I said, Lord, take me downtown

Back in 1970, the two most popular brands of rolling papers were Zig-Zag and Top. When a gritty little blues band out of Texas named ZZ Top released their debut album, stoners assumed the name was a winking reference to those two brands.

Billy Gibbons, the group’s superb guitarist and de facto leader, chuckles when he hears this and replies, “No, I’m afraid not. We had a bunch of posters of great blues players in our apartment back then, people like B.B. King and Arzell Hill, who went by Z.Z. Hill, and we thought we’d combine them into ZZ King, but that was too similar to B.B. King’s name, so we figured, ‘The king is at the top,” so we went with ZZ Top. That’s the true story.”

Hmmm. Well, okay. I can live with that, although I think the first version makes for a more enticing tale. In either case, ZZ Top is certainly a better name than Gibbons’ first band, The Moving Sidewalks. Ultimately, what matters in this group’s story is the music and the remarkable long-term chemistry between the three guys who comprised ZZ Top for all these years. They’ve set a record (51 years) for the rock band with the most years without a change in the band’s lineup.

Dusty Hill, circa 1975

Sadly, though, that has come to an end with the death last week of Dusty Hill, the extraordinary bass player behind ZZ Top’s unique sound. He had suffered from bursitis, a hip replacement and even an accidental gunshot wound in the past, but still, his passing at age 72 was unexpected.

Fans will be pleased to hear that ZZ Top plans to continue touring with Elwood Francis, the band’s long-time guitar tech, on bass. According to Gibbons, “Dusty emphatically grabbed my arm a little while back and said, ‘Give Elwood the bottom end, and take it to the Top.’ That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

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Note: There’s a Spotify playlist at the end of this post that I’ve compiled of ZZ Top’s most noteworthy tunes, if you care to listen along while reading!

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Time for a disclaimer: I’ve never bought a ZZ Top album, and frankly, after listening intently to much of their catalog over the past week, I’m not sure why. Their music — hard-driving, blues-based, boogie rock — is right up my alley. Of course, I knew their radio hits, but I just wasn’t sufficiently motivated to take the time to get to know their albums more fully. My mistake. As of this writing, I have become more of a fan, and I have developed a respect for their work and their achievements in the music business.

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Hill and eventual ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard were both from Dallas, becoming bandmates in a local group called American Blues, which also included Hill’s guitarist brother Rocky. In 1968, Dusty Hill and Beard wanted to broaden their horizons to do more than just straight blues, so they relocated to Houston, where the scene offered more musical options.

Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard in 1975

Houston-born Gibbons had built some notoriety there as a hot lead guitarist, singer and songwriter with his band, The Moving Sidewalks, and they even got the chance to be the warmup act for his idol, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, once in Houston. “We had the audacity to play ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Purple Haze’ in our set, and when we looked offstage, he was standing there, watching and grinning. Afterwards he said, ‘I dig you guys. You’ve got guts.'”

The drummer for The Moving Sidewalks wasn’t working out, so Beard made his move and became the new drummer. The band released a single and was poised to sign a deal with London Records, the American affiliate of British-based Decca Records, but their bass player wouldn’t sign. He was ousted and replaced by Hill at Beard’s recommendation, and the deal with London was inked just as they changed their name to ZZ Top.

Their debut album in 1971 was appropriately titled “ZZ Top’s First Album” because “we wanted everyone to know there would be more,” noted Gibbons. Based on its chart performance, it should’ve also been their last — it went absolutely nowhere, missing the Top 200 album chart and yielding no singles. But when I listened to it last week, I was impressed by the way they took their blues influences and merged them with rock elements to create their own approach. As Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys said last week, “They were a blues band with their own sound, and that’s hard to do.” The tracks weren’t polished, nor was Gibbons’ gruff voice, but there’s solid blues rock there, especially “Brown Sugar” (no relation to the Rolling Stones tune), “Neighbor, Neighbor” and “Backdoor Love Affair.”

Their 1972 follow-up LP, “Rio Grande Mud,” at least reached #104 and spawned the single “Francine,” though it stalled at #69. Gibbons continued to hone his blues-rock songwriting, adding dashes of suggestive humor, innuendo and some taboo subjects here and there into the lyrics just for grins.

By 1973, he came up with a tune that still gets classic rock radio airplay nearly 50 years later: “La Grange,” which uses an infectious riff you may have heard in other blues tunes (“Refried Boogie” by Canned Heat, for example). It’s a tale about a notorious brothel called the Chicken Shack, which became “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on stage and screen in the ’80s. The album it came from, “Tres Hombres,” recorded in Memphis, peaked at #8, putting ZZ Top on the map in a big way.

