ZZ Top is an American rock band formed in 1969 in Houston, Texas. The band consists of guitarist and lead vocalist Billy Gibbons, bassist and co-lead vocalist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard. ZZ Top is the only American rock band to have the same members for 30 or more years . The band and its members went through several reconfigurations throughout 1969, achieving their current form when Hill replaced bassist Billy Etheridge in February 1970, shortly before the band was signed to London Records. Etheridge's departure issued primarily from his unwillingness to be bound by a recording contract.
Since the release of the band's debut album in January 1971, ZZ Top has become known for its strong blues roots and humorous lyrical motifs, relying heavily on double entendres and innuendo. ZZ Top's musical style has changed over the years, beginning with blues-inspired rock on their early albums, then incorporating New Wave, punk rock and dance-rock, with heavy use of synthesizers.
ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. As a group, ZZ Top possesses 11 gold records and 7 platinum (13 multi-platinum) records; their 1983 album, Eliminator, remains the group's most commercially successful record, selling over 10 million units. ZZ Top also ranks 80th in U.S. album sales, with 25 million units.
Early years (1969–1972)
The original lineup formed in Houston, Texas by Gibbons, organist Lanier Greig (deceased Feb 2013) and drummer Dan Mitchell. ZZ Top was managed by Waxahachie-native Bill Ham, who befriended Gibbons a year earlier. They released their first single, "Salt Lick", in 1969, and side B contained the song "Miller's Farm"; both songs were credited to Gibbons. Immediately after the recording of "Salt Lick", Greig was replaced by bassist Billy Etheridge, a band mate of Jimmie Vaughan, and Mitchell was replaced by Frank Beard of the American Blues. Due to lack of interest from record companies, ZZ Top was presented with a record deal from London Records. Unwilling to sign a recording contract, Etheridge quit the band and Dusty Hill was selected as his replacement. After Hill moved from Dallas to Houston, ZZ Top signed with London in 1970. They performed their first concert together at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Beaumont on February 10.
In addition to assuming the role as the band's leader, Gibbons became the main lyricist and musical arranger. With the assistance of Ham and engineer Robin Hood Brians, ZZ Top's First Album (1971) was released and saw the inclusion of the band's humor, with "barrelhouse" rhythms, distorted guitars, double entendres and innuendo. The music and songs closely reflected on ZZ Top's blues influences. Following their debut album, the band released Rio Grande Mud (1972), which failed commercially and the promotional tour consisted of mostly empty auditoriums.
Mainstream success (1973–1977)
ZZ Top released Tres Hombres in 1973, and the album's earthy and "infectious" sound were results of the propulsion from Hill and Beard's rhythm support, coupled with Gibbons' "growling" guitar tone. Dan Erlewine wrote that the album "brought ZZ Top their first Top Ten record, making them stars in the process". The album included the boogie-driven "La Grange", which was written about a brothel in La Grange, Texas. On the subsequent tour, the band performed sold-out concerts in the US. ZZ Top recorded the live tracks for their 1975 album, Fandango!, during this tour and showcased their prowess in exciting live audiences. Fandango! was a top ten album and its single, "Tush", peaked at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Tejas, released in 1976, was not as successful or as positively received as their previous efforts, although the album went to No.17 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart. ZZ Top continued the Worldwide Texas Tour in support of Tejas, though they had been touring for seven years.
Hiatus and comeback (1978–1982)
The band went on what was supposed to be a 90-day break from public appearances. Gibbons traveled to Europe, Beard had gone to Jamaica, and Hill went to Mexico. The break extended to two years, during which Gibbons and Hill grew chest-length beards:
In 1979, ZZ Top signed with Warner Bros. Records and released the album Degüello. While the album went platinum, it only reached No.24 on the Billboard chart. The album produced two singles, including "I Thank You," a cover of a song recorded by Sam & Dave, and "Cheap Sunglasses." The band remained a popular concert attraction and toured in support of Degüello. In April 1980, ZZ Top made their first appearance in Europe, performing for the German music television show Rockpalast. The next album, El Loco, was released in October 1981, featuring three singles ("Tube Snake Boogie", "Pearl Necklace", and "Leila").
Synthesizer period (1983–1993)
ZZ Top's next album was even more successful. Eliminator, released in March 1983, featured two Top 40 singles ("Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "Legs"), four Mainstream Rock hits (including "Got Me Under Pressure" and "Sharp Dressed Man"), and "Legs" peaking at No.13 on the Club Play Singles chart. Eliminator was a critical and commercial success, selling more than 10 million copies, and several music videos were in regular rotation on MTV. The band also won their first MTV Video Music Awards in the categories of Best Group Video for "Legs," and Best Direction for "Sharp Dressed Man". The music videos were included in their Greatest Hits video, which has been released on DVD ever since and quickly went multi-platinum.
