Special Interview With Billy Gibbons Of Legendary Rock Band ZZ Top, About Their Songwriting and 50th Anniversary

ZZ TOP (pictured l-r): Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons & Dusty Hill.
ZZ TOP (pictured l-r): Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons & Dusty Hill.

This year, legendary blues/rock band ZZ Top is celebrating their 50th year together. Consisting of Billy Gibbons (guitars & vocals), Dusty Hill (bass & vocals) and Frank Beard (drums), this trio formed in Texas in 1969, and they’ve had a phenomenal career of creating ground-breaking albums, singles and videos, and they’re known for their powerful live performances. Impressively, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

For their 50th anniversary, ZZ Top is undertaking several new projects. A documentary of their career will be released soon, called ZZ Top: That Little ‘Ol Band From Texas (released by Abramorama & Eagle Rock Entertainment). This film presents new concert footage, candid band interviews, celebrity fan testimonials and animation, and was directed by Sam Dunn of Banger Films.

In addition, the band has just released a new 50-song compilation called Goin’ 50 (on Warner Records), that features remastered versions of their greatest hits, plus key songs from each decade of the band’s career. On top of this, ZZ Top has launched a 50th Anniversary Tour; the band recently completed a tour of several European countries, and they’ll be playing many shows in North American through the end of this year.

It was in 1969 that band members Gibbons, Hill & Beard originally formed in Houston, Texas. They subsequently released two early albums (ZZ Top’s First Album in 1971, and Rio Grande Mud in 1972) before they broke through with their third album, Tres Hombres, in 1973 (which was certified gold), and their hit, “La Grange.”

The band continued their string of successful albums through the ‘70s, with Fandango! (in 1975, containing the hit, “Tush”), Tejas (1976) and Deguello (1979). Each of these albums were certified gold or platinum.

With the release of their album El Loco in 1981, the group began to stretch beyond their traditional blues/rock sound and experiment with synthesizers. However, their biggest breakthrough came with their next album, Eliminator, in 1983. This album became one of the most popular albums of the ‘80s, and sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. Eliminator contained three hit songs: “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’”. These songs became rock classics that merged blues/rock music with modern pop synthesizers and electronic drum sounds. Notably, these three songs became even more popular, when the songs were transformed into iconic videos that featured humorous storylines, sexy & sassy women, and the three ZZ Top members playfully checking out the action.


Here’s the trailer for the new documentary, ZZ Top: That Little
Ol’ Band From Texas
.

In 1985, the band followed-up Eliminator with another multi-platinum album, Afterburner. This album further utilized an electronic sound, and contained the hit songs “Sleeping Bag,” “Stages,” “Rough Boy” and Velcro Fly.” ZZ Top went on to release six more studio albums: Recycler (1990), Antenna (1994), Rhythmeen (1996), XXX (1999), Mescalero (2003) and La Futura (2012).

Throughout their career, ZZ Top has been known for their outstanding music performances that are rooted in their blues-rock sound, featuring Gibbons’ stellar guitar playing and soulful lead vocals, Hill’s rhythmic bass playing and occasional lead vocals, and Beard’s propulsive drumming. What is lesser known, is that the band members are gifted songwriters who are probably underrated as writers. The group’s classic songs display imaginative and entertaining lyric stories, unique song titles, and super-catchy hooks.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. He tells how the band got started, and he discusses their ‘80s creative breakthrough with their Eliminator album. He also talks about their songwriting and the band’s 50th anniversary.

DK: I read that ZZ Top formed in Houston in 1969. How did you first connect with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, and decide to form ZZ Top?

Billy Gibbons: We had an earlier pre-Dusty and Frank Beardless line-up that only lasted a few months. When the time came to recruit a new rhythm section I remembered Frank from American Blues, a band that played the teen club circuit in Texas. We got together but still needing a bass player so, naturally, Frank suggested Dusty as he, too had been in the American Blues. We got together to “audition something,” and something turned into a three hour jam session. We knew we had something special. We all woke up to the reality of an almost telepathic way to communicate — among the three of us and, potentially, to an audience. It was truly a “eureka!” moment.

DK: Throughout the ‘70s, ZZ Top was a successful blues/rock band, but then you had a huge breakthrough in 1983 with your Eliminator album. Can you talk about the transformation with this album, which added modern pop and synthesizers to your blues/rock sound?


Here is ZZ Top performing their hit “Legs,” from their concert
video, Live At Montreaux 2013.

Gibbons: The blues has always remained the cornerstone and we attempted keep an open mind to advance the cause, so to speak. ZZ being curious toward technology brought us face to face with some strangely exotic pieces of studio gear, and when we encountered sequencers at Ardent Recorders in Memphis we were intrigued about the possibilities that advancement offered. Think of it as analogous to the day when Muddy Waters who had heretofore been an acoustic player, plugged-in and, in a way, “discovered electricity.”

DK: ZZ Top is known for having catchy titles and song concepts, and I read that you’re the main lyricist in the band. Can you talk about the lyric side, and how you would come up with great concepts like “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man”?

Gibbons: Sometimes it’s just a circumstance from real life which was the case for “Legs.” We were driving in a rainstorm to the studio back in Texas when we spotted a woman who was getting drenched and wanted us to pull over to provide a ride. We circled back and — boom — she was gone. She had legs and knew how to use ’em!  Then again, “Sharp Dressed Man” is a simple commentary on sartorial concerns. We’ve long appreciated a put-together look and it’s axiomatic that others, especially females, do, too. At least that’s been the aim.

DK: I noticed that ZZ Top’s songs are credited to you, Dusty and Frank. Can you describe the band’s songwriting process? Would one of you bring in an idea, and then the band would help develop that idea?

Gibbons: It’s quite often a collective ignition of the light bulb. We toss out a notion, a lyric element, a riff or a rhythm and expand the concept. It’s quite spontaneous.

DK: Your band is known for its playful, entertaining videos. When you would write a song, were you already envisioning what the video would look like? Did you have fun filming these videos?

Gibbons: Soundtrack first, then those videos. Mercy! If you look at ‘em, we were most often sideline bystanders, leaving the narrative action to the guys and gals. It’s our sort of reviving the idea of the Greek Chorus. The times on set, despite the lengthy hours, are always a blast.  Hanging around the hot rod ain’t bad either.


Here is ZZ Top performing their hit “Gimme All Your Lovin’,”
from their concert video, Live At Montreaux 2013.

DK: What are some of your favorite ZZ Top songs? Are there some lesser known songs that are your favorites, too?

Gibbons: One of our long standing favorites is the coupling of “Waitin’ For the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” which kicked off side one, cuts 1 and 2 of Tres Hombres.  Initially, those two tracks are the result of an unexpected editing error leaving virtually no space between the two. when the album was mastered, we knew those two numbers truly belonged together. It was a “two for the price of one” special and it remains so for every night’s performance.

DK: Billy, you and the band are celebrating ZZ Top’s 50th anniversary. As you look back over the band’s career, what are some of the band’s highlights, that you’re most proud of?

Gibbons: “ZZ Top’s Rompin’ Stompin’ Barn Dance and BarBQ” at Texas Stadium in Austin 1974 was a true thrill.  We performed for 80,000 very rowdy Texans made for a rockin’ get-together. Of course, the induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards is, truly, the apogee of honor because, you know, Keith!