by Robert Marlin
When it was first announced that ZZ Top would be performing at UT Tyler’s Cowan Center on December 1, 2021, there was a huge rush among diehard East Texas fans to buy tickets. After all, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas was coming home, home to Tyler. For our few uninitiated readers, ZZ Top and Tyler have a unique connection. It was in Tyler, at Robin Hood Studios, that the band’s first four platinum albums were recorded. It was in that studio that their unique sound was born—a blending of blues and southern rock that became the band’s trademark sound for more than fifty years. With strong blues influences from John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and B. B. King, ZZ Top’s First Album (1970) and Rio Grande Mud (1971) built the band’s initial following. “La Grange” from Tres Hombres (1973) was their first breakthrough single, followed by “Tush” off Fandango (1975), a song that reached the top twenty on the Billboard chart. Their 1976 Worldwide Texas Tour became one of the most iconic and successful tours of the 70s, setting the stage for the mega-success that followed during the next four decades.
Then came July 28, 2021.
“Several people called me about a rumor that Dusty Hill had passed away,” remembers Robin Hood Brians, who engineered the band’s earliest recording sessions. “I hadn’t heard anything, so I sent a simple text to Billy, ‘Is it true?’ Immediately, I got a text message back from him: ‘Tis. More later.’”
A few hours later, bandmates Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard posted a message on the band’s official website:
“We are saddened by the news today that our Compadre, Dusty Hill, has passed away in his sleep at home in Houston, TX. We, along with legions of ZZ Top fans around the world, will miss your steadfast presence, your good nature and enduring commitment to providing that monumental bottom to the ‘Top.’ We will forever be connected to that ‘Blues Shuffle in C.’
You will be missed greatly, amigo.
Frank & Billy”
The music world was stunned. Social media sites were inundated with messages of condolence. What made the news all the more shocking was that the band was on tour, their Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration Tour. Only five days earlier, they had announced that Dusty was leaving the tour for a few days to go home to Houston:
“The members of ZZ Top, Billy and Frank, would like to share that Dusty, their fearless Bass player, is on a short detour back to Texas, to address a hip issue. They await a speedy recovery and [to] have him back pronto. Per Dusty’s request ‘The show must go on!’ With that directive, ZZ Top has put the services of Mr. Elwood Francis, their trusted guitar tech of the past two decades, into play with his slide guitar, bass guitar and harmonica playing in full swing. ‘And with Elwood to our right, rest assured ZZ Top will deliver their good time, signature show … Elwood securing the bottom end continues the delivery [of] those famous three chords we all dig.’”
Elwood played the July 23rd concert in the Chicago suburb of New Lenox, Illinois. It was the first time ever that the band had played a date without one of its original members. On the day Dusty died, the band canceled their scheduled concert in Simpsonville, South Carolina. The speculation that the band was through and would cancel the rest of their tour scheduled through May 2022 was put to rest the next day. In an interview with Variety, Billy Gibbons explained: “We did elect to postpone last night’s performance out of just respect and trying to get our wits together … But at the same time, everybody was ready, standing on point … And they said, ‘Come on. You heard Dusty’s directive as he was bowing out to go off the deck.’ He turned and pointed and he (Dusty) said, ‘Come on. The show must go on.’”
So, to honor the wishes of the man who held the bottom of the top for more than fifty years, ZZ Top will continue their tour. It will be different, because as Billy said many times, to many interviewers, “There is no ZZ Top without Frank, Dusty and me.” One thing is certain to take place during the rest of their tour, ZZ Top will pay tribute to their fallen compadre in every performance. As Billy explained to Variety, “Tomorrow night, we’ll kind of pick-up sticks and carry it on … I may grab his stage hat and throw it over his microphone, and I’ll sing one for the Dust … I’m not sure how (a tribute moment) will unfold … I think it’s worthy of giving him some special moment during (the show) as we proceed” He also said the outpouring of support from fans has been touching to everyone associated with ZZ Top. “I’ve heard from so many folks, and it’s kind of a shame that you have to lose a band member to realize just what it means to have been an important figure for our friends, fans, followers … In my text inbox, if there’s one (text), there’s 1,500-and-one. It’s really remarkable, from all over the planet.” Billy also shared a personal sentiment about his longtime bandmate, “Not only can you not forget five decades very easily, but you certainly can’t forget a character like the Dust!”
