Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers – A Six-pack of ZZ Top

As always, my six-packs aren’t meant to say “these are the best six.” In fact, ZZ Top has so many tunes I dig I could easily have done another six. The Spotify list is locked and loaded with these tunes and plenty more.

ZZ Top Spotify list

I recently did another great Texas blues guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan. I dunno – maybe these times just have me singing the blues. Here’s a little history. In addition to Wikipedia, I got much of it from a cool Netflix documentary called ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.

Back in the early ’60s – back when Stevie Ray Vaughan was first picking up the guitar – Dusty Hill and his brother Rocky were playing in bands around Dallas. They needed a bass player and older brother Rocky pretty much told Dusty “you’re it.”

From the sound of it, it was pretty early R&B, rock and roll, and then eventually, British Invasion-styled stuff. Rocky saw drummer Frank Beard and said “that’s our drummer.” Rocky – who has since passed away – seemed to be a very determined guy.

The guys played in bands like the Warlocks, the Cellar Dwellers, and -eventually – American Blues where they all dyed their hair blue just to be different. From 1966 to 1968, American Blues played the Dallas-Fort Worth-Houston circuit. They were influenced by a band called the 13th Floor Elevators, a “psychedelic rock” band from Austin who gained some national notice. Eventually – again like the Vaughan Brothers – Rocky wanted to play pure blues, Dusty more rock-oriented.

Dusty took off for Houston followed not too much later by Frank Beard who had by now not only a wife and kid but also a traumatic parting with his parents. Houston was a different scene and the hot band was Moving Sidewalks and the hot guitarist was Billy Gibbons. Billy was a bluesman par excellence

The Sidewalks were pretty much playing the Houston circuit. But they did have a hit with a very 60’s sounding tune, cheesy Farfisa organ and all. That song is called “99th Floor” and you can hear it here if you’re so inclined. It has kind of a Yardbirds feel, especially when the harp kicks in. (Which, BTW, Billy plays.)

The band got some recognition and started opening for people like Jeff Beck, the Doors and even Hendrix (in 1968.) Billy and the boys sure know who Jimi was so that was a pretty big fucking deal for them. (There’s a possibly apocryphal story floating around that when Hendrix was asked what it was like to be the best guitarist, he said “I don’t know. Ask Billy Gibbons.”)

And then all the shit that happens to bands happened – two guys got drafted so they carried on as a trio. Tired, I guess, of the name Moving Sidewalks (which moved forward while 13th Floor Elevator moved up), they looked around their space one day and saw all the blues posters they had. Billy noticed all the initials – B.B. King, Z.Z. Hill, etc. So he thought, well, how about ZZ King? No. But what is the King? The top. Hence, ZZ Top.

Then the organist and drummer quit and so Billy needed a new band. Frank was looking for a band and “made” Billy jam with him in a studio all day. Billy loved Frank’s playing ‘coz he was right in the pocket. Frank brought Dusty* in and -voila! They played a blues ‘Shuffle in C’ for three hours and that was it  Just to put this all in perspective, this was in 1969, which I believe makes them the longest-running band with its original lineup.

The guys met a local record promoter/songwriter named Bill Ham and Ham was instrumental in helping them become successful, helping them define an image and a sound till his passing in 2016.

ZZ Top’s First Album was released in January 1971 to little fanfare. Not that it was a bad album or that blues-rock wasn’t popular. But it was just one more album in a slew of them that came out in that great time period.

One of the tunes is called “Brown Sugar” and it starts out like a traditional slow blues then goes into what would become that trademark Top sound. (Sorry, Mick. You wrote a song with that title first but they beat you to the release by several months.)

Spotify link

The guys played constantly all over Texas but all the small towns not the major cities. In the documentary, they talk about how they came out one night and played to one guy. Including encore. Then they bought him a Coke. Billy says that he still comes to their shows.

The guys caught a break and played the Memphis Blues Festival (which I believe is now the Beale Street Festival.) This would have been in 1971. A glance at their setlist shows their repertoire pretty much consisted of stuff from their first album plus Fleetwood Mac and Chuck Berry covers. (They also did “Jailhouse Rock.” Dusty is a fanatical Elvis fan and would need an extra dressing room on tour to keep his Elvis memorabilia. They do a killer version of “Viva Las Vegas.”)

