ZZ Top is an American rock trio, formed in late 1969 in Houston, Texas, by Billy Gibbons (lead vocals and lead guitar), Dusty Hill (vocals, bass, and keyboards), and Frank Beard (drums). ZZ Top has been together for four decades, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was ranked number 44 on VH1 cable's "100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock."
The band holds the distinction of being among the few rock bands still composed of its original recording members for nearly 40 years and until September 2006, the same manager/producer/image maker, Bill Ham.
ZZ Top reached peak commercial success in the 1970s and 1980s, scoring many hit songs during that era, but they remain together today and are still touring and releasing albums. ZZ Top was inducted by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the annual induction ceremony on March 15, 2004. Summarizing their music, Cub Koda wrote, "As genuine roots musicians, they have few peers; Gibbons is one of America's finest blues guitarists working in the hard rock idiom ... while Hill and Beard provide the ultimate rhythm section support." Their song lyrics often feature sexual innuendo and tasteful humor.
Nearly as well-known as their music is the group's biker-frontiersmen image: ZZ Top is almost always pictured wearing sunglasses (a nod to their 1979 song "Cheap Sunglasses"), Gibbons and Hill (the singing frontmen) wearing similar if not matching black clothing (usually biker leathers), black cowboy hats or ball caps. Gibbons has been noted for wearing a African "artichoke" skullcap under his hat, black biker boots or comfortable substitutes, neck chains hanging beer can openers, trinkets and small tools. Both Gibbons and Hill are noted for their trademark chest-length beards (in spite of his own surname, drummer Beard almost always sports just a trim mustache).
In 1984, the Gillette Company reportedly offered Gibbons and Hill $1 million each to shave their beards for a television commercial but they declined, stating "We're too ugly without 'em."
The ZZ Top guitars
Like many rock stars, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill are dedicated rare, classic electric guitar and vintage amp and speaker system collectors ("the pursuit of things sonic"), and famous for their personal custom guitars, many of which were co-designed by Gibbons and master luthier John Bolin of Bolin Guitars. Gibbons likes his custom instruments with a neck conforming to the specs of his highly-prized 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard nicknamed "Pearly Gates" (named after the barely-roadworthy car Billy sold for money to buy the guitar many years ago). Hill requests that his basses have a similar neck profile to the 1951 Fender Precision Bass he used extensively in the early days of the band, and often uses to this day. In the 1990s, Gibbons also contributed to the design of the "Muddywood" guitar, a one-off instrument crafted from a plank of the Mississippi Delta shack in which blues legend Muddy Waters was born. For concerts, a fan favorite pair of guitars are the spinning "white fuzzies" (covered in synthetic white fur) -- "Have Mercy!" -- a tribute to hanging fuzzy dice in the custom street rods of the '50s.
The players who would comprise ZZ Top had been in different Texas-based groups, most notably the Moving Sidewalks with Gibbons, and American Blues with Hill and Beard. By 1969, the rival groups had disbanded, and the three musicians joined forces. At first, Billy invited Frank for his project, a blues-rock foursome. Needing a new bassist after Everett Bradshaw left, Beard suggested his former band mate, Joe "Dusty" Hill, and the nascent band stayed a trio.
The origin of the band's name was not officially known for many years, but rumors abounded: a hybrid of two popular brands of rolling paper, Zig-Zag and 'Top'; a tribute to blues legend Z. Z. Hill; and Billy Gibbons perhaps witnessing the two words running together on a dilapidated billboard. The current version of the story—as told by Billy Gibbons and recorded in his book Rock + Roll Gearhead--is derived from the name of blues guitar master B. B. King. The band originally wanted to call themselves Z.Z. King, but thought it seemed too similar to their hero. They thus figured that "King" was also at the "top", and so settled on ZZ Top.
ZZ Top played their first show in February, 1970, and toured Texas almost continuously for the next several years. Upon signing a contract with London Records, the first two albums, ZZ Top's First Album and Rio Grande Mud, were made at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas.
In January 1973, ZZ Top opened for The Rolling Stones three shows in Hawaii. They also began recording with engineer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios in Memphis. The resultant third album, Tres Hombres (1973), was the first for which the band gained a million-seller and wide acclaim. Hombres featured ZZ's classic hit "La Grange," written about the Chicken Ranch, a famous La Grange, Texas bordello (that was also the subject of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Other album cuts like "Waitin' for the Bus" and its immediate follower "Jesus Just Left Chicago" became fan favorites and rock-radio staples.
