Still ZZ After All These Years

They may no longer be topping the charts, but after nearly three decades, around 50 million records sold, and more than $200 million in concert tickets, the bearded boys of ZZ Top are still the reigning aristocrats of blues rock.

December 1996By Comments

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 I might better appreciate songs like “Heard It on the X” and “Mexican Blackbird” and what a place like the Chicken Ranch had to do with the band’s three-chord boogie opus “La Grange” and how boredom and fast cars figured in the making of “Master of Sparks.” Bloom’s short course in Texas kitsch was part of Bill Ham’s plan to sell the state to the world; with the possible exception of the TV series Dallas, there was no better sales tool than ZZ Top.

The origin of the enterprise is kind of a chicken-and-egg (or Ham-and-egg) thing; there is some dispute as to whether the manager or the band came first. What we know is that in 1967, promoter Angus Wynne III took Bill Ham backstage after a Doors concert in Houston and introduced him to Billy Gibbons, the lead guitarist of the opening act, the Moving Sidewalks, and the city’s musical hotshot of the moment. Raised in Tanglewood by a society bandleader and an executive secretary, Gibbons had been exposed to the blues by his family maid. The eighteen-year-old had already cut an album, Flash, and a successful single, “99th Floor,” and had opened shows for an exciting new band called the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Ham told Gibbons that he had the brains and experience to help the young guitarist do even better.

A rough boy from Waxahachie, Billy Mack Ham had grown up hanging around bands, clubs, and dances. In the early sixties he took a stab at being a professional entertainer by crooning the pop ballad “Dream On” for Dot Records; it was a commercial failure but provided an invaluable lesson in the ways of the music business. For a few years he made a nice living selling insurance, but before long he got back into show business as a record promoter who hyped product to radio stations for the H. W. Daily Company, a Houston distributor. More than anyone, Ham was educated in the mysteries of music publishing by company founder Pappy Daily, a genuine Texas music pioneer who launched the careers of George Jones and numerous other country and western and rock and roll stars.

EVENTUALLY, THOUGH, HAM DECIDED he’d rather be pitching songs by someone he had a personal investment in. So he cemented his relationship with Gibbons, and according to David Blayney’s Sharp-Dressed Men (Hyperion), together they enlisted drummer Dan Mitchell from the Sidewalks and Lanier Greig, a keyboardist from Houston’s Neil Ford and the Fanatics who had sat in with the Sidewalks and played the bass lines. They called themselves ZZ Top, a name whose origins are shrouded in mystery though it is thought to be either a hybrid of Zig Zag and Top cigarette rolling papers or a tribute to blues singer Z. Z. Hill. That lineup recorded the band’s first single, “Salt Lick,” on Scat Records, a small independent label that Ham had invented. But the single went nowhere, and the band split up: Greig was fired and replaced by bassist Billy Etheridge, and Mitchell quit before his slot was filled by Dallasite Frank Beard, a drummer whose skills were honed on the midnight-till-dawn shift at the Cellar clubs in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston. A few months later, Etheridge was fired for being a bad influence on Beard. Several other bassists filled in before Beard called his friend and fellow Dallasite Dusty Hill for a tryout. Playing a borrowed bass, Hill suggested a shuffle in the key of C. Two hours later, he was hired.

On February 10, 1970, at the Beaumont VFW Hall, Dusty, Frank, and Billy took the stage together for the first time. That same year their first album, titled ZZ Top’s First Album, was released by London Records, thanks in large part to a deal that would eventually enmesh Ham in his first bit of controversy. When ZZ landed its deal with London, the Daily company kicked in money to help pay recording expenses. In exchange, Ham agreed to split the profits with the company, which he did for the first three recordings. Then Ham decided he had paid Daily enough. Daily sued and later settled for $240,000.

