“World Boogie is coming,” was the mantra of Jim Dickinson, Memphis music’s legendary producer/shaman. But it took “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas” to fulfill his prophecy, packing stadiums all over the planet with that primordial Delta beat. Of course, to pull it off, ZZ Top first had to come to Memphis.
ZZ Top was the brainchild of guitarist / singer / songwriter / designer / master showman Billy Gibbons. Born on Dec. 16, 1949, he grew up in Houston’s affluent Tanglewood suburb, in an artistic family with Hollywood connections. His dad, Freddie Gibbons, was a musician and conductor whose cousin Cedric Gibbons was art director at MGM Studios. No surprise, Billy grew up loving music and art.
At 13, he got his first electric guitar, a sunburst Gibson Melody Maker. He spent his high school years attending Warner Brothers’ art school in Hollywood, playing in local bands. At 18, inspired by old friend Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators, he formed his psychedelic blues band, The Moving Sidewalks, scoring the regional hit “99th Floor,” and opening for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Meanwhile, Gibbons’ future bandmates, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, were in American Blues, playing the same Houston/Dallas/Ft. Worth circuit as Gibbons. By 1969, Gibbons needed a band and Hill and Beard needed a guitarist. Beard knew Gibbons and recruited him for the new group. Inspired by an old poster for a show by B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill, Gibbons wanted to call it “Z.Z. King,” before settling on the less confusing “ZZ Top.” Most important, with Hill’s economical bass playing and Beard’s no-nonsense drumming, Gibbons had found his sound.
On Feb. 10, 1970, ZZ Top played their first show in Beaumont, Texas. Their manager/producer Bill Ham signed with London Records, and ZZ Top’s First Album was released in January, 1971 and they built their audience with constant touring. Like his blues idols, Gibbons acquired a trademark guitar, a sunburst 1958 Gibson Les Paul purchased for $250, which he christened “Miss Pearly Gates.”
Their second LP, Rio Grande Mud, earned progressive FM radio play but couldn’t crack Billboard’s Top 100. The third would be the charm, and ZZ Top made the Memphis pilgrimage to Ardent Studios for 1973’s Tres Hombres. With engineer Terry Manning, who had recorded Led Zeppelin at Ardent, they created the template for ZZ Top’s musical theme park, a Zap Comics version of a Clarksdale juke, combining risqué humor, aw-shucks Texas attitude and deep Delta grooves.
It was “King Biscuit Time” for hippies.
‘La Grange,” about a famed Texas house of ill repute, was John Lee Hooker’s seminal “Boogie Chillen” riff on HGH, courtesy of Gibbons’ roaring1955 Stratocaster. The single only reached No. 41, but ZZ Top was an album band, and Tres Hombres cracked the Top 10, putting Gibbons and the boys on a sold-out arena tour. “La Grange” later made Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time” (No. 74) and has been on countless film and TV soundtracks.
This was the genius of Gibbons and ZZ Top. The music was raw, simple and avoided the excesses of other ‘70s blues-rockers with their endless, pointless guitar solos. For Gibbons, tone ruled. He coaxed an oil slick rainbow of sound out of his vintage guitars, from overdriven distortion dirty enough to cause ear infections to crystalline drops of artificial harmonics, all topped off by Gibbons’ ageless blown speaker of a voice.
Ultimately ZZ Top was about songs. Gibbons had absorbed the lessons of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. All had distinctively original styles, but made their names with signature songs - “Smokestack Lightning,” “I Got My Mojo Working,” “The Thrill is Gone.”
Starting with “La Grange,” Gibbons and company became a national phenomenon with memorable hits full of catch phrases, singalong choruses and, usually, sex: “Tush,” Pearl Necklace,” “Tube Snake Boogie,” “Jesus Left Chicago,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide.”
They made Ardent their recording home. The Memphis studio had been an annex for Stax whenever things got too busy on McLemore Avenue. In 1979, ZZ Top channeled that Memphis mojo, covering Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You.”
But ZZ Top was always more than music. Gibbons’s family tradition of keen visual sense and showmanship played out in the beards, outlandish suits and specially-designed guitars. Gibbons also customized cars and when MTV came along in the early ‘80s, ZZ Top was one of the few veteran acts that knew what to do with it.
Their videos for Eliminator, their 1983 album (named for Gibbons’ 1933 Ford Coupe, featured on the cover and their videos) made ZZ Top bigger than ever. Drum machines, synths and sequencers updated their Delta boogie and they had a great batch of songs. “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs” vied with Thriller for most MTV airplay. Eliminator went “diamond,” selling more than 10 million copies, and is No. 396 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Albums of All Time.”
They followed that with 1985’s 5 million-selling Afterburner and toured some more. With 1990’s Recycler, the final installment in their high-tech boogie trilogy, they ended their Warner Bros. contract and were returning to their roots, illustrated by “My Head’s In Mississippi.” That year also saw their big screen debut as the cowboy band in Back To the Future III.
A five-album, $35 million deal with RCA in 1994 kept them in the studio and on the road through 2003’s Mescalero. In 2004, ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
They continued touring, but not at their early pace. Gibbons spent his free time as a blues elder statesman, recording with Nickelback, Gov’t Mule, Queens of the Stone Age, Kid Rock, Hank Williams III and members of Ministry and Def Leppard. In November 2008, Gibbons was first to perform in the American Music Master Tribute to Les Paul at Cleveland’s State Theater, which included Lonnie Mack, James Burton, Duane Eddy and Slash.
Gibbons also earned positive reviews acting on TV’s Bones, typecast as the rock star dad of lead character Angela (Michaela Conlin). He also went Nashville, guesting on Brooks & Dunn’s “Honky Tonk Stomp” in 2009.
Along with designing custom cars and guitars, Gibbons added sauce to his resume, releasing BFG brand hot sauce and barbecue sauce, suitable for both Texas beef and Memphis pork (billygibbons.com).
Though Gibbons may be broadening his portfolio, he and bandmates Hill and Beard aren’t retiring. In 2012, ZZ Top released their first new album in nine years, La Futura. And that future sounds a lot like everything that was so good about their past. That nasty guitar tone, pounding rhythm section and reassuring rasp are all still right in the pocket, as ZZ Top’s World Boogie domination heads for the half-century mark.