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Group formed in Texas, February 10, 1970; members include Billy Gibbons (born in Houston, TX; guitar), Dusty Hill (born May 19, 1949, in Dallas, TX; bass), and Frank Beard (drums). Addresses: Record company-- Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.

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 Coachment. 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 money-maker 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 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 Deguello, perhaps their finest effort yet. "[Deguello] 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 Deguello 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.

by Calen D. Stone

ZZ Top's Career

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.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 9, 2003: ZZ Top's album, Mescalero, was released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping, shopping.yahoo.com/shop?d=product&id=1921967864, September 9, 2003.

October 14, 2003: ZZ Top's album, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ: The ZZ Top Box, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_6/rock.jsp, October 16, 2003.

March 15, 2004: ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, March 16, 2004.

June 15, 2004: ZZ Top's album, Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, June 20, 2004.

Further Reading



ZZ Top Lyrics

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