ZZ Top are a part of my DNA. I was spoon fed via Pioneer turntable and box speakers a steady dose of Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and ZZ Top in my formative years. I was a classic rock toddler, which at the time it was the new shit. Classic rock in the mid-70s was Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Chuck Berry. I grew up on that too via the American Graffiti soundtrack, which I mainlined via a hand-me-down 8-track my dad procured via some work buddy.
I’m getting off subject.
ZZ Top were a band that sort of mystified me. As a little tyke hearing “LaGrange”, “Waiting For The Bus”, and “Tush” it was this strange mix of big, heavy riffs and the blues I’d hear on late night public radio when my parents were tying one on in the dead heat of an Indiana July night. For awhile I thought Billy Gibbons was a black man, hiding behind that scruff. Then for a moment I thought the voice singing lines like “River must’ve been dry/In that cool, Texas town” was actually my uncle Donnie. He had a really long beard and long, scraggly hair when I was 4 or 5 years old, and his voice could get pretty low. I think I may have just heard him singing along to “LaGrange” one night at the house playing pool in the basement and made assumptions(as 4-year olds tend to do.)
Regardless, those early albums like Tres Hombres and Fandango were constant, essential listening in the Hubner house back in the 70s. Then in the 80s it started all over again with Eliminator. Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard(ironically the only member without a beard) became radio and MTV darlings thanks to “Legs”, “Gimme All Your Lovin”, and “Sharp Dressed Man”. My brother asked for and received Eliminator for Christmas, 1983. I think my parents played that cassette more than my brother did, and in turn I heard it quite a bit as well. There was Afterburner in the mid-80s and the radio-friendly “Sleeping Bag” and “Rough Boy”, but I sort of fell out of that whole 80s renaissance with ZZ Top when it started to just feel like a parody.
I fell out of my interest in ZZ Top until a few years ago. I heard “Cheap Sunglasses” on the radio and was struck by just how dirty and gritty that song was. I’d heard it plenty before that over the years, but older, wiser ears perked to the groove, electric piano, and Billy’s oh so tight riffing. The man can make three or four notes sound like a leather-clad symphony. I was struck by just how good these three were. I always respected the work and what they’d done, but was never blown away by them until right then.
This listening experience opened a wormhole into the world of ZZ Top all over again for me. I rediscovered those classic albums from the mid-70s, and found treasures in their debut and sophomore records. The musicality in that band was just phenomenal, and without Beard’s drum grooves and Dusty Hill’s mammoth foundation on the bass it just wouldn’t have worked. Gibbons relied on that rhythm section. They were the landing pad on which he launched his ever impressive guitar playing and technique.
Last year I watched a ZZ Top documentary. It was an engaging movie that showed three cats that completely changed the face of heavy rock music in the 70s. Sure, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, the Stones…they all defined that era. But ZZ Top don’t get enough credit for what they did for 70s rock and roll. They added a hefty dose of grit and groove into a scene that tended to take itself way too seriously. ZZ Top were down to earth, yet could’ve blown any of those previously mentioned bands off the stage.
That documentary also showed me what a grounded, cool cat Dusty Hill was. He and his brother grew up in Dallas and were performers even as kids. Hill grew up in music and was an integral part in giving ZZ Top the mojo they needed. His bass playing was and is indispensable. When you’re a trio and you’re the bass player, you’re either gonna shine or you’re gonna flop. There’s no hiding inadequacies in a rock trio. Bruce, Redding, Lee, Hill….those famous three-piece bands would not have been the same without their 4-string wizards.
Hearing of Dusty Hill’s passing made me sad, and it made me reflect on a pretty amazing career. I never gave his vocals much thought until this past year and cranking “Tush” in the car on the way home. Man, that song absolutely rips. Hill had one hell of a voice, and that song all around is just an all-timer. “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” is another standout.
Over the last 24 hours I’ve been hitting the ZZ Top discography pretty hard. Of all the albums I’ve been listening to, Degüello has been hitting the hardest. A band at the absolute top of their game, yet a band nearly at the end looking for something new to explore. They’d record one more album(El Loco) before reigniting their career with Eliminator.
I’m sad that ZZ Top are no more, despite the fact they will continue to play without Dusty. They were supposed to play the Elkhart County Fair this week, which is about 30 minutes from me. So I’ll never see them live, but I’ve still got all the albums when I need a fix of Dusty Hill and ZZ Top.
RIP Dusty Hill.