By September 1974, ZZ Top was drawing tens of thousands to shows such as the Labor Day stadium concert in Austin, dubbed "ZZ Top's First Annual Texas-Size Rompin' Stompin' Barndance and Bar-B-Q." Also on the bill were Santana, Joe Cocker, and Bad Company.
A photo of the 1974 crowds was used on the record sleeve of Fandango!, released in 1975. The album—half studio material and half live document—spawned the infamous hit "Tush" as well as "Heard It on the X", a paean to Mexican border-blaster stations whose call sign began with X. The band continued touring heavily in 1976, releasing Tejas and the single "Arrested for Driving While Blind".
By 1977, after hefty touring and recording schedules, ZZ Top drifted into an extended and unplanned hiatus. Manager-producer and overall image-meister Bill Ham used the time to negotiate a recording deal which allowed the band to retain rights to their catalogue on London Records, which would then be distributed by their new label, Warner Bros. Records.
ZZ Top reunited in 1979 for live shows and a new album, Degüello, under their new Warner Brothers contract. Unbeknownst to each other, Hill and Gibbons had both grown out their now-famous beards. (The only beardless band member remained the mustachioed Frank Beard.) The album displayed a strikingly minimalist approach to the ZZ Top sound. Along with Gibbons' clean guitar and the sparse Hill-Beard rhythm section, Deguello sported saxophone harmonies courtesy of Gibbons, Hill, and Beard—touted as the "The Lone Wolf Horns"—and yielded famous hits such as "Cheap Sunglasses" along with a cover version of Isaac Hayes' "I Thank You".
Eliminator and the 1980s
ZZ Top started out the 1980s with an eclectic mix of songs on El Loco, released in 1981. The album featured the band's first use of synthesizer and incorporated unusual electronic effects. Singles stayed in the previous ZZ good-time vein, however, such as "Tube Snake Boogie" and "Party on the Patio".
By late 1983, with the telling release of Eliminator, ZZ Top had undertaken a complete artistic reinvention both in sound and image. Eliminator featured a darkly innovative and distinctive synthesizer-laced sound which wove into and augmented the band's guitar-bass-drums formula, a rarity in the blues-rock genre. Beard also played most songs to a click track, maintaining a metronomic rhythm to synchronize with the electronic instruments.
The album's sound was distinctive in other ways. To obtain the signature overdriven Eliminator guitar tone, Gibbons devised the "amp cabin", a collection of guitar amplifiers surrounding a microphone. Gibbons also employed the use of the Rockman headphone amplifier invented by Tom Scholz of the rock band Boston. He has repeatedly stated in years since that he plays guitar with a peso coin instead of a traditional guitar pick. Ridiculously, rumor had it that Gibbons and Hill used melted-down Cadillac fenders for guitar strings.
With the advent of MTV, ZZ Top promptly embraced the phenomenon of the music video and boosted itself to new popularity with video releases of "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man", each featuring the band's new icon: a cherry-red 1933 Ford Coupe hot rod nicknamed The Eliminator. The comical videos featured a trio of mysterious, sexy women who roam around and rescue people from seemingly dire situations, along with an iconic Billy, Dusty, and Frank, who seem to appear out of nowhere and grinningly proffer keys to the Eliminator.
The ZZ Top sound now featured a modern, electronic, and danceable formula which won the band new fans and multi-million-dollar success in sales, radio and video play, and live tours. Eliminator remains ZZ Top's most successful album to date.
The band's next album, 1985's Afterburner, expanded Eliminator's use of synthesizers coupled with blues-rock rhythms. The ZZ Top sound now incorporated the use of sequencers, notably on the hit singles and videos "Sleeping Bag", "Rough Boy", and "Velcro Fly". The Afterburner album cover (and "Sleeping Bag" video) now portrayed the Eliminator as a hot-rodded version of the Space Shuttle and the band as a space-station lounge act in "Rough Boy".
In 1987, Warner released the three-disc set ZZ Top: Six Pack, a collection of ZZ Top's albums from 1970 to 1981 (minus 1979's Degüello). The first five albums, however, were remixed—perhaps controversially—by the label (along with ZZ Top) in order to make them sound more like the band's most recent (1980s) works. The drum tracks had digital reverb added, lyrics were changed (such as the last verse of "Mexican Blackbird") on several songs, and in order to fit six albums on three discs, some tracks (such as "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" from Rio Grande Mud) were edited or 'faded out' sooner than their original versions. At the same time, individual CD releases were released of these albums which also contained these remixed versions. Degüello, however, was spared the revisionist treatment because the album was temporarily taken out of print due to a legal issue involving the Elmore James song, "Dust My Broom", which was covered on the album.