The Eliminator album was not without controversy. According to former stage manager David Blayney (15 years with ZZ Top) in his book, Sharp Dressed Men, sound engineer Linden Hudson co-wrote much of the material on the album as a live-in high-tech music teacher to Beard and Gibbons. And, despite continued denials by the band, it settled a five-year legal battle with Hudson, paying him $600,000 after he proved he held the copyright to the song "Thug" which appeared on Eliminator. David Blayney further described, in his book, the role Linden played in the process of planning and preparing Eliminator. This was well demonstrated in the writing and making of a demo of the song "Under Pressure". Billy and Linden wrote the whole song and created a recorded demo all in one afternoon without either Dusty or Frank even knowing about it. Linden created the bass on a synthesizer, created drums on a drum machine and helped Billy Gibbons write the lyrics; Billy performed the guitars and vocals. David Sinclair, of the London Times, described in his book The Story of ZZ Top how Linden Hudson drew Billy's attention to the possibility of using a drum machine for the final recording of the Eliminator album. Deborah Frost, writer for Rolling Stone magazine, described in her book ZZ Top – Bad And Worldwide how Linden Hudson researched popular song tempos, then presented Billy Gibbons with the results of his studies. Linden's data suggested that 120 beats per minute was the most popular tempo in the rock music market at that time. Billy decided to go for it and recorded most of the Eliminator album at that tempo.
Despite not selling as many copies as Eliminator, 1985's Afterburner was still as successful commercially, becoming their highest-charting album, and racking up sales of 5 million units. All of the singles from Afterburner were Top 40 hits, with two hitting No.1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. The music video for "Velcro Fly" was choreographed by pop singer Paula Abdul. ZZ Top's grueling Afterburner World Tour lasted well into 1987, which also saw the release of The ZZ Top Sixpack, a three-disc collection of ZZ Top's albums from 1970 to 1981, with the exception of Degüello. The albums ZZ Top's First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango and Tejas were remixed with the result that the sound of the material from the first five albums was changed to sound like they had been recorded in the 1980s, with echo and drum machines, and very unlike their original album sound. Many of the original mixes were used on the 2003-CD box set Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, and its companion piece Rancho Texicano. Also, remastered versions of Tres Hombres and Fandango! were eventually released on CD in 2006 with the original mixes intact. However, the remaining songs from ZZ Top's First Album, Rio Grande Mud, and Tejas have never appeared on CD in their original mixes.
Recycler, released in 1990, was ZZ Top's last studio album under contract with Warner Records. Recycler was also the last of a distinct sonic trilogy in the ZZ Top catalogue. The collection actually marked a return towards the earlier, simpler guitar-driven blues sound with less synthesizer and pop bounce of the previous two albums. This move did not entirely suit the fan base that Eliminator and Afterburner had built up, and while Recycler did achieve platinum status, it never matched the sales of Eliminator and Afterburner. The cartoonish and sexy-ZZ-girl videos continued in singles like "My Head's in Mississippi", "Give It Up", and "Burger Man".
ZZ Top contributed a song, "Doubleback", and appeared as an acoustic band in the wild-west dance scene in the 1990 movie, Back to the Future Part III. The band also appeared in the 1990 TV movie, Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme, portraying the Three Men in a Tub. In 1992, Warner released ZZ Top's Greatest Hits, along with a new Rolling Stones-style cut, "Gun Love", and an Elvis-inflected video, "Viva Las Vegas". In 1993, ZZ Top inducted a major influence, Cream, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Return to guitar-driven sound (1994–2003)
In 1994 the band signed to a $35 million deal with RCA Records, releasing the million-selling Antenna in 1994. Subsequent RCA albums, Rhythmeen (1996) and 1999's XXX (the second album to feature live tracks) sold well, but did not reach the levels enjoyed previously. ZZ Top, however, continued to play to enthusiastic live audiences. In 2003 ZZ Top released a final RCA album, Mescalero, an album thick with harsh Gibbons guitar and featuring a hidden track – a cover version of "As Time Goes By". RCA impresario Clive Davis wanted to do a collaboration record (in the mode of Carlos Santana's successful Supernatural) for this album. In an interview in Goldmine magazine, artists Pink, Dave Matthews, and Wilco were among the artists slated for the project. ZZ Top performed "Tush" and "Legs" as part of the XXXI Super Bowl halftime show in 1997.
A comprehensive four-CD collection of recordings from the London and Warner Bros. years, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, was released in 2003. It featured the band's first single (A- and B-side), several rare B-side tracks as well as a radio promotion from 1979, a live track and several extended dance mix versions of their biggest MTV hits. Three tracks from Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ band, The Moving Sidewalks, were also included.
In 2004, ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones gave the induction speech. ZZ Top gave a brief performance, playing "La Grange" and "Tush".
