“To state the obvious, Texas is a big place, so there’s room for lots of diversity of styles and presentation,” Gibbons says. “The assembly of a stellar cast of superstars runs deep in the land of the Lone Star, but, you know, Texas soul has long been a powerful force in music. From country to blues to R&B, from Western swing to sophisticated classical to Norteño offerings from the borderland, to hip-hop and rap successes surrounding pop sounds galore, you name it — if it’s sonically stunning and innovatively ‘out there,’ it most likely may have come from Texas.”

The “out there” Texas sounds filling Gibbons’ ears more than 50 years ago were the street-corner electric blues of local African-American greats and the acid-fried experimentalism of the early psychedelic scene. “I was inspired by a combination of psychedelic visionary Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators and blues iconoclast Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Gibbons says. “They created their own respective musical contexts, and both were genuinely, totally original.”

BEFORE THE BEARD: Billy Gibbons (far right in photo) played guitar and sang in the Moving Sidewalks, a late-’60s psychedelic rock band. The group built a sizable following in Houston and was tiptoeing toward stardom until the Vietnam War intervened / Courtesy Billy Gibbons

Attempting to fuse those contexts into something he could call his own, Gibbons formed the Moving Sidewalks, a sharp-suited, psychedelic blues outfit that became a draw in Houston. The Sidewalks recorded one album, Flash, which included the local hit single “99th Floor,” an obvious tribute to the 13th Floor Elevators. The band made a famous fan in Jimi Hendrix when the Moving Sidewalks opened for him across Texas during the Experience’s 1968 tour. On the nationally televised Dick Cavett Show, Hendrix named Gibbons as one of his favorite guitarists. It looked like the Moving Sidewalks could become the next big thing in Texas and beyond.

They weren’t. Organist Tom Moore and bassist Don Summers got drafted, and the Moving Sidewalks were done. After a taste of rock ’n’ roll success, however, Gibbons wasn’t about to go back to school. He and Sidewalks drummer Dan Mitchell recruited bassist/organist Lanier Greig for a new group. Inspired by the alliterative initials of contemporary bluesmen B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill, Gibbons named the group ZZ Top.

The new lineup recorded its first single — a groovy, organ-fueled jam called “Salt Lick” — in 1969. Greig’s organ didn’t make it much farther than the pressing. Mitchell, too, was soon out, replaced by Frank Beard, drummer for DFW-area psych rockers American Blues. Beard recommended his former bandmate Dusty Hill to Gibbons, and the three got together in Houston to jam out and see what they had.

“The first excursion into the realm of ZZ Top took place during that first session with a simple, blues shuffle in the key of C, affectionately known as ‘the people’s key,’ which took off like a rocket and continued grinding down that bluesy straightaway for a solid three hours,” Gibbons says. “We all took notice of our collective nods, which was a decent indicator the ball was really rockin’ and rolling.

“That ‘get-to-know-what-up’ gathering was a prescient preview of the next 50 years,” the guitarist adds. “The secret combination was revealed. It was on!”

PROM DATE: The band–from left, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons–in May 1970, identified as “Zee Zee Top” in the yearbook from Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School in Orange, Texas / Courtesy ZZ Top

With the help of manager Bill Ham, a budding music industry impresario who’d go on to likewise discover and manage Clint Black, the now-complete ZZ Top hit the Texas club circuit and began fishing around for a record contract. The only label that would give them a shot was London Records, a British outfit who’d had some success licensing music from American labels like Chess, Dot and Sun Records.

The resulting record was titled ZZ Top’s First Album, recorded at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler. In 1971, it seemed a comically ambitious name for an import record by a bunch of nobodies from Texas, and it failed to make much of a dent outside of the trio’s well-plowed circuit.

The album’s only single failed to chart, and perhaps it’s on nobody’s list of essentials today. But looking back, the pieces were all there: the barrelhouse rhythms of Frank Beard, the steady, throbbing groove of Dusty Hill and the electric licks of Billy Gibbons. It even contained the band’s first of many prominent double entendres on album opener “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree.”

If they weren’t setting the charts on fire, the group still knew they were dabbling in magic, says Gibbons. Far from the psychedelic sounds of their recent past, the trio was exploring a tighter, harder-edged sound. It was blue-collar; it was rootsy. It was simple, but it was different—and it felt good.

“That collective, bluesy direction simply and immediately revealed itself,” he says. “Seriously super and natural.”

COOL CUSTOMERS: (l-r) The fetching trio of Beard, Gibbons and Hill just hanging out by the ice machine, 1970 / Courtesy ZZ Top

With a record to promote, Ham got ZZ Top booked into bigger joints for a promotional tour. A second album, Rio Grande Mud, dropped in 1972. It didn’t meet London’s sales expectations either, and the group played a lot of half-empty theaters on the trek that followed. But their vibe was coming together in earnest now, especially on “Just Got Paid,” a strutting, earworm riff extolling the simple pleasures conferred by a pocketful of change.