My friend Tracie, an Albuquerque native who went to college in Dallas, remembers first seeing and hearing ZZ Top at a free concert on the quad her first week on campus. “ZZ Top will always have a special place in my heart! At that concert, the Texas folk knew who they were, but this ‘little girl from the small mining town in the west’ never heard of them! I knew instantly that if this band was typical of Texas rock, I was gonna love college!” My friend Carl, a native Texan, recalled, “They were a wild-times, rowdy, fun, crank-it-up party band. We memorized every note, every word of tracks like ‘Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers’ until the grooves on the vinyl were gone!”

Hot on its heels in 1975 came “Fandango!,’ a half-live, half-studio release that went Top Ten and included “Tush,” featuring another indelible riff that reached #20 on the singles charts. By this point, the three-piece band was touring virtually non-stop, at first warming up for acts like The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd but usually as the headliner. Whereas their earlier shows didn’t offer much visually, ZZ Top mounted a mammoth, 300-date tour from mid-1976 to mid-1977 they called the Worldwide Texas Tour, where they used elaborate staging and costumes designed to showcase their Texas roots.

That tour made them one of the nation’s top draws during that period, but it also took its toll. Frank Beard had developed a serious alcohol and drug problem that required rehabilitation, so instead of finding a replacement, the band chose to go on hiatus for a couple of years. For us, there was no other drummer but Frank,” said Hill. “We were tired and needed a break, and we were willing to wait for him to get better.”

Their return to active recording and touring in 1979 was marked by several changes. Gibbons had been paying attention to technological developments and the New Wave music trends, both of which showed up on their albums “Deguello” and “El Loco,” and singles like “Cheap Sunglasses” and the double-entendre classic “Pearl Necklace.” The group made their first appearances in England and the European continent, and time spent in the studio with the British band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark introduced them to how drum machines and synthesizers could became prominent tools in the ZZ Top arsenal. Some of their original fans were none too pleased by this development, but for every old fan they lost, they gained three new ones.

Coincidentally, both Gibbons and Hill, independently and without each other’s knowledge, had grown chest-length beards which, when combined with sunglasses worn more or less permanently, gave them a cartoonish appearance that became part of ZZ Top’s new self-deprecating sense of humor.

The timing of all this was perfect, as Music Television, soon known far and wide as MTV, made its debut and changed the face of pop music. Bands became overnight sensations based just as much (or more) on what their video looked like than what their music sounded like. ZZ Top enlisted videographer Tim Newman, who was keen on shooting “mini-movies” instead of standard concert video. Because Gibbons, Hill and Beard felt they didn’t exactly have matinee movie star looks, they agreed it would be fun to appear only as background observers, watching the gorgeous women and high-octane cars on music videos like “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” Said Gibbons, “We knew we weren’t prima donna rock stars, so why not be the guys watching from the background, rooting for the underdog and the misfit?”

How ironic that a trio of unfashionable Texas rockers would end up as superstars in the very fashion-conscious MTV era. “We found it all kind of silly, but it was a fun time,” said Beard. And profitable as hell, too — sales of their 1983 LP “Eliminator” topped 15 million and put them in the Top Ten in the US, UK, Australia and several other European countries. The ZZ Top gravy train continued throughout the ’80s, with 1985’s “Afterburner” and 1990’s “Recycler” also achieving huge chart rankings and sales numbers, thanks in large part to MTV exposure for “Rough Boy,” “Doubleback” and “My Head’s in Mississippi.”

1994’s “Antenna” and its hit single “Pincushion” turned out to be ZZ Top’s last fling with superstardom. After that, the band still made a few LPs and toured periodically, but MTV stopped running music videos and their following dwindled. Through it all, the band was like a sturdy three-legged stool — all three legs were of equal importance to the band’s continued lifespan.

Hill, who started playing bass at age 12 because his older brother insisted on it, said he learned a lot about the instrument and what it could do by listening to virtuosos like Cream’s Jack Bruce and jazz greats like Stanley Clarke and Charles Mingus. “I used to try to come up with all these complex bass lines, kind of showing off, I guess,” he said in a 2014 interview. “But it didn’t take me long to figure out I needed to play to the song. Sometimes you shouldn’t even notice the bass, and I hate that in a way, but I also love that in a way. To not be noticed is a compliment. It means you’ve filled in everything just right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”

Gibbons, Hill, Beard (without a beard)

That kind of unassuming, humble approach to their fame has served the group well. “We’re the same three guys playing the same three chords,” said Gibbons in the highly watchable 2019 documentary film, “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.” If you have even a passing interest in this group, I recommend you check it out. It’s on Amazon now.

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