Expanded and remastered versions of the original studio albums from the 1970s and '80s are currently in production. Marketed as "Remastered and Expanded", these releases include additional live tracks which were not present on the original recordings. Three such CDs have been released to date (Tres Hombres, Fandango!, and Eliminator). The first two were released in 2006 and use the original mixes free from echo and drum machines, while Eliminator was released in 2008. The Eliminator re-release also features a collector's edition version containing a DVD featuring several videos and additional live tracks.
As of 2006, it was reported that ZZ Top were recording their 15th studio album. There was no release, however, and on September 17, 2006, the band ended their tenure with RCA Records and further left their manager Bill Ham, president of Lone Wolf Management. No reasons were publicized for these changes. In December 2006, Sanctuary Management added ZZ Top to its roster.
ZZ Top performed at the 2008 Orange Bowl game in Miami, as well as the Auto Club 500 NASCAR event at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. On June 23, 2008, ZZ Top celebrated the release of their first live concert DVD entitled Live from Texas with the world premiere, a special appearance, and charity auction at the Hard Rock Cafe in Houston. The DVD was officially released on June 24, 2008. The featured performance was culled from a concert filmed at the Nokia Theater in Grand Prairie, Texas on November 1, 2007.
In July 2008, the band announced they have signed with producer Rick Rubin and are recording a new album. Rubin will be producing the next album, and it has been reported that the band will be aiming to move back to their pre-80s La Grange sound.
The Eliminator Collector's Edition CD/DVD, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band's iconic RIAA Diamond Certified album, was released September 10, 2008. The release includes seven bonus tracks and a bonus DVD, including four television performances from The Tube in November 1983.
The band performed at the 2009 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo on the final night on March 22, 2009. In July, the band appeared on VH1's Storytellers, in celebration of their four decades as recording artists.
On January 22, 2010, Billy Gibbons accompanied Will Ferrell and others playing "Free Bird" on Conan O'Brien's last show. O'Brien joined in on guitar.
On June 8, 2011, a press release, reported on various media sources, announced that the new song "Flyin' High" will debut in space. Astronaut and friend of ZZ Top, Michael Fossum, was given the released single to listen to on his trip to the International Space Station.
La Futura (2012–present)
Billy Gibbons stated in an interview in August 2011 that the new album had been recorded, with initial recording taking place in Malibu, California, before moving to Houston, but was still unnamed and had yet to be mixed and mastered. Gibbons said that the expected release date was sometime in March or April 2012 but later on, a release in the late summer or fall has been announced.
Entitled La Futura, the album is produced by Rick Rubin. The first single from the album, "I Gotsta Get Paid," debuted in an advertising campaign for Jeremiah Weed and appears on the soundtrack of the film Battleship. The song itself is an interpretation of "25 Lighters" by Texan hip-hop DJ DMD and rappers Lil' Keke and Fat Pat. The first four songs from La Futura debuted on June 5, 2012 on an EP called Texicali. DJ Screw was a major influence on the album as well, particularly because Gibbons and Screw both worked with the engineer G.L. Moon during the late 1990s.
- ZZ Top's First Album (1971)
- Rio Grande Mud (1972)
- Tres Hombres (1973)
- Fandango! (1975)
- Tejas (1976)
- Degüello (1979)
- El Loco (1981)
- Eliminator (1983)
- Afterburner (1985)
- Recycler (1990)
- Antenna (1994)
- Rhythmeen (1996)
- XXX (1999)
- Mescalero (2003)
- La Futura (2012)
In addition to recording and performing concerts, ZZ Top has also been involved with films and television. In 1990, the group appeared as the "band at the party" in the film Back to the Future Part III, and played the "Three Men in a Tub" in the movie Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme. ZZ Top made further appearances, including the "Gumby with a Pokey" episode of Two and a Half Men in 2010 and the "Hank Gets Dusted" episode of King of the Hill in 2007. The band was also guest hosts on an episode of WWE Raw. Billy Gibbons also portrays the father of Angela Montenegro in the television show Bones. Their song "Sharp Dressed Man" is currently used as the theme song on television show Duck Dynasty.
Awards and achievements
Despite ZZ Top's popularity and success in the 1970s, it wasn't until the 1980s that they started winning major awards and honors. ZZ Top's music videos won awards throughout the 1980s, winning once each in the categories Best Group Video, Best Direction, and Best Art Direction. The videos that won the VMAs are "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Rough Boy." Some of the high honors ZZ Top have achieved include induction into Hollywood's RockWalk in 1994, the Texas House of Representatives naming them "Official Heroes for the State of Texas", a declaration of "ZZ Top Day" in Texas by then-governor Ann Richards on May 4, 1991, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. They were also given commemorative rings by actor Billy Bob Thornton from the VH1 Rock Honors in 2007.
ZZ Top also holds several chart and album sales feats, including six number one singles on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. From the RIAA, ZZ Top has achieved 4 gold, 3 platinum, and 2 multi-platinum album certifications, in addition to one diamond album. In addition to this, many of their songs have become classic rock and hard rock radio staples.
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Image from Discogs