I am actually cannibalizing myself and republishing a post I told a little over a year ago. This is because ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill died today at the age of 72. Never did get to see those three ‘lil o’ boys from Texas although I did see Billy Gibbons. .I guess it’s possible that they’ll soldier on without him. But how do you replace a guy who has been a fixture of the band since 1971?
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.
17 thoughts on “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers – A Tribute to Dusty Hill”
I don’t think enough can be said about ZZ Top; great music & great eye candy in the videos (I know, I know…). RIP Dusty Hill.
Eye candy and all, they were (and are) great.
Incredible and sad. I actually think it happened today. I got a push notification to a CNN story.
Just last week, ZZ Top announced Hill was dealing with a hip issue and, at his request, the band’s longtime guitar technician Elwood Francis would step in for him.
I wonder whether Francis now becomes their new permanent bassist, though I agree with you it’s hard to imagine replacing a guy who had been with the band for more than 50 years!
You are correct. I modified that. What is it with these guys and hip problems? Petty. Prince. I bet that guy becomes bassist. They may love Dusty but $$$.
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I guess touring can be pretty taxing, especially as you get older. But, yes, it’s still peculiar. I wonder whether similar to Tom Petty and Prince, Hill was on powerful pain relievers. Who knows.
I also think you’re right ZZ Top will go on. It’s probably also what their fans would want. And probably even Hill, assuming he has family who would likely benefit from it financially.
Right. There’s rarely been a more popular or powerful rhythm section than Moon/Entwistle. Moon died 40 years ago, Entwistle 20. Both irreplaceable. And yet The Who toured just prior to COVID. C’est la vie.
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I don’t see them going forward except to complete some dates. It would never be the same. I haven’t followed them in many years, but back in the day, we used to cross paths a lot in Dallas and Houston music scene. Actually, American Blues was a good band and very much like the ZZ we grew to know. We all grow old and die, even rock legends.
Ain’t that the truth. In some ways they are a symbol of our lost youth.
I didn’t know the story about how he shot himself in the abdomen until today:
I didn’t either till I read it in his obit. RIght at the height of their popularity too.
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I was here for your last take.
ZZ like thing I just caught wind of, a PBS special ‘The Blues Chase The Blues’ Buddy Guy thing. American Masters. They do a good job.
My friend Bill – who’s on top of all the PBS stuff – called and told me. Recorded it, haven’t seen it.
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Im looking forward to i.
Great write up Jim. I didn’t know their history – very sad news yesterday
ZZ Top were one of the few early 70s blues-rockers still out there doing it. Robin Trower is still out there. Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown. Fabulous Thunderbirds. Jimmie Vaughan. It’s been a long time, a long haul.
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Excellent. I only got into ZZ Top about 8 years ago or so after some chat with a pal of mine. Became one of my favourite bands quite quickly. I had been looking forward to the promise of new music, though I had also kinda thought that Billy seemed quite committed to his solo stuff (his new one is his best yet). We’ll see what happens and how far they continue without Dusty (whether it’s just tours or what – I know the talk is that Dusty wanted them to continue). They’ll certainly miss him. What a presence.
(I mid reading about the Fake Zombies… both Dusty and Frank were in that. Quite incredible, really).
Yes, it looks like the Fake Zombies have had their day. We will hoist a large can of beer for Mr. Hill and hopefully see some version of this band somewhere down that long, lonesome, dusty (!) Texas road.
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