There was further reason to hope: led by the Allman Brothers Band, “Southern rock” was becoming a movement that turned audiences nationwide on to the possibilities of fusing Southern blues with country and psychedelia. Rock ’n’ roll spectacles were getting bigger and more elaborate, entering a new golden age of album and ticket sales. The building momentum seemed to suit ZZ Top just fine.

In 1973, the dam burst. ZZ Top’s big commercial breakthrough arrived with Tres Hombres, which found the band’s supercharged blues boogie crystallized in the soon-to-be standards “Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago” and — featuring a big nod to John Lee Hooker — the growling “La Grange,” which helped spread the legend of that Texas town’s notorious Chicken Ranch far and wide.

Certainly, “authenticity” can be a delicate subject when talking about white men playing a style pioneered by black artists. There were a lot of white bands on both sides of the Atlantic pumping out blues over a driving backbeat in the early ’70s. Even if it sometimes went unspoken, though, listeners could hear the difference in the way those familiar progressions poured out of Gibbons’ guitar — and mouth.

‘Waitin’ for the Bus’ is a mean, muddled track reminiscent of early Canned Heat complete with the usual repetitive three-chord lick,” wrote Rolling Stone scribe Steve Apple about the new release. “Vocally, ZZ have an advantage over most white rockers in that these Southerners sound black anyway with lines like ‘You don’t have to worry, ’cause takin’ care of business is his name’ — sung by Gibbons in a drawl so thick he’d do Leadbelly justice.”

Tres Hombres drawled all the way to No. 8 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, and “La Grange” just missed the Top 40 singles chart. If they’d been getting by before, ZZ Top was now on the road to stardom. To hear Gibbons tell it, the group knew it, too.

“Driving the band’s tour jalopy hearing a ZZ cut searing across the radio … that was momentum No. 1 that started us making the uphill climb,” Gibbons recalls. “Another telltale moment was early on with ZZ Top’s Rompin’ Stompin’ Barn Dance and Bar-B-Q, with nearly 100,000 of our closest friends inside [the University of Texas’] Memorial Stadium in ’74.”

HORNS O’ PLENTY: An overflow crowd jammed Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus in 1974 to see the band / Andy Sieverman via Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

There was no ignoring ZZ Top in Texas following that concert. The band’s fans made sure of it. The festival took place on a sweltering Labor Day Weekend. ZZ headlined, with support from Santana, Joe Cocker and Bad Company (featuring Jimmy Page on guitar).

To call it the state’s rock ’n’ roll attraction of the summer may be underselling it a bit. Stadium security was completely unprepared for the high demand for the bill or the sheer drug- and booze-fueled lunacy of the fans who showed up. The gates were quickly crashed. An estimated crowd of more than 80,000 young people crawled over every inch of the stadium to find a sightline to the stage, and all the food and water were long gone by the time the sun began to set. At the time, it was the largest one-day musical event in Texas history.

The university had recently installed new artificial turf on the stadium field. Someone carved a huge, Texas-shaped chunk out of the stuff right at the 50-yard line and presumably took it home as a souvenir. Sinks were ripped off the wall in stadium bathrooms, and two entrance gates were wrecked weeks before football season began. Apoplectic over the damage, deified Longhorn coach Darrell K. Royal vowed the band would never play Austin again, and Memorial Stadium wouldn’t host another rock concert until 1995.

An aerial photo of the ecstatic carnage adorned the liner of ZZ Top’s fourth album, Fandango. That record featured “Tush,” the classic cut that would become the band’s first single to crack the Billboard Top 20. By any measure, ZZ Top was entering a new stratosphere of stardom at home, across the country and beyond.

To celebrate, in 1976 ZZ Top embarked on what it called the Worldwide Texas Tour. Endeavoring to “bring Texas to the people,” the Top dragged a 35-ton, Texas-shaped stage on the road with them, which the still-short-bearded rockers mounted each night wearing huge, bespoke cowboy hats and matching suits. Sharing that stage with the band were a live buffalo, a Longhorn steer, venomous rattlesnakes, several tarantulas and six vultures all called Oscar.

The show was unlike anything anyone has seen (or insured) before or since, and it ballooned from 33 dates to 18 months of shows — a record-breaking trek. By the time they were done, ZZ Top had been touring and recording nonstop for nearly a decade. The band members went their separate ways for what was supposed to be a 90-day break. Gibbons moved to Paris; Beard headed for Jamaica. No one was entirely sure where Hill went.

