Synopsis of Pop Music
“Rumor spreadin’ round,
In that Texas town…”
Blues, beards and babes. If ever there was a band designed for red-blooded, Southern-fried heterosexual American males, ZZ Top was it (well, maybe Lynyrd Skynyrd, but that’s a story for another day). Born on the bar circuit in and around Houston, Texas, the 'tres hombres' of ZZ Top brought the blues to the people, then revamped the blues itself in the new wave and post-new wave eras. Through it all, guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard have remained one of the most enduring and dependable bands in music.
Gibbons originally formed ZZ Top from the remains of his previous band, Moving Sidewalks. The group released a single, “Salt Lick,” shortly before Beard and Hill (both formerly of American Blues) joined up to form ZZ Top’s permanent trio in 1970. With the starring lineup in place, ZZ Top released their first album, the appropriately-titled ZZ Top’s First Album, a collection of rollicking boogie blues numbers that included “Brown Sugar” and “(Somebody Else Been) Shakin’ Your Tree.” In support of the album, ZZ Top began a series of concerts that would continue almost without a break until 1977.
The band’s second album, 1972’s Rio Grande Mud, gave them their first hit single, “Francine,” which charted at #69 in the U.S. Even with this nationwide exposure, ZZ Top still had its biggest following in the home of Delta blues, from Texas to Mississippi, where the group’s live shows were attaining legendary status. 1973’s Tres Hombres helped bring that freewheeling vibe to the rest of the world. A breakout smash, the album showcased the barroom blues boogie guitar work of Gibbons, backed up by a grooving rhythm from Hill and Beard. The single “La Grange” hit #41 on the U.S. charts, the first of many ZZ Top songs that would become eternal staples of rock radio.
Meanwhile, Gibbons, Hill and Beard continued their non-stop party of a tour, landing themselves on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines. A 1974 event at the University of Texas dubbed “ZZ Top’s First Annual Texas-Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barndance and Bar-B-Q” drew such enormous (and presumably raucous) crowds that the university banned all rock concerts for the next 20 years. ZZ Top spared no expense on their elaborate sets and stage show, even bringing in livestock from their home state. The self-described “Little ol’ Band from Texas” was well on its way to becoming the biggest thing in live music.
1975’s Fandango!, a half-live/half-studio album, captured ZZ Top’s energetic live blues, while the studio-produced “Tush” gave the group their first Top-40 single (#20). The extensive touring continued for another two years, converting hundreds of thousands to the sound pioneered by Muddy Waters and others, but the grind of a constant life on the road began to take its toll on ZZ Top. Gibbons, Hill and Beard all embarked on separate vacations in 1977, taking a well-deserved break. 1977’s The Best of ZZ Top helped sustain fans during the two-year break, and the band more than made up for its absence when it returned in 1979.
In those two years off, both Gibbons and Hill had grown lengthy beards, and the band decided to make it a permanent look. With 1979’s Deguello, ZZ Top was beginning to show off the image that would make it one of the hottest bands of the early MTV era. The new attitude was one of good ol’ boy party gods, complete with cars, girls, and of course, those ever-growing beards. The new album contained concert and rock radio favorites like “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and “Cheap Sunglasses,” as well as the #34 hit cover of Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You.”
1981's El Loco was another classic blues rocker, containing grooves like “Pearl Necklace,” but ZZ Top was about to take its blues in a surprising new direction. That new sound came to vivid life on 1983’s Eliminator. The raw, unpolished grit of ZZ Top’s early work had been converted to the space age, complete with synthesizers and electronic drum rhythms. The blues/electronica fusion may have seemed an odd one in theory, but in practice, ZZ Top turned it into an all-time classic rock style.
By this time, MTV had taken hold of most of America’s youth, and the facial-hair-heavy trio was practically made for television stardom. A trilogy of videos were produced—“Gimme All You Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs”—all of which featured foxy women, underdog guys and that cool classic ZZ Top roadster with a custom 'ZZ' keychain. Partly on the strength of those songs, Eliminator became a worldwide mammoth hit, riding the charts for 183 weeks and eventually selling more than 10 million copies. The extra cash came in handy at concert time, allowing the guys to add expensive special effects to their already fabled stage shows.
A 1985 follow-up, Afterburner, continued the 'outer space blues' motif of Eliminator, right down to the rocket-powered, coupe-shaped spaceship on the album cover. Songs like “Sleeping Bag” (a #8 hit), “Rough Boy” and “Velcro Fly” propelled this album to another global success, and by 1986, ZZ Top was the highest-grossing concert act in the world.
1990’s Recycler offered a similar mix of synths and Gibbons’ guitar, featuring the song “Doubleback” from the film Back to the Future Part III (the band had a cameo in the movie). 1992’s Greatest Hits put a cap on the synthesizer era, reminding listeners everywhere why ZZ Top had become one of the most popular bands of the past two decades.
The rest of ZZ Top’s 1990’s releases, from 1994’s Antenna to 1996’s Rhythmeen and 1999’s XXX (commemorating the band’s 30th anniversary) featured a return to the down and dirty blues style of 1970’s ZZ Top, albeit with a strong presence of electronic rhythm. The albums were all reminders of the band’s down-in-the-Delta roots—not that Gibbons, Hill and Beard needed any reminding themselves. The band has always committed itself to getting the blues its dues, even crafting a 'Muddywood' guitar from a piece of Muddy Waters’ Missouri shack to raise funds for a Waters exhibit at the Delta Blues Museum.
Still together and still touring after more than three decades on the scene, ZZ Top remains the voice of modern Delta blues rock. Some critics may have pooh-poohed the beards, sunglasses and matching suits as another image gimmick, but ZZ Top has always been about the music, and the music still holds its own today.
“Every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man…”
Artist Release History1970 - ZZ Top's First Album
1972 - Rio Grande Mud
1973 - Tres Hombres
1975 - Fandango
1976 - Takin' Texas to the People
1976 - Tejas
1977 - The Best of ZZ Top
1979 - Deguello
1981 - El Loco
1983 - Eliminator
1985 - Afterburner
1987 - Six Pack
1990 - Recycler
1992 - Greatest Hits
1994 - Antenna
1994 - One Foot in the Blues
1996 - Rhythmeen
1999 - XXX
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsThe Best of ZZ Top (Warner Bros.)
Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.)
Band MembersBilly Gibbons guitar, vocals
Dusty Hill bass, vocals
Frank Beard drums