It’s never easy writing about one of the most influential bands in southern rock music when its founding member passes away. A departure of a legend often leaves admirers filled with sorrow and band members despondent. But its these legends who never truly leave us. The legacy left behind through their work is what immortalizes these musicians into stars. For 50 years, ZZ Top proved to be much more than “That Lil’ Ol’ Band from Texas,”. Powerhoused by frontmen, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, the unlikely rustic-looking duo etched the rock ‘n’ roll years of the 70s and 80s. Standard blues riffs and unrestrained guitar sounds amplified the Hall of Famers careers. But before they were playing in front of sold-out arenas, the duo was just simply passing the time playing in front of tumbleweeds.
Gibbons had spent the majority of his childhood around music backed by a multi-instrumentalist father. Noticing his passion for it, Gibbons’ family paid for private lessons with the “Latin Music King” Tito Puente. But after witnessing a live performance from blues icon B.B. King, Gibbons knew that music was to be his vocation. The next several years was spent in between different bands while Gibbons lived in California. Upon returning to his native Texas, Gibbons was struck by the memories of his blues-oriented roots which formed ZZ Top. A mixture of names that honored his idols. After developing his sound with longtime friend and drummer, Dan Mitchell, ZZ Top shopped around for new members. Mitchell would part ways as well but be replaced by local favorite, Frank Beard. The duo tried out several different bassists with no one committing to the group for various reasons. Until a mutual friend had someone in mind. In another life, native Texas rocker, Dusty Hill, could’ve been Gibbons’ twin. Both shared similar tastes in music, style, equal part weirdness and looks. Hill was the perfect choice to be their bassist.
With Gibbons at the helm as ZZ Top’s main lyricist and composer, they released their debut album ZZ Top’s First Album. The 1971 record showed that the band had plenty of humor, obviously noted in the title. Its wave of innuendos and double-entendres were only exclaimed higher by the soundtrack’s distortion. But behind the album’s good spirits hid a fear of uncertainty in Gibbons’ mind. “We weren’t certain if we’d get another chance in the studio”, as he stated, “but we had high hopes.” Critics were less than enthusiastic about the band overall at the time of their debut. Retrospective reviews, however, were more complimentary as others remarked on the band establishing signature quirks and attitude through this work. The album’s success made way for the release of Rio Grande Mud. An essential record that charted their first single, “Francine”, which became the atom of what was to come for future achievements.
For a while, Gibbons had hidden his vulnerable side on feeling the fear of failure. Questions on whether his band would be successful stapled to his mind. But the tight rhythm section of Hill and Beard grew confidence for Gibbons to unleash his “dirty” guitar tone. 1973’s Tres Hombres established the band’s signature sound of growling guitars backed by a boogie rhythm. The hit single “La Grange” was a highlight of rock radio and showcased an attitude as wild as the brothel it was inspired from. The album peaked at number eight on Billboard and presented the group their first sold-out US tour. Their clout expanded further as audiences became captivated and critics became perplexed over the frontmen’s long beards. Complete with shades and black jackets, ZZ Top was a live spectacle.
As a major attraction on live tours, ZZ Top rolled with this style and evolved their Texas appeal to music. Fandango! Became the group’s second consecutive album to reach the top 10 and exhibit classic radio singles. “Tush” and “Thunderbird” personified the group’s uniqueness. With one side of the album being recorded live while the other was studio recorded. The album’s acclaim staged the group’s next live extravaganza with the 1976 Worldwide Texas Tour. The tour’s lengthy schedule brought a much-needed break which ultimately lasted nearly three years. Gibbons traveled to explore new sounds around the world while Hill and Beard took their own personal time off. But fan reception meant that a return was imminent and with it came a new direction.
Warner Bros. had been interested in signing the group to a record deal after their previous contract expired with London Records. A new label meant a new album and resulted in 1979’s Deguello. A leaner, edgier sound attributed to Gibbons’ time in Europe and became harnessed in their follow-up album, El Loco. By this time, the group was heavily approaching uncharted territory as they became more new wave. Gibbons fully embraced this change with the usage of synthesizers in 1983’s Eliminator. It was almost unheard of to combine blues lyrics to a pop-based instrument. It was practically heresy. But “Legs”, Sharp Dressed Man” and “TV Dinners” proved that the match was perfect. The record became a multi-platinum triumph and featured MTV music videos that were definitive for the channel. 10 million copies later, ZZ Top showed the world that they were finally mainstream with a diamond record.
The wake of Eliminator brought the group’s next highest charting album, Afterburner. While it wasn’t as commercially successful, critics were endorsing the group’s music as necessary for music. Their sonic charged tone concluded with Recycler in 1990 and officially mark the end of the band’s contract with Warner. After years of grueling tour work, the band decided to return to the roots of their simple guitar-driven sound. The band released culmination records of their best hits along with newer material towards the new century. Their expansion of sound and music brought the group honor at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Rather than slowing down, ZZ Top decided to keep rolling with a Rick Rubin collab in La Futura. The group always teased about a follow-up with Hill stating, “We’ve got a lot in the can.” The bassist always held as much passion for music as Gibbons. Nothing would keep him from doing what he loves most. But life eventually catches up.
In the late month of July, the world was suddenly struck by the news of Hill’s passing at the age of 72. Longtime fans and artists inspired by the group mourned his unexpected passing greatly. But none more so than Hill’s wife and Gibbons who honor his memory. After releasing a personal letter to fans titled: My Sweet Dusty, his wife stated, “He loved his fans and always remembered that without fans music is not heard. So, know he truly appreciated each and every one of you.” Gibbons expressed his own feelings for his late friend stating, “I had a couple of moments with the waterworks coming and going,” with intentions of continuing Hill’s legacy. Guitar tech Elwood Francis was personally selected by Hill to perform in his place if anything should happen to him. As Gibbons stated, “Dusty emphatically grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Give Elwood the bottom end, and take it to the Top.’ He meant it, amigo. He really did.” Life goes on. But music is forever and ZZ Top are forever among the immortals.
Written by Trenton Luber