You watch one of their videos and you can’t say that ZZ Top are exactly complicated. But they’ve been playing together, the same three Texan guys, for more than thirty years now. After all that time, the story of ZZ Top has become something of a mystery of faith: Here’s a band that not only still loves to rock, but whose music can be counted on to crank out of radios for decades to come; a band that started out playing the blues, brought the message to millions, and still mines that soulful ore as if the blues were its own pension. Maybe ZZ Top aren’t complicated, but these days, few things are harder to explain than something that’s built to last.
They formed in Houston in 1969, the consolidation of two of the area’s best blues bands: Guitarist Billy Gibbons, who’d done session work for an admiring Jimi Hendrix, came over from Moving Sidewalks, and Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) joined from American Blues. Within the year, they recorded their first single (“Salt Lick”) and LP (named, in then-typically unadorned fashion, ZZ Top’s First Album) on a shoestring budget with manager Bill Ham at the controls. At first sales were quiet, but their furious live gigs certainly weren’t. The ‘Top finally hit paydirt with their third full-length, 1973’s Tres Hombres. Like its predecessors, the album’s cuts were built around the classic riffs of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. But now the sound was more radio-ready than ever: “La Grange,” a boosted-up vamp on Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun,” was a big hit (if a beer ad for years to come), and Tres Hombres hit #8 on the album charts that August.
The band then put out the half-live Fandango, which included the hit “Tush”; 1976’s Tejas, a huge commercial success, was released to coincide with a two-year tour that reportedly outdrew Led Zeppelin and whose road gear included more than $100,000 of prime Texas livestock grazing around the amps. Understandably drained afterward, the band took a break as Gibbons brushed up on his synthesizer know-how; they returned with a new Warner Bros. deal and 1979’s Deguello. With its remarkable version of Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom,” the downright weird “Manic Mechanic,” and the radio-ready “Cheap Sunglasses,” Deguello was ZZ Top’s most critically acclaimed LP to date.
But critical mass, amazingly, was still to come. 1981’s El Loco saw Gibbons and Hill wearing matching boiler suits, sunglasses, and beards that hung down like lobster bibs; there was a new attitude, too, slightly lighter and a little raunchier, that was reflected in the hit “Pearl Necklace.” Eliminator, released two years later, was the ultimate synthesis of the band’s best marketing and songwriting. The #3 LP netted three unforgettable hits that blazed through nacent MTV’s heavy video rotation in the rumble seat of ZZ Top’s new iconic red 1933 Ford coupe: “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.” The followup, 1985’s Afterburner, found the Ford transformed into an orbiting spaceship on the album cover, charted at #2, and yielded four hits, including the #8 “Sleeping Bag.”
Recycler (1990) reached #8 on the album charts and marked the end of ZZ Top’s most commercial phase. A greatest-hits compilation was released in 1992, and then the group signed a lucrative deal with RCA and released three LPs (Antenna, Rhythmeen, and the thirty-year anniversary XXX) that marked a return to the blues roots that had never really been forsaken—they were just hidden under a little bit of Simonizer.
Formed: 1969, in Houston, Texas.
Years of Chart Activity: 1972-1991.
Group Members: Billy Gibbons (vocals, guitar); Dusty Hill (vocals, bass); Frank Beard (drums).
Important Contributors: Bill Ham (production)
Francene (1972; Pop#69)
La Grange (1974; Pop #41)
Tush (1975; Pop #20)
It’s Only Love (1976; Pop #44)
Arrested for Driving While Blind (1977; Pop #91)
I Thank You (1980; Pop #34)
Cheap Sunglasses (1980; Pop #89)
Leila (1981; Pop #77)
Gimme All Your Lovin (1983; Pop #37)
Sharp Dressed Man (1983; Pop #56)
Legs (1984; Pop #8)
Sleeping Bag (1985; Pop #8)
Stages (1986; Pop #21)
Rough Boy (1986; Pop #22)
Velcro Fly (1986; Pop #35)
Doubleback (1990; Pop #50)
Give It Up (1991; Pop #79)