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