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ZZ TOP. Texas blues, boogie, and rock band ZZ Top formed in Houston in 1969 under the direction of manager Bill Ham. The trio consists of Billy Gibbons (b. December 16, 1949, Houston) on lead guitar, Dusty Hill (b. Joe Hill, May 19, 1949, Dallas) on bass guitar, and Frank Beard (b. June 11, 1949, Houston) on drums. Gibbons replaced the original members of his band, Moving Sidewalks, with Hill and Beard from rival band American Blues. The group began touring with other southern boogie bands in the 1970s and built a strong following in the process.
They signed with London Records. ZZ Top’s First Album debuted in 1970 and featured the raw blues-boogie sound of tracks such as “Brown Sugar.” ZZ Top’s First Album established the band’s credibility and success in the South, but it was their second album, Rio Grande Mud, which had a broader range and a fuller sound. It also gave the trio its first hit “Francine,” which ranked at Number 69 on the Billboard charts. The group followed up the success of its first two albums with Tres Hombres in 1973. Tres Hombres combined the trio’s love of Texas blues with their reverence for Memphis soul to firmly establish what would become ZZ Top’s trademark sound. The album’s best-known song, “La Grange,” was heavily influenced by John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen.”
The group toured continuously throughout the 1970s. In 1974 it hosted the “Texas-Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barndance and Barbecue” at the University of Texas at Austin. Some of the 80,000 fans who came out to see the trio managed to destroy sections of Memorial Stadium’s new AstroTurf in the process. ZZ Top’s next album, Fandango! (1975), gave the group its first Top 40 single, “Tush.” The follow-up Tejas, released in 1977, reached Number 17 on the charts. The success of Fandango! and the “Barndance” inspired the trio to embark on a “Worldwide Texas Tour,” which lasted from 1976 to 1977. As part of this tour, the band performed on a Texas-shaped stage in the company of a Longhorn steer, a buffalo, and other “Texas” animals. Exhausted from the road however, they took a three-year hiatus following the tour’s conclusion. During the interval, they left London Records and signed with Warner Brothers. Gibbons and Hill had also developed an entirely new look. Independently of each other, Gibbons and Hill had grown long beards. Their new look quickly caught on, and the long beards became one of the band’s trademarks.
In 1979 the trio came out swinging with Deguello, a hard-core blues album that combined their love of women, cars, and offbeat humor with such tracks as “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Fool for Your Stockings.” Following the success of Deguello, the group produced El Loco in 1981, which continued in much the same vein. Songs such as “Pearl Necklace,” with its sexual innuendos, demonstrated the group’s irreverent flair.
In the 1980s the trio further changed its sound. Eliminator (1983) featured a new synthesizer-laden sound that propelled the band to national attention and won praise from the MTV generation. Eliminator produced such hits as “Gimme All Your Lovin,’” “Legs,” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” “Legs” remains the group’s biggest single. The synthesizer remained an integral part of their sound on the next two albums, Afterburner (1985) and Recycler (1990). Though not as popular as Eliminator, these albums did feature the memorable tracks “Sleeping Bag” and “Velcro Fly,” which helped to cement the trio as a fixture of synth-blues-boogie.
The band signed a new recording contract with RCA Records in 1992 and released a new album, Antenna, in 1994. Although synthesizers remained a key part of the music, Antenna had more of a traditional blues feel. Gibbons’s guitar work harkened back to the days of Tres Hombres, with tracks such as “Fuzzbox Voodoo” and “Cover Your Rig.” Rythmeen was released in 1996 with a full-fledged return to guitar-driven blues-boogie. XXX, released in 1999, and Mescalero, released in 2003, continued this more back-to-basics pattern.
The hard-driving sound of ZZ Top has made the band a fixture of the modern blues-boogie music scene, but their performances have made them legendary. Whether touring with live animals during the “Worldwide Texas Tour” in the 1970s, performing on a futuristic stage to promote their album Afterburner, or making a cameo appearance in the movie Back to the Future III (1990), the trio has attracted audiences worldwide with their unique brand of blues and stage presence. In recognition of their contribution to popular music, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. The band left RCA in 2006. That same year longtime manager Bill Ham left the group. A twenty-fifth-anniversary collector’s edition CD/DVD of Eliminator was released in 2008. La Futura came out in 2012. The band launched a North American tour in 2015. ZZ Top is also honored in the Museum of the Gulf Coast’s Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur.
David Blayney, Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top Behind the Scenes from Blues to Boogie to Beards (New York: Hyperion, 1994). David Dicaire, Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 1999). Michael Erlewine, ed., All Music Guide to the Blues: The Experts’ Guide to the Best Blues Recordings (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1999). Deborah Frost, ZZ Top: Bad and Worldwide (New York: Collier Books, 1985). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (New York: MUZE, 1998). Scott Nance, ZZ Top: Recycling the Blues (Las Vegas: Pioneer Books, 1991). Jas Obrecht, “High-Tech Boogieman,” Guitar Player Magazine Presents: Texas Guitar, a GPI Collector’s Edition, Winter 1987. Jas Obrecht, “Under the Hood of Eliminator,” Guitar Player Magazine Presents: Texas Guitar, a GPI Collector’s Edition, Winter 1987. “ZZ Top,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum (http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=2183), accessed January 20, 2010.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Andrew Gray, "ZZ TOP," accessed March 19, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xgz01.
Uploaded on October 19, 2014. Modified on August 3, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.