The guys caught the attention of one of their favorite bands, the Stones, and were asked to open for them in Hawaii. They couldn’t believe their good fortune as they’d barely ever been out of Texas. They told their management they needed to go two weeks in advance to rehearse and spent the whole time checking out ladies on the beach and drinking which is exactly what you and I would have done. (Charlie Watts never left the bar per Dusty.)

Billy heard that Zeppelin were doing some work at Ardent Studios in Memphis and that was good enough for him. They went in to get “that sound,” that grit and they caught lightning in a bottle with Tres Hombres and the breakout FM hit, “La Grange,” I’ve always assumed it was probably about a boarding school for proper young ladies! It’s got that John Lee Hooker thing all over it. How how how how! A classic rock staple. (As is “Tush.”)

Rumour spreadin’ ’round
In that Texas town
About that shack outside La Grange
And you know what I’m talkin’ about.

Just let me know
If you wanna go
To that home out on the range.
They got a lot of nice girls.

Spotify link

Nobody seemed to know quite what to make of these three “Little Ol’ Boys from Texas.” Were they a Southern Rock band? They wore cowboy hats. Were they a country band? There was never any doubt whatsoever in my mind that they were a blues or blues-rock band. “Interpreters of the blues,” Dusty says.

To start showing off their proud Texas roots, in 1976 – 77 they staged the Worldwide Texas Tour. “The backdrop featured several scrims that showed a three-dimensional panorama, visual effects, and a canyon landscape, along with a stage in the shape of Texas. Native fauna, flora, wagon wheels, corral fences, and longhorn skulls were included in the shows.” They even had a buffalo and a buzzard and for all I know, live alligators.

The guys had been touring pretty much nonstop for four years and decided to take a three-month break. This break turned into two years. Billy traveled the world, Dusty got a job at an airport (!) so he could not be a star for a while. And Frank took the first $72,000 he ever earned ($300,000 in today’s dollars) and blew every last dime of it on pills, heroin, and cocaine. (He cleaned up his act later.)

The guys released an album called Deguello in 1979 and it contains one of the coolest songs any human being has ever done, “Cheap Sunglasses.” (For the record, the guys hadn’t much shaved during the hiatus, hence the beards to add to that image.)

Spotify link

The guys were a solid FM radio band with a good-sized following they had developed and could have stayed that way for years. But they saw the fledgling beginnings of MTV and thought, hmm, video. Their manager approached director Tim Newman who had directed his cousin Randy’s “I Love LA.” Together they made a couple of iconic videos (instuctions – chicks, cars) that made the Little Old Boys megastars.

Eliminator was released in 1983 and sold shitloads of copies. Some thought that ZZ Top had gone too commercial and lost the essence of the blues. I say bullshit to that. They still sounded great and if a little more commercial, so what. It’s not like it’s disco.

I’ve always loved “Sharp Dressed Man.” I was playing in a band at the time and this tune would always get the ladies up and dancing. Then they’d look at me in that way and then make a beeline for the drummer or the bass player.

Spotify link

Before we wind up our journey to the Lone Star State, let’s go back a few years to the album El Loco and do the “Tubesnake Boogie.” Blow your top, blow your top:

Spotify list

ZZ Top never hit the same commercial heights again and 1983 is a long ways away. But I kinda think they don’t much give a shit. They are still out there doing what they do and people are still coming to see them. I was going to see them with Gregg Allman but Gregg passed and that was that. I did see Billy at a small club with another band not too long ago and it was a blast.

The coronavirus has fucked everything up but their website shows them touring (hopefully) the States (not Boston) later this year and then Canada into next year.

The Spotify list has a bunch of good stuff so check that out at your leisure. But for this six-pack, I will leave you a nice slow one called “Fool for Your Stockings.” Yes indeed.

Spotify link

*In 1969, Hill was a member of a fake version of the British band The Zombies with Beard. This is a weird story you can read here if you’ve got the time. It revolves around the fact that the Zombies had a hit but had already broken up. But that didn’t stop unscrupulous promoters from trying to make a buck. 

