Formed: 1970 in Houston TX
Known around the world as "that little ol' band from Texas," blues-rockers ZZ Top are among the most easily recognizable bands in either the blues or rock music. From the waste-length beards of Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, to the band's entertaining music videos of the 1980s, the band's image has long been set in stone. It wouldn't matter if the music wasn't solid, and although they've changed their sound little from the blues-rock blueprint they wrote in 1970, ZZ Top continue to crank out hard-rocking blues with energy and vitality as they enter their fifth decade of performing together.
Rock 'N' Roll Veterans
When they formed in 1970 in Houston, Texas the members of blues-rock legends ZZ Top were already veterans of the rough-n-tumble rock 'n' roll circuit of the Lone Star state. Guitarist Billy Gibbons was a member of psychedelic cult band the Moving Sidewalks while bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard were part of the garage rock band American Blues with Hill's brother Rusty, who would later become a well-known blues-rock guitarist in Texas. When the two bands broke up in 1969, Gibbons asked Beard to form a band, and Beard recommended his bandmate Hill and ZZ Top was born.
The band hit the road almost immediately, quickly building a rabid following across Texas that lead to their signing with London Records. They released ZZ Top's First Album in 1971, followed shortly by Rio Grande Mud a year later. Both albums were grungy, raw, muddy blues-rock records full of Texas swing and bawdy humor. The band ventured to Memphis to record their third album, Tres Hombres, with producer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios.
Released in 1973, Tres Hombres proved to be the band's commercial breakthrough. Adding a little John Lee Hooker-inspired boogie to their blues-rock sound, songs like "La Grange," "Waitin' For The Bus," and "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" found the band hitting their stride, and would propel Tres Hombres to #8 on the Billboard albums chart. At the beginning of the year, ZZ Top was opening shows for the Rolling Stones in Hawaii; a little more than a year later they were headlining, pulling in tens of thousands of fans to each show.
ZZ Top released Fandango! in 1975; one side of the album was live and the other half studio. Although seen as a stopgap to satisfy the band's fans, the album offered several strong new songs and hit #10 on the strength of the hit single "Tush." By the time of 1976's Tejas, ZZ Top was clearly running on fumes…although the album offered plenty of the band's blooze-boogie rock 'n' roll, there was little among the band's ten tracks that was really memorable. While Tejas would hit #17 and place two singles on the chart, it was obvious that better than a half-decade of constant touring had taken its toll on the band.
Birth Of The Beards
In 1977 the band members took an unexpected hiatus from touring and recording, going their separate ways and taking some time off from the rigors of the business. During this time, manager Bill Hamm worked on a deal that would take the band to Warner Records while allowing them to keep the rights to their London Records recordings. It was during this extended vacation that Gibbons and Hill, unknown to each other, grew out their now trademark beards that have become an integral part of the band's image.
When the band returned to work in 1979 with Deguello, they were sporting a more polished sound that retained the power of their earlier work. Deguello yielded a hit single in the fan favorite "Cheap Sunglasses," the album placing ZZ Top back into the Top Thirty. Back on the road again, ZZ Top picked up exactly where they left off almost three years later, still building on their fan base. ZZ Top would enter the 1980s with 1981's El Loco, an unabashed blues-rock party record that did little to extend the band's sound but still sold well but, in many aspects, was a return to the lackadaisical effort of Tejas.
With 1983's Eliminator, ZZ Top would shoot to the top of the rock 'n' roll world. Using MTV to promote visually exciting music videos, the band welded the era's synth-driven "new wave" sound with their trademark blues-rock, resulting in songs like "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man." The album would make ZZ Top worldwide rock icons. Two years later, the band delivered Afterburner, which was really just a gussied up remake of Eliminator with less blues and more synthesizers and electronics. Although the album would alienate many early fans, it would prove to be their most commercially successful album to date
In 1990, ZZ Top would try a third bite at the "new wave" apple with the ironically-titled Recycler album. Although the album's synthesized boogie-rock had become dated and tired, Recycler still resulted in sold-out shows and placement in the Top Ten. Sensing that they were treading water, ZZ Top returned in 1994 with the stripped-down Antenna, which matched the slick production of their '80s work with the band's rocking '70s sound. The band found total redemption with their hardcore fans with 1996's Rhythmeen, a return to the raw, gutbucket blues of their youth. They stumbled somewhat with their thirtieth anniversary album, XXX, which relied too much on sequenced rhythms, but 2003's Mescalero once again featured Gibbons' famous guitar tones and real drums.
Recommended Albums: Both Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres showcase ZZ Top at their raucous blues-rock best, while Eliminator is the favorite of those who enjoy a more pop-oriented sound. Deguello remains one of the band' s most underrated albums and is well worth checking out after you've purchased the three previously-mentioned LPs.
ZZ Top Trivia: Both Gibbons and Hill collect vintage and custom guitars, among them the fuzzy white instruments used in concert, and the "Muddywood" guitar, made from a plank of wood from the Mississippi shack that blues great Muddy Waters was born in. Gibbons is also a well-known collector of hot rod cars and motorcycles, and more recently has enjoyed a recurring role in the Fox TV drama Bones, playing himself as the fictional father of one of the show's characters.
ZZ Top Select Discography
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- ZZ Top's First Album (London Records, 1971)
- Rio Grande Mud (London Records, 1972)
- Tres Hombres (London Records, 1973)
- Fandango! (London Records, 1975)
- Tejas (London Records, 1977)
- Deguello (Warner Records, 1979)
- El Loco (Warner Records, 1981)
- Eliminator (Warner Records, 1983)
- Afterburner (Warner Records, 1985)
- Recycler (Warner Records, 1990)
- Antenna (RCA Records, 1994)
- Rhythmeen (RCA Records, 1996)
- XXX (RCA Records, 1999)
- Mescalero (RCA Records, 2003)
- Live From Texas (Eagle Rock, 2008)