Ninety days turned into two years. When they finally reconvened in Houston, however, ZZ Top discovered that its strange magic was still intact: independent of one another, Gibbons and Hill had each somehow decided to grow his beard to chest-length. The band’s iconic look was complete.

By now, the ’70s were drawing to a close. Musical tastes were changing, and “Southern rock” was largely a thing of the past. Not all of ZZ Top’s stadium-rock peers would successfully navigate the cultural changes gripping America, and there was no certainty that a little ol’ band from Texas would, either. But freshly recharged and newly signed to Warner Bros. Records, ZZ Top was experimenting again.

Beginning with the album Degüello, the band began to add new-wave synth flourishes to their signature sound. Gibbons found himself inspired by the layered, synth-and-guitar formula of British dance-rockers Depeche Mode. And then: Eliminator.

ZZ Top in 1972 / Jay Dickman

Produced by Bill Ham and released in 1983, Eliminator shot ZZ Top past the stratosphere into outer space. Activated by a cherry-red 1933 Ford coupe, the band’s finely honed blues licks arrived chromed out with gleaming analog synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers on mega-hits “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” — each a crossover radio smash that introduced ZZ Top to new audiences.

The album’s inventive, silly and sexually charged music videos glorying in fast women, faster cars and indomitable youth received heavy play on MTV.

Novelty was a big part of the appeal. Blues-based rock had never been recorded like this before. The music sounded like the result of futuristic technology, which of course it was, and it was impossible to tell where Frank Beard’s drums ended and the drum machine began. Bolstered by deep, low-octave synths, Gibbons turned in his most memorable leads yet, and there was no denying that the record represented a wholesale evolution of the blues into something much different (and more lucrative) than Lightnin’ Hopkins ever could have imagined.

It was the beginning of an incredible second act for ZZ Top. On the road, Gibbons and Hill debuted matching, fuzzy sheepskin-covered guitars that spun around on their bodies. The band and its music became recognizable the world over. The success of Eliminator and its resulting tours was unprecedented for a Texas band — any band. It was far and away their commercial pinnacle.

The group followed up Eliminator with two more records in the same vein: Afterburner and Recycler. Without the same absurd collection of hits, neither approached the incredible sales of the first. Probably nothing could have. Trying to surpass the fame and acclaim garnered by Eliminator wasn’t the path forward for the band. ZZ Top was now loved all over the world. The core of the set list they would spend the next 35 years touring was already in place. All they had to do was manage not to fuck it all up.

And unlike so many of their contemporaries who hit the peaks of stardom in the ’80s, they didn’t.

As tastes shifted again in the ’90s, so did ZZ Top, returning to a more traditional blues-rock sound on albums like Antenna. The hit singles dried up, but the appeal of ZZ Top as a touring act endured. In 2004, Keith Richards inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Working at the slower pace their solid-gold status as a legacy act and touring draw afforded them, Gibbons and company continued to try out new additions to their remarkably durable blues rock as the digital era of music began in earnest.

“In terms of recording possibilities, the interest in maintaining a sense of curiosity toward experimentalism invites the old as well as what might be reflected on as new, which brings into account the most modern of digital technology,” the guitarist says. “As far as downloading, streaming, etc. … we say bring it on if it connects to whatever’s rockin’.” 

By 2012, ZZ Top had little left to prove but plenty left to attempt. Already considered by critics and audiences around the globe as one of the greatest rock bands of all time, the group collaborated with producer Rick Rubin to create La Futura, an album influenced in part by the slowed-down tempos of Houston hip-hop legend DJ Screw, an innovator Gibbons was introduced to through their mutual sound engineer, G.L. Moon.

The record’s lead single, “I Gotsta Get Paid,” reworked a hit Houston rap song by DJ DMD and Screwed Up Click members Fat Pat and Lil’ Keke. It was released as part of an iTunes-only collection called Texicali that garnered the band’s strongest critical reviews since the ’80s. Another of the album’s tracks, “Flyin’ High,” actually debuted in outer space when it was played onboard a Soyuz spacecraft at the behest of NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, a longtime fan.

After five decades of smashing through boundaries for Texas rock, ZZ Top opened 2019 with a six-night residency in Las Vegas at the Venetian. They’ll return to Texas in May to begin their 50th anniversary tour, and, given their history, who knows when that will end?

After all, once you’re in the Hall of Fame, your music has been to space and you’ve faced the wrath of Darrell K. Royal, what else can the next 50 years promise but more?

“More of the same, optimally, now that we think we’re actually getting kind of good at this,” says Gibbons. “We’ve had lots of practice, so we’re on the aim of taking it up a notch or two.” 

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