ZZ Top: Rocking Hard Since ’69

By David Yonke
Blade Staff Writer

  Two men onstage playing the guitar
Dusty Hill, left, drummer Frank Beard, and Billy F. Gibbons of the veteran band ZZ Top.
September 9, 2009

In the 1970s, ZZ Top toured the world with a Texas-shaped stage, a live buffalo, $140,000 worth of livestock, a couple of snakes, and a buzzard.

The Texas trio is traveling lighter on its current tour, which comes to the SeaGate Centre tonight.

“It’ll be just the three mangy creatures from ZZ Top,” said Billy F. Gibbons, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trio’s guitarist.

Saying he was calling from the Texas-Mexico border, the gruff-voiced, good-natured Gibbons said it was “so hot that when you walk out the door, it’s sort of like trying to walk through mayonnaise.”

But sizzling heat never stopped the Little Ol’ Band from Texas, a group that holds the record for rock longevity.

Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard first joined forces in Houston in 1969, and no other group can match their 38 years of touring and recording with all the original members.

What was the primary reason that ZZ Top has stayed together all these years?

“Well, we knew that we had to return to Toledo, so we just had to keep the band going,” Gibbons said with a little chuckle.

Before he was in ZZ Top, Gibbons played in a psychedelic blues band called the Moving Sidewalks, which recorded the regional hit singles “99th Floor” and “Need Me,” and the band opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968.

Hendrix had high praise for Gibbons’ guitar skills, but Gibbons said he was too busy studying Hendrix’s amazing fretwork to notice the guitarist’s compliment.

“It probably went right over my head,” Gibbons said. “I was doing all I could to catch whatever he was throwing out whenever I could watch him. He was doing things with a guitar that a guitar wasn’t necessarily designed to do.”

One lasting contribution from the Moving Sidewalks are the hidden harnesses that Gibbons and Hill, the band’s bearded frontmen, wear onstage that allow them to spin their guitars in front of them. Gibbons said he got the idea from D.F. Summers, the Sidewalks’ bass player.

Gibbons, 57, got his first guitar and amplifier on his 14th birthday, and his early influences were traditional blues artists including B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Lighnin’ Hopkins, and Freddie King.

“Yeah, man, straight blues — that’s really what kind of started us off,” he said. “It’s kind of a cornerstone to what ZZ Top has managed to do, continuing on in a rock-and-roll bag and every once in a while returning to interpret that great American art form known as the blues.”

In the late 1980s the trio helped raise $1 million for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss., and turned a piece of wood from Muddy Waters’ sharecropper shack into a guitar they dubbed “Muddywood.”

ZZ Top has often credited its distinctive sound — a blend of earthy blues and driving rock mixed with a Texas twang — to three main components: “Tone, Taste, and Tenacity.”

Gibbons said another key factor is the tight interplay of the rhythm section, which had already honed its sound when Hill and Beard played in the Warlocks, American Blues, and other Houston-area bands before giving Gibbons an audition.

“I think the ease of the attachment to this thing that’s now recognized as the ZZ Top sound was ushered along the way by the fact that Frank Beard, our beardless drummer, and Dusty Hill, our famous bass player, had worked together for three or four years in a band since they were in high school,” Gibbons said. “And that did much to helping solidify at least the rhythm section. And they have remained tight, from then through the present.”

The trio, which at first had used the names ZZ Hill and ZZ Brown before settling on ZZ Top, released its debut disc in 1970 with the wryly understated title “ZZ Top’s First Album.” Three years later, the trio broke into the big time with “Tres Hombres,” which reached No. 8 on the Billboard album charts and spawned their signature Texas boogie shuffle, “La Grange.”

ZZ Top toured almost nonstop for seven years, took a two-year break at the end of the decade, and resumed their relentless touring pace in 1980.

By 1986, ZZ Top was the world’s top touring band, according to Pollstar, grossing more than $26 million in 134 concerts that year.

Also in 1986, the Texas House of Representatives named the band members Official Texas Heroes, earning a spot alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.

“We’re in there with all the dead guys,” Gibbons said.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, with Keith Richards making the presentation. Gibbons said the band members became good friends with Prince, who also was inducted that year.

“We made the appearance together when we were inducted, and I’ve really watched with great admiration what he’s managed to do. He’s a remarkable guitarist,” Gibbons said.

One factor that contributed to the trio’s long reign is the advent of music videos in the early 1980s.

ZZ Top used the new medium to great effect by enhancing their songs with videos that featured fast cars and sexy women.

“MTV was kind of an unknown,” Gibbons said. “When we started doing videos, we did not even know about MTV, but had heard about the phenomenon that was tagged ‘music video.’ Our drummer called, rang me up and rang Dusty up and said, ‘Hey, check out this channel 200 [or whatever it was], it’s a pretty good show.’ We thought it was some music concert, and about six hours later we called each other back and said, ‘When does this show end?’”

ZZ Top continues to keep up with technology and new music, getting some help from an Apple iPod that they pass around to a small group of friends including guitarist Jeff Beck. Each musician has a month to add their favorite songs to the iPod and then pass it on to the next person in the group.

The first six people who took part all added Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” to their iPod playlist, Gibbons said, and another song that popped up many times is “Rock Star” by Nickelback.

The iPod circle has grown and, “believe it or not, Keith Richards took a shot at it,” Gibbons said. “A friend of ours was traveling with him to Europe and I think the Stones just closed their recent tour in Russia. … I’m awaiting the arrival of my buddy to see what he brings home from Keith’s turn with the famous pass-around iPod.”

ZZ Top will be in concert at 8 tonight at SeaGate Center, 401 Jefferson Ave. Tickets are $45 and $58.50 from Ticketmaster.

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