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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
*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.