ZZ Top immediately established itself as a band that played loud boogie through Marshall amplifiers. The three-man lineup and the towers of speakers paid homage to the wall-of-noise volume barrage popularized by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Mountain, Grand Funk Railroad, the James Gang, and other power trios, while the rhythms were straight out of the Texas school of electric blues, handed down directly from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King. The band also understood the frequency of hormonal overload among their mostly teenage fans. Every album had at least one song with a risqué reference: “(I’m Just Looking for Some) Tush,” “Woke Up With Wood,” “Tube Snake Boogie.”

The first three years of the band’s existence were character builders. Ham managed, booked, and drove the band in vans and rental trucks from club to club, playing perhaps 750 shows during that time (including a legendary gig at the National Guard Armory in Alvin in front of a single paying customer). He also produced their records at Robin Hood Brians’ studio in Tyler whenever they could scrape up the cash. With the zeal of an evangelical preacher, the politely aggressive manager generated excitement however he could, always in the name of getting them in front of as many people as possible. To avoid being typecast as just another regionally popular Southern boogie band, ZZ rarely double-billed with the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd; instead, Ham sought out British bands. ZZ solidified their fan base with a novel single, “Francine,” a Rolling Stones—inspired cut released with an English-language version on one side and Spanish on the other, but it wasn’t until a 1972 show at the University of Houston’s Jeppesen Stadium that the hype and roadwork began to pay off. Topping a bill with Savoy Brown, the Doobie Brothers, and Blue Öyster Cult, ZZ Top drew 38,000 fans.

Ham finally grabbed the rock world’s attention with ZZ’s third album, Tres Hombres, whose inside cover featured a full-color portrait of a combination plate at Leo’s Mexican restaurant in Houston. The album was finished at Ardent Studios in Memphis, which remains ZZ’s studio of choice today, and contained an immediately popular, chart-climbing single, “La Grange,” which took a rhythm similar to that of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” and pumped it up with Gibbons’ badass “Ah, haw, haw, haw, haw” growl. Even today, “La Grange” remains a between-innings favorite at the Ballpark in Arlington and a deejay staple at too many topless bars to count.

But Ham wasn’t satisfied: He wanted to do something really out there, something unforgettable. His big idea was the ZZ Top’s First Annual Texas Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barndance and Bar B.Q. at the University of Texas’ Memorial Stadium in Austin, where ZZ headlined an impressive bill that included Santana, Joe Cocker, and the American debut of Bad Company. There was a dearth of barbecue and barn dancers—and in the P. T. Barnum tradition, there was never a second annual event—yet 80,000 people showed up. Ham’s point was well taken: This wasn’t a regional act; this was serious. Tres Hombres went platinum, and promoters outside Texas took notice. (UT took notice too. After learning that a fan had lifted the protective plywood used to cover the floor and cut out a Texas-shaped souvenir of newly installed AstroTurf, university officials instituted a ban on concerts at the facility that lasted twenty years.)

After that, ZZ Top hit the road for two straight years with its Texana concept in tow: Hay bales, wagon wheels, and live Longhorns, wolves, and buzzards adorned the largest stage ever constructed for a rock concert tour, setting new standards for wattage, production values, and concert grosses. Before it was over, ZZ Top’s Worldwide Texas Tour sold close to $100 million in tickets.

Clearly, the success owed as much to the salesman as the product. Bill Ham pulled all the strings from behind a series of curtains, like some good ol’ boy Wizard of Oz (or, if you prefer, the Wizard of OZZ). It’s no coincidence that his management company is called Lone Wolf, for Ham operates at a remove from the traditional entertainment power centers of Los Angeles and New York—and does it deliberately, to maintain a mystical upper hand and keep his adversaries guessing. “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. That’s him, although I think he falls more on the genius side,” said a former employee whose name I promised not to reveal. (Never in my 25 years of writing about Texas music have so many sources requested anonymity, a testament to Ham’s real and perceived influence.) If Ham is unpredictable, the former employee said, it’s by design: “He’d be in meetings with record people, reach a point where the lawyers started drawing up the papers, then he’d suddenly bolt from the room, leave town, and not return calls for a week.” Yet such behavior shouldn’t be mistaken for something it isn’t. “People in New York and L.A. have made Ham out for a dimwit,” Dusty Hill said, “and they’ve paid dearly.”