Recycler, released in 1990, was ZZ Top's last studio album under contract with Warner Records. Recycler was also the last of a distinct sonic trilogy in the ZZ Top catalogue. The collection actually marked a return towards the earlier, simpler guitar-driven blues sound with less synthesizer and pop bounce of the previous two albums. This move did not entirely suit the fanbase that Eliminator and Afterburner had built up, and while Recycler did achieve platinum status, it never matched the sales of Eliminator and Afterburner. The cartoonish and sexy-ZZ-girl videos continued in singles like "My Head's in Mississippi", "Give It Up", and "Burger Man".
ZZ Top also contributed a song, "Doubleback", and appeared as an acoustic band in the wild-west dance scene in the 1990 movie Back to the Future Part III. The band also appeared in the 1990 TV movie Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme, portraying the Three Men in a Tub.
In 1992, Warner released ZZ Top's Greatest Hits along with a new Rolling Stones-style cut "Gun Love" and an Elvis-inflected video, "Viva Las Vegas".
In 1993, ZZ Top inducted a major influence, Cream, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The band then signed to a five-album deal with RCA Records, releasing the million-selling Antenna in 1994. Subsequent RCA albums, Rhythmeen (1996) and 1999's XXX (the second album to feature live tracks) sold well, but did not reach earlier standards. ZZ Top, however, continued to play to enthusiastic live audiences.
In 1997, ZZ Top recorded a song for amateur wrestler Nicholas "Wild Thing" Bauer at the request of WWE star "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
2000 and beyond
In 2003, ZZ top released a final RCA album, Mescalero, an album thick with harsh Gibbons guitar and featuring a hidden track- a cover version of "As Time Goes By". RCA impresario Clive Davis wanted to do a collaboration record (in the mode of Carlos Santana's successful Supernatural) for this album. In an interview in Goldmine magazine, artists Pink, Dave Matthews, and Wilco were among the artists slated for the project.
A comprehensive four-CD collection of recordings from the London and Warner Bros. years, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, was released in 2003. It featured the band's first single (A- and B-side), several rare B-side tracks as well as a radio promotion from 1979, a live track and several extended dance mix versions of their biggest MTV hits. Three tracks from Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ band, The Moving Sidewalks, were also included.
Expanded and remastered versions of the original studio albums from the 1970s and '80s are currently in production. Marketed as "Remastered and Expanded," these releases include additional live tracks which were not present on the original recordings. Three such CDs have been released to date (Tres Hombres, Fandango!, and Eliminator). The first two were released in 2006 and use the original mixes free from echo and fake drum machines, while "Eliminator" was released in 2008. The Eliminator re-release also features a collector's edition version containing a DVD featuring several videos and additional live tracks.
As of 2006, it was reported that ZZ Top were recording their 15th studio album. There was no release, however, and on September 17, 2006, the band ended their tenure with RCA Records and further left their manager Bill Ham, president of Lone Wolf Management. No reasons were publicized for these changes. In December 2006, Sanctuary Management added ZZ Top to its roster.
The band was honored by Billy Bob Thornton at the second annual VH1 Rock Honors on May 24, 2007. Nickelback performed a rendition of Sharp Dressed Man as an introduction. The same show also included Ozzy Osbourne, Genesis and Heart.
ZZ Top's most recent high-profile appearance was a performance at the 2008 Orange Bowl game in Miami. They also performed in 2008 at the Auto Club 500 NASCAR event at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
On May 21, 2008, ZZ Top played their song "Sharp Dressed Man" with the winner of American Idol Season 7 David Cook on the American Idol Finale. On June 12-14, they performed at Bama Jam, outside of Enterprise Alabama. On June 12, 2008, they performed on the main Coca Cola Stage at the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee in front of an estimated crowd of 125,000.
On June 23, 2008, ZZ Top celebrated the release of their first (official) live concert DVD entitled Live From Texas with the world premiere, a special appearance and charity auction at the Hard Rock Cafe Houston. The DVD was officially released on June 24, 2008. The featured performance was culled from a concert filmed at the Nokia Theater in Grand Prairie, Texas on November 1, 2007.
On April 9, 2009, Aerosmith announced that ZZ Top will be accompanying them on their upcoming tour of their new album, although the latter part of the tour was canceled August 14, 2009 due to Steve Tyler's back injury on August 6, 2009.