In the beginning, there was Bill Ham.
In 1967, Billy Gibbons formed a psychedelic group in Houston called The Moving Sidewalks, consisting of Gibbons as front man and lead guitar, Don Summers on bass, Dan Mitchell on drums, and Tom Moore playing keyboards. The band recorded several singles and one album, Flash, which included “99th Floor,” a single that was number one in Houston for six weeks. The record’s success led to a contract with Wand Records and another top ten hit, “Need Me.” With two hit records to their credit, The Moving Sidewalks were asked to open for Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. It was after seeing the Sidewalks perform at a Door’s concert at Houston’s Sam Houston Coliseum that Bill Ham went backstage and introduced himself to the band. Ham was, at that time, working in record promotions for H.W. Daily Distributing. When the Sidewalks decided to fire their manager, Mitchell approached Ham about taking over as their manager.
People who knew Bill Ham have described him as aloof, charming, dictatorial, cunning, secretive, and a Svengali. Ham approached his assignment to manage The Moving Sidewalks with an obsessive determination. He formed Lone Wolf Productions and began managing other artists that he discovered, including Clint Black, Eric Johnson, Jay Aaron, Jay Boy Adams, Van Wilks, and Point Blank. In time, Ham would become one of the most influential producers in the business, helping build Texas’ reputation as a music center and becoming one of the most prolific producers of country hits. During the 1990s, Ham’s company published most of the top-ten country singles released.
It was during this time that Tom Moore and Don Summers were both drafted into the U.S. Army. They were replaced with Lanier Greig on bass and organ, and Dan Mitchell continued on drums. The band’s name was changed, becoming the first iteration of ZZ Top. In 1969, the newly formed ZZ Top released a single, “Salt Lick.” Almost immediately after releasing that record, Greig was replaced with bassist Billie Etheridge and Mitchell was replaced by Frank Beard, who was the drummer for American Blues, a Dallas-based garage-rock band that became popular in clubs with their unique combination of psychedelic rock and blues. Dusty Hill played bass, and his brother Rocky was the lead guitar player for American Blues.
When ZZ Top was offered a record deal with London Records, Etheridge was reluctant to sign the contract. He left the band and was replaced with Dusty Hill. The trio of Gibbons, Hill, and Beard was set, and Bill Ham implemented his plan to make ZZ Top the most prominent band in Texas.
Testing the Waters in Tyler.
There is little doubt that much of the success that ZZ Top would eventually achieve was due to the tenacity, and cunning, of Bill Ham. He knew instinctively that a record deal alone was no guarantee for success in the long term. He wanted to create a mystique about the band and to play off the personalities of its three members. He knew that their Texas roots could be an advantage, so he instructed the members to wear cowboy hats on stage. He also had elaborate “western-style” suits made. In a moment of marketing genius, he added a descriptor to be used beneath the band’s name in all promotions, “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.”
Ham had a strict no interview policy. Not on radio. Not on television. Not in print. No interviews. Period. In an effort to protect the secrecy of the band’s first album, Ham made the decision not to record in Houston. He was familiar with the work Robin Hood Brians had accomplished in Tyler, recording several hit records for the likes of John Fred and the Playboy Band (“Judy in Disguise”), the Joe Stampley and the Uniques (“All These Things”), The Five Americans (“Western Union”), Jon and Robin (“Do It Again Just a Little Bit Slower”), and Mouse and the Traps (“Public Execution”).