“He takes things personally,” said a record label executive who has worked with numerous managers. “Others leave their work at the office. Ham doesn’t. He really is the fourth member of that band. I can’t think of another act that has been as carefully controlled by management as they have.”

It’s true that Ham came of age during an era when differences were settled with guns and knives instead of accountants and lawyers, so it makes sense that he looked to the gang model as a blueprint for his organization. He surrounded himself with people he trusted and placed a premium on loyalty above all else. If you were in with Ham, you were in all the way. If you were out, you were out forever—especially employees who struck out on their own without his blessing. “I don’t think Bill would actually do it,” said one, “but I was convinced my phone was being tapped by him for years after I left.”

Still, there are those who say the cutthroat reputation is closer to a good Texas brag than fact. “They’re not thieves, and they don’t stomp on people,” insisted an industry veteran who has sat at the negotiating table with Ham and his associates. “But they cloud situations to get what they want. Reality never gets in the way.”

WEDNESDAY NIGHT ON THE SET OF the Letterman show: Dusty Hill was in a jolly mood because his daughter—a high school senior—was in the audience for the taping of ZZ’s performance. By Letterman’s decree, the temperature in the studio hovered in the mid-fifties, but that didn’t bother Hill, who was dressed in a black coat, a black shirt, black Ray-Ban sunglasses, and a black baseball cap. “I like the cold,” he said before taking his spot onstage.

“From the top, now . . . Ahhhh, ah, ah, ah, ummmmmm, what’s up with that,” Paul Shaffer said while chewing gum and leading his band and ZZ through rehearsal. “Frank, can you hear [drummer] Anton [Fig] play? Why don’t you play together, record tempo? Yeah.” Shaffer was trying to get a fat, rich sound from his Hammond B-3 organ, one of several keyboards at his disposal, while Gibbons and Hill positioned themselves a few steps in front of Beard and harmonica whiz James Harman crouched off to the side. As the chorus was repeated over and over, the song’s hook potential became evident: It recalled “Respect Yourself,” the soul anthem popularized by the Staples Singers, only these lyrics posed a more personal question: “How much blues can you use / Before you use it up?”

When it came time to play the song for real, ZZ Top plus one delivered the goods, with Shaffer’s B-3 doodles, Fig’s additional drumming, and the orchestra’s backup vocals adding considerable punch to the band’s sound. The only glitch came after the song ended and Letterman shook hands with his guests; Shaffer had given the cue to start “Legs,” leading into the commercial break, but nobody had warned ZZ Top. A crew member had already unplugged Gibbons’ guitar. “They shoulda discussed what they were gonna do,” Gibbons muttered as he walked into the dressing room.

Harman shrugged. “It’s like a meat freezer in there.”

“Good job, James,” Gibbons told him quietly.

Hill sauntered into the hallway lighting up a cigarette. “They say you look ten pounds heavier on TV, but it makes your beard look longer,” he said with a chuckle.

Gibbons walked out and shook hands with him. “Real good, man.”

A short time later, two stretch limousines returned to the hotel, where Hill and Beard disembarked. Gibbons and Harman, however, decided to make a night of it. As their limo sped them down Fifth Avenue, Gibbons spoke of the five-voice, diminished seventh tone of the horn of a ’67 Cadillac; of Memphis, his favorite city outside Texas; and of his newfound interest in African art (“It’s like collecting guitars; it’s a sickness”). The two got off in SoHo outside the Museum for African Art, where Gibbons politely talked his way into an opening party. Then they moved on to St. Mark’s Place, where they rummaged through the racks of a few record shops (Gibbons was unsuccessful in his search for a particular long