EARLY ON A THURSDAY EVENING IN OCTOBER, PAUL SHAFFER’S CBS Orchestra materialized stage left of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York to rehearse a taping of the Late Show With David Letterman. The musicians had run the drill hundreds of times, but it would be a brand-new experience for their guest, who at the moment was in a dressing room six floors above staring into a mirror, shoving a gold cap on his front tooth, adjusting a pair of not-so-cheap sunglasses, and putting a wiggy African hat on his head. Billy F. Gibbons, the guitar man of ZZ Top, would soon expose himself to the world outside the company of his bandmates, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard—something he’d never done before.
The previous night, the three members of ZZ Top had performed together on the Letterman show, a rarity in itself. It was only the third time that the blues rock trio known as That Little Ol’ Band From Texas had played live on American TV; they’d done the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1984 and Letterman in 1994. For this particular gig, harmonica player James Harman sat in with the band to blow the fuzzy intro to “What’s Up With That,” a single off ZZ’s recently released twelfth studio album, Rhythmeen.
As ZZ devotees know, one of the band’s unstated rules has been that no member played in public without the others. Jamming was verboten; no one sat in with them, either. It was Dusty, Frank, and Billy or nothing at all. “Mystique” is what their manager, Bill Ham, likes to call it, and he has created plenty of it. From the moment that Ham and Gibbons first collaborated in 1969, image has been a carefully constructed part of the package, predicated on the idea that if you give the public too much of a good thing, they’ll take it for granted. The results have been fabulously successful: more than $200 million in box office receipts, nearly 50 million albums sold. So how to explain the change in policy? What’s up with that? “Bill always said there’s a time for everything,” observed Ham’s right-hand man, John “J. W.” Williams, an amiable, ponytailed fellow who has known the band since it began making records in Tyler. “I guess the time is now.” As for Ham himself—well, as usual, he won’t talk on the record. A basic rule of the Bill Ham school of management is that if you don’t keep people guessing, there is no mystique.
Still, this much is clear: Change was necessary, for ZZ Top is beginning to show signs of wear. On the one hand, Gibbons, Hill, and Beard—each of them 47 years old—are as busy as ever. Last January, after a long layoff, the band reappeared in public to play the Urban Art Bar in Houston for a video shoot directed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, a longtime fan. Rodriguez had solicited ZZ to come up with a song for his mock-horror flick From Dusk Till Dawn, and ZZ accommodated him with two: “She’s Just Killing Me” (the song in the video) and “Vincent Price Blues.” They then spent most of the summer on the kickoff leg of a world tour to promote Rhythmeen: 35 shows in fifteen countries from Sweden to South Africa, with a special focus on emerging markets like Latvia, Estonia, and Russia (they appeared in front of 20,000 at Gorky Park in Moscow). Following the Letterman appearance, they embarked on a 40-show North American tour that will wrap up this month with a string of Texas dates. After a break for the holidays, there will be more dates in Europe, followed by a pass through Australia and Asia and a return swing across the U.S. and Canada—a touring cycle that could last into 1998 if album and ticket sales justify it.
On the other hand, that’s a big if. The fall tour reflected the reality of slumping concert ticket sales in general and ZZ’s stagnant popularity in particular. In the Northeast, for instance, many of the shows were booked into venues much smaller than the band is accustomed to (in New York, 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall rather than ZZ’s old stomping grounds, 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden). Also, four weeks after debuting on the Billboard Top 200 album charts at number 29, Rhythmeen slipped to number 75. It’s a shame, because the album is the band’s best in a decade, reemphasizing the stripped-down formula of loud blues rock that put them on the map in the first place: There’s plenty of smart and catchy wordplay, seductive tones, and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility.
The fact is, ZZ is still ZZ after all these years, even as the world around them is changing dramatically. If the logical question on everyone’s mind is, How long can they go on?, the answer is that after 27 years of rocking and rolling, it’s remarkable that they still exist. This is a business where even the successes seldom enjoy more than the prescribed fifteen minutes of fame, yet ZZ Top has shown considerable staying power. No other group currently performing rock music has held on as long without a single personnel change. Consider but one example: When Kiss first formed in 1972, ZZ had already been playing together for two years. Between then and now, Kiss changed personnel, dissolved, did nothing for a while, reunited, and are now wildly popular for a second go-round. In all that time, ZZ Top kept at it and amassed enough ticket, album, and merchandise sales to establish themselves indisputably as the biggest Texas act in entertainment history. Of course, when you’ve achieved the kind of institutional status that ZZ has, money isn’t the issue. Just being there is accomplishment enough.
WHEN I LAST WROTE ABOUT ZZ TOP FOR THIS MAGAZINE, IN January 1976, I was amused by how much time the band’s New York publicist, Howard Bloom, invested in trying to explain to me the significance of border culture so