“Ham showed up with the band in late 1968 or early 1969 and we recorded a session,” says Brians. “At that time, they were still known as The Moving Sidewalks. It was not a spectacular session. The band was still struggling with getting the right sound. No one was happy with the session, and they went back to Houston. I cashed the check and thought that was probably the last time I would see them.”
Returning to Houston, Ham worked with the band on developing some new songs. He worked as not only the producer, but also helped write some of the next songs. “When they came back to my studio, it was a completely different vibe. They had a new name, ZZ Top, and they were ready to do some serious work. They still had not perfected the sound Ham was looking for, but they were more confident and the material they were recording was better,” Brians recalls. “I worked with them placing mics in the hallway, outside the drum booth … I even put some mics out of phase and turned them toward the ceiling, just trying to find the right sound. I finally told Billy that I wanted to record some overdubs, but he said that Ham was absolutely against any overdubbing.”
According to Brians, working with just a drummer, bass and lead guitar, it was going to be impossible to get the big sound they were looking for without overdubbing. But he had a plan. “I told Billy to just follow my lead when the time came. About one o’clock, I told Ham, ‘Bill, you promised these guys some ribs from the Country Tavern and it’s lunchtime.’ Frank and Dusty both said they were ready for some good barbecue and Billy told Ham the band could not go much longer without some lunch. So, he agreed to go pick up the ribs.”
Brians told Ham to go out Highway 31 East and the Country Tavern “would be down a ways on the left.” What he didn’t tell him was that it was about a thirty-mile drive from the studio to the County Tavern. When Ham pulled out of the driveway, Brians turned to the band and said, “Okay, we have about an hour and a half to get this done.”
Brians was using a trick he had learned working with another group in the mid-sixties. He had Frank, Dusty and Billy play a rhythm part and recorded Billy on one track. Then, he went into the studio and pulled on the strings of Billy’s guitar, taking the instrument just slightly out of tune. He went back into the control room and started a playback and had Billy play the exact same thing, which he recorded on another track. “I made a rough mix of the song and played it back for the guys, and they all looked at each other, smiling. I think it might have been Frank who said, ‘That’s the sound we’ve been looking for.’ I re-racked the mixed tape, and about that time, Ham burst through the door with the ribs. After he got through yelling at me for not telling him the Country Tavern was in a different county, Billy reached over and hit the ‘play’ button.”
“We all stood there watching Ham as he listened to what we had been working on. ‘That’s it!’ he yelled, ‘That’s the sound. How did you get that?’
Everybody looked around at each other,” Brians explains. “No one wanted to be the one to tell Ham that we got it by overdubbing. Finally, I spoke up, ‘Bill, we got it the only way we could. We overdubbed the tracks.’” After listening to the track again, Ham’s only concern was whether the band could replicate that sound in a live venue. To put his mind at ease, the band gathered in the studio. Frank did a count off and ZZ Top began to play. The perfect blend of rock with a touch of the blues filled the studio. They played with the same energy that would become their trademark. The music of ZZ Top was born that day at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler.
“They were not an overnight success. It took a little time for this new band to gain an audience. They did it the old-fashioned way, through hard work, and with the careful guidance of their manager, Bill Ham,” Brians says. One of the things that made a difference was the way Ham held them back. When ZZ Top’s First Album was released, London records wanted the second album immediately. Ham refused to give it to them until the label had released two singles. When the second album was released, the band had their first single to chart. It was “Francine,” featuring vocals from bassist Dusty Hill. A Rolling Stone review stated that, “with wider airplay and a little promotion, ZZ Top could … reach the top.” It was the success of their third album, Tres Hombres, and its breakout single “La Grange,” that started the band’s rise into the stratosphere. When Tres Hombres went
platinum, the sales for the other two albums began to climb, until all three became platinum sellers. “The genius of getting those albums all to perform well financially was Ham’s patience,” Brians observes. “He didn’t rush the releases. He let the music build its way to the charts, and just as the albums were selling, he put the band on the road with their famous Worldwide Texas Tour. That record-breaking tour is still talked about. It created the benchmark for the band’s later touring successes.”
