ZZ Top is an American blues rock trio, formed in 1969 in Houston, Texas. Its members are Billy Gibbons (vocals and guitar), Joseph Dusty Hill (vocals, bass, and keyboards), and Frank Beard (drums and percussion). ZZ Top is ranked number 44 on VH1's "100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock." The trio is one of the longest running rock bands to retain the same lineup, and until September 2006 had the same manager, Bill Ham.
ZZ Top was inducted by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the annual ceremony on March 15, 2004. Cub Koda wrote, "As genuine roots musicians, they have few peers; Gibbons is one of America's finest blues guitarists working in the hard rock idiom ... while Hill and Beard provide the ultimate rhythm section support."
ZZ Top almost always appear in public wearing sunglasses (a practice that predates, by a decade, their 1979 song "Cheap Sunglasses"). Gibbons and Hill wear similar black clothing (usually biker leathers) and black cowboy hats or baseball caps. Gibbons may wear black biker boots and neck chains with beer can openers. Although Gibbons and Hill wear chest-length beards, drummer Beard sports only a trimmed mustache.
In 1984, the Gillette Company reportedly offered Gibbons and Hill $1 million each to shave their beards for a television commercial. They allegedly declined, saying "We're too ugly without 'em."
The band's name is often said to be a combination of two popular brands of rolling paper, Zig-Zag and Top. It has also been claimed as a tribute to blues legend Z. Z. Hill. However, Gibbons wrote in his autobiography, Rock + Roll Gearhead, that it actually came from blues guitar master B. B. King. The band had planned to call themselves Z.Z. King, but felt it was too similar. Since B.B. King was at the "top", they settled on ZZ Top.
The members of ZZ Top had previously played in other Texas-based groups, Gibbons in Moving Sidewalks, and Hill and Beard in American Blues. By 1969, both groups had disbanded. Gibbons invited Frank Beard to join his new group, a blues-rock trio which had recently released their first single (titled "Salt Lick"). Beard suggested his former band mate, "Dusty" Hill and the final lineup of the band was formed.
The group played their first show in February, 1970, and toured Texas for several years. They signed a contract with London Records; their first two albums, ZZ Top's First Album and Rio Grande Mud, were made at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas.
In January 1973, ZZ Top opened for The Rolling Stones three shows in Hawaii. They also began recording with engineer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios in Memphis. The resultant third album, Tres Hombres (1973), was the first for which the band gained a million-seller and wide acclaim. Hombres featured ZZ's classic hit "La Grange," written about the Chicken Ranch, a famous La Grange, Texas bordello (that was also the subject of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Other album cuts like "Waitin' for the Bus" and its immediate follower "Jesus Just Left Chicago" became fan favorites and rock-radio staples.
By September 1974, ZZ Top was drawing tens of thousands to shows such as the Labor Day stadium concert in Austin, dubbed "ZZ Top's First Annual Texas-Size Rompin' Stompin' Barndance and Bar-B-Q". Also on the bill were Santana, Joe Cocker, and Bad Company.
A photo of the 1974 crowds was used on the record sleeve of Fandango!, released in 1975. The album - half studio material and half live document - spawned the infamous hit "Tush" as well as "Heard It on the X", a paean to Mexican border-blaster stations whose call signs began with X. The band continued touring extensively in 1976, releasing Tejas and the single "Arrested for Driving While Blind".
By 1977, after hefty touring and recording schedules, ZZ Top drifted into an extended and unplanned hiatus. Manager-producer and overall image-meister Bill Ham used the time to negotiate a recording deal which allowed the band to retain rights to their catalogue on London Records, which would then be distributed by their new label, Warner Bros. Records.
ZZ Top reunited in 1979 for live shows and a new album, Degüello, under their new Warner Brothers contract. Unbeknownst to each other, Hill and Gibbons had both grown out their now-famous beards. (The only beardless band member remained the mustachioed Frank Beard.) The album displayed a strikingly minimalist approach to the ZZ Top sound. Along with Gibbons' clean guitar and the sparse Hill-Beard rhythm section, Deguello sported saxophone harmonies courtesy of Gibbons, Hill, and Beard - touted as the "The Lone Wolf Horns" - and yielded famous hits such as "Cheap Sunglasses", along with a cover version of Isaac Hayes' "I Thank You".
ZZ Top started out the 1980s with an eclectic mix of songs on El Loco, released in 1981. The album featured the band's first use of synthesizer and incorporated unusual electronic effects. Singles stayed in the previous ZZ good-time vein, however, such as "Tube Snake Boogie" and "Party on the Patio".
Billy F. Gibbons and Dusty Hill in 1983.
By late 1983, with the telling release of Eliminator, ZZ Top had undertaken a complete artistic reinvention both in sound and image. Eliminator featured a darkly innovative and distinctive synthesizer-laced sound which wove into and augmented the band's guitar-bass-drums formula, a rarity in the blues-rock genre. Beard also played most songs to a click track, maintaining a metronomic rhythm to synchronize with the electronic instruments.
The album's sound was distinctive in other ways. To obtain the signature overdriven Eliminator guitar tone, Gibbons devised the "amp cabin", a collection of guitar amplifiers surrounding a microphone. Gibbons also employed the use of the Rockman headphone amplifier invented by Tom Scholz of the rock band Boston. He has repeatedly stated in years since that he plays guitar with a peso coin instead of a traditional guitar pick. Ridiculously, rumor had it that Gibbons and Hill used melted-down Cadillac fenders for guitar strings.
With the advent of MTV, ZZ Top promptly embraced the phenomenon of the music video and boosted itself to new popularity with video releases of "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man", each featuring the band's new icon: a cherry-red 1933 Ford Coupe hot rod nicknamed The Eliminator. The comic videos feature a trio of mysterious, sexy women who roam around and rescue people from seemingly dire situations, along with an iconic Billy, Dusty, and Frank, who seem to appear out of nowhere and grinningly proffer keys to the Eliminator.
The ZZ Top sound now featured a modern, electronic, and danceable formula which won the band new fans and multi-million-dollar success in sales, radio and video play, and live tours. Eliminator remains ZZ Top's most successful album to date.
The band's next album, 1985's Afterburner, expanded Eliminator's use of synthesizers coupled with blues-rock rhythms. The ZZ Top sound now incorporated the use of sequencers, notably on the hit singles and videos "Sleeping Bag", "Rough Boy", and "Velcro Fly". The Afterburner album cover (and "Sleeping Bag" video) now portrayed the Eliminator as a hot-rodded version of the Space Shuttle and the band as a space-station lounge act in "Rough Boy".
In 1987, Warner released the three-disc set ZZ Top: Six Pack, a collection of ZZ Top's albums from 1970 to 1981 (minus 1979's Degüello). The first five albums, however, were remixed—perhaps controversially—by the label (along with ZZ Top) in order to make them sound more like the band's most recent (1980s) works. The drum tracks had digital reverb added, lyrics were changed (such as the last verse of "Mexican Blackbird") on several songs, and in order to fit six albums on three discs, some tracks (such as "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" from Rio Grande Mud) were edited or faded out sooner than their original versions. At the same time, individual CD releases were released of these albums which also contained these remixed versions.
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 fanbase 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 performing at Wembley Arena on November 30, 1993.
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.
The band then signed to a five-album 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 earlier standards. 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.
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.
ZZ Top at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 2004.
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."