In 1969, songwriter and guitarist Billy Gibbons started a band with a couple of fellow Houston musicians. They named themselves ZZ Top as a tribute to bluesmen Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King.
They only cut one single before both his bandmates left and Gibbons wound up needing replacements. After some looking, he ended up with Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on percussion, and they’ve stayed together ever since. It’s interesting to note that the original bassist, Lanier Greig, also played organ; the band’s records would have had quite a different sound if they’d stuck with that instrumentation.
Unable to find an American label interested in their music, the trio signed with London Records, a subsidiary of Decca. They ended up making too many albums to cover in detail, but here’s a primer on some of ZZ Top’s best lesser-known tracks.
The aptly named ZZ Top’s First Album came out in 1971. It included all original material, mostly by Gibbons. Its only single was “Somebody Else Been Shakin’ Your Tree,” which didn’t exactly shake the world. London Records paired the band with producer Bill Ham, an in-studio relationship that was to last for 25 years.
On this early effort, you can already hear the heart of ZZ Top: the bass-heavy guitar in counterpoint with a Southern rock-inspired melody and close harmony. While the big hits to come would often spotlight the band’s sense of humor, the song “Old Man” is wistful.
Gibbons once told an interviewer that the second album, Rio Grande Mud (1972), was the one that turned them into real songwriters, teaching them to document what they saw and experienced and minting that material into tracks. Their growing fanbase must have sensed the change, making the single “Francine” the band’s first to reach the top ten.
There’s a lot of musical substance in the bluesy “Sure Got Cold after the Rain Fell,” which uses 6/8 time and an unusual, sultry chord pattern. The application of silence between verses is an effective device.
ZZ Top had its first top-ten album with Tres Hombres in 1973, featuring the boogie single “La Grange.” Next came Fandango! in 1975. The tracks for Side A were recorded live at The Warehouse in New Orleans. The B side, recorded in the studio, included the thunderous, hard-rolling single, “Tush.”
Humor was becoming a bigger part of the songwriting, as you can hear on “Mexican Blackbird.” Although Gibbons is using a blues format, his delivery is deadpan, over-emphasizing his Texas drawl and adding a vocal flip or yodel at the end of lines. His slide guitar riffs here also evoke the early days of country music.
Tejas followed in 1976, an album that Gibbons has called a transitional moment, when the band started to make a point of seeking out state-of-the-art equipment. This was a habit that would continue through the decades, and it might help explain their sustained ability to sell their new recordings. It was in the break after promoting this album that the two men not named Beard let their beards grow for that famous ZZ Top look.
After signing with Warner Music (bringing producer Bill Ham with them), they released Degüello in 1979. It’s easy to think of ZZ Top as having mainly Southern rock and Delta blues roots. But that overlooks the importance of soul and R&B on their sound. A good reminder is the opening track of Degüello, a cover of Isaac Hayes’ “I Thank You.” The combination of the slow-syncopated melody and the brightly timbred straight-up rock drumbeat takes some getting used to but is worth a listen.
As it did for many bands, the 1980s brought more synthesizer sounds into the studio for ZZ Top. Specifically, it was hearing the band Devo that inspired this change on the 1981 album El Loco. Despite that new interest, the only single to reach the top ten was the decidedly non-synth, train-like “Tube Snake Boogie.”
On the other end of the spectrum is the intensely electronic “Groovy Little Hippie Pad.” The band is nearly unrecognizable for the first chorus with all those synth effects. But wait it out, and the guitar starts doing the driving again, as if that Devo thing never even happened.
The next couple of albums, Eliminator (1983) and Afterburner (1985) put the trio firmly in superstar territory. This was the era of band-defining songs like “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Sleeping Bag.” Warner released so many charting singles from each album that there are hardly any tracks left that aren’t widely known. Recycler (1990), their last effort for Warner, didn’t have anything close to the sales of the previous two efforts.
It was RCA that coaxed the band away from Warner with a 35 million dollar contract. Their first RCA release was Antenna (1994), which immediately produced a No. 1 single, “Pincushion.” As for the album’s sound, Gibbons told Mojo that the band had consciously chosen to use electronic effects more judiciously, going for “a stripped-down version of former approaches.”
In other words, it’s old-school ZZ Top, as you can hear in “Antenna Head.” The only thing that’s been stripped away is the synth. The energy is high voltage. In his guitar solo around 2:45, Gibbons makes interesting use of octave jumps.
Ham produced only one more album, Rhythmeen (1996). That was followed in 1999 by the 30th-anniversary album XXX, which found neither critical nor popular success. Their last RCA release was Mescalero, known for the distortion of Gibbons’ guitar. Ironically, it’s also a more traditional album, tapping into Tejano and country sounds. For example, here’s “Alley-Gator,” featuring cumbia-style accordion. Gibbons is even playing a retro guitar for this number, a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.
ZZ Top’s final album to date is La Futura, released in 2012 and coming in at the No. 5 spot on the rock albums chart. That was quite an accomplishment for a group in its 43rd year. They launched a 50th-anniverary tour in 2019 but had to cancel the last leg in spring of 2020 due to COVID-19. Those dates have been rescheduled for 2021. Fingers crossed! While you wait, you can enjoy director Sam Dunn’s new documentary, ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas, created for the 50th anniversary and available for home viewing (https://www.eagle-rock.com/zz-top-that-little-ol-band-from-tex).
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brian Marks.