Becomes a Legend.
The Worldwide Texas Tour was both exhilarating and exhausting. Gibbons, Hill and Beard were all reaping the benefits that comes with sudden fame and fortune. They had reached for the brass ring, caught it, and when the tour was over, they went in separate directions to rest and recharge. What was originally intended to be a six-month hiatus became nearly three years. During the hiatus, Gibbons toured Europe and Beard went to Jamaica while dealing with drug addiction. Dusty Hill took a vacation to Mexico, followed by working for a period at a Dallas airport because he, “wanted to ground myself and feel normal,” after years of recording and performing.
When the trio came back together in 1979 to record their next album, Degüello, to everyone’s surprise, both Gibbons and Hill had grown chest-length beards, unbeknownst to one another. One of the singles released from this album was “Cheap Sunglasses.” The beards, hats and sunglasses became the look-alike stage persona of the two guitarists for the remainder of their careers together.
An often-overlooked characteristic of ZZ Top is how they were constantly changing with the times. While always true to their blues roots, they embraced new technology and new forms of music, sometimes to the dismay of their fan base who expected to always hear the same thing from the band. One of biggest moments of change in their careers was the emergence of MTV and music videos and how Bill Ham took advantage of that in the band’s marketing efforts.
Eliminator was ZZ Top’s eighth studio album. As a Diamond Certified release, it was their most commercially successful album after it debuted in 1983, selling more than ten million copies in the United States alone. It was the first ZZ Top album to have international success and made the trio true “pop stars.” There were four hit singles from Eliminator: “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “TV Dinners,” and “Legs.” Music videos were made of all but “TV Dinners” and placed into a heavy rotation on MTV, introducing the band to a new, younger audience. The videos, which were directed by Tim Newman, were recognized at the 1984 MTV Awards for Best Band and Best Group Video.
In 2006, ZZ Top ended their managerial relationship with Bill Ham and Lone Wolf Productions, signing with a new manager, Carl Stubner at Shelter Management.
This management change allowed Billy Gibbons to play with other bands and to pursue his solo efforts, while maintaining his role with ZZ Top. Dusty Hill and his wife Charleen stayed in touch with Ham until his death in 2016. Both Dusty and Frank Beard preferred to spend time out of the spotlight when not performing. From the time of the band’s rebirth during the MTV era until now, ZZ Top has continued to record and tour, staying relevant when lesser bands have fallen by the wayside.
The ZZ Top Legacy.
They are the only band in the history of rock and roll to have performed continuously with its three original members intact. They are the longest, continuing lineup in the history of music. For fifty-two years, the trio made music together, traveling across the globe, releasing fifteen studio albums, and selling more than 50 million albums in the process. They have won three MTV Video Music Awards. Their recent feature documentary, “ZZ Top That Little Ol’ Band From Texas” was nominated for a Grammy as Best Music Film, the third Grammy nomination for the group. The group has been awarded four gold, three platinum, two multiple platinum album certifications, and one diamond album certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. They played the half-time show at Super Bowl XXXI. They played for the inaugural ball of President George W. Bush in 2001. In 2004, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Having the boys back in town without Dusty means that ZZ Top’s December 1st concert in Tyler will be a bittersweet homecoming. Local fans are no doubt happy that the concert is going ahead; at the same time, they know that Dusty’s tenor vocal contrast to Billy’s deep growl will be missing. And while Billy’s lead guitar carries much of the band’s heavy lifting, there is no substitute for Dusty’s rhythmic bass tones. Another thing that will be hard to replicate without Dusty is the smooth, choreographed interplay between the bass player and the lead guitarist. Dusty aptly called their minimalistic choreography “Low energy, high impact.” Together, they make it look simple. Any dancer will tell you it takes hard work to move together in unison, especially while singing and playing an instrument. It was an act perfected over fifty years, while jamming together to the groove of the music.