 

 

26 thoughts on “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers – A Six-pack of ZZ Top

  1. ZZ Top simply are cool dudes, though I wish they would have been a bit more engaging/ outgoing when I saw them live together with John Fogerty, which was actually exactly two years ago today. Fogerty was the complete opposite, which made it even more obvious that the Texans’ set came across as very routine.

    Fun fact: The guy in the band who’s named beard hardly has a beard, at least compared to Billy and Dusty!

    But as I said at the outset, I really dig ZZ Top’s music and still think “Tush” is perhaps the ultimate blues rocker – awesome riff and super tight! From the clips you included, I think my favorite is “Brown Sugar” – that transition from a slow blues to the more upbeat grove is just awesome. From “La Grange”, in addition to the title track, I also really like “Waitin’ For the Bus” – another very cool groove!

    Damn, now I feel like listening to these guys! 🙂

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    1. I went back and looked at my Billy Gibbons review. He’s a laid-back guy and so his stage persona fits that. He was a pretty engaging storyteller.

      I will go out on a limb here and say you may not be the first person to recognize that particular fun fact. Frank addresses it in the documentary by saying he just wasn’t able to grow one like that.

      My ultimate Top track has to be “La Grange.” I never get tired of it. I love the “Jesus” and “Bus” combo. Those are on the Spotify list.

      Their tour, assuming it happens, comes nowhere near me. Probably just as well. I don’t think I’ll be ready to go to a concert for quite some time.

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      1. I definitely hear you about going to concerts. In fact, as much as it pains me, I’m glad all “my” shows for this year have been rescheduled for 2021.

        As for that ZZ Top gig, perhaps it was a bit of a one-off. After all, these guys aren’t robots. And as I said, since John Fogerty was the complete opposite, it became even more obvious.

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  2. I liked the bit about Hendrix saying ‘go talk to Billy Gibbons’ about being the best guitarist…

    In the UK, the story is the same, except he apparently said ‘go talk to Rory Gallagher’…

    One story for each side of the Atlantic… maybe…

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    1. Yeah. I guess at least Billy and Jimi knew each other. I’ve read that Hendrix may have referred to Billy as a good up-and-coming guitarist which seems at least plausible. Hendrix was notoriously shy and humble about his playing but I can find no evidence he singled out any one ‘greatest’ guitarist.

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  3. Good selection as always, Sir. A couple of years back ZZ Top played a festival in the field behind my house. I remember going to put the bins out and hearing an earthquake of sound washing over as they kicked into their first number – enjoyed the rest of the set through the bedroom windows.

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      1. Ah… it’s hard to say. On one side my neighbours are of an age and temperament they like to complain about everything, on the other they – like I – make a bit of cash each year by renting out space on our driveway as festival parking. Ramblin’ Man has been running for more years than I’ve lived here so I can’t complain – it’s always amusing each year to watch the crowds converging onto the park entrance, all in black with heavy rock bands of yesteryear on their t shirts and original mullets let loose from their week jobs in accounting

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        1. Nice move on the parking thing. A few extra quid to stick in yer pocket and spend on a pint or two at the local Bird and Bee never hurt. As to the congregation of accountants, life insurance salesmen, bird-watchers and weekend hippies, your countryman Keef Richards always thanks them for having normal jobs so he can afford to be an outlaw.

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        2. Ha! I like that, I like that a lot.

          I think the nearest pub, and one which is probably spilling out with leather and denim each time the festival roles around, is called The Thirsty Pig.

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        3. There’s a man who can’t handle his apples. I’ve had to have words with him after he kicked over the bbq once… I think he only did it to ensure some sausages ended up going McCartney’s way

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        4. BTW, I don’t believe I ever heard that Macca song. Didn’t quite make it over on this side of the pond. That is a real slice of cheese. I wonder what Lennon might have said about that. Paul would probably have fought to put it on one of their albums.

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  4. Doc , I’m actually giving them more time now than back when they were popular. Really digging the early stuff. A lot of our fellow bloggers have been on a ZZ gag. They balanced out the other music that was being played to death on the radio back when. Guess that’s the reason I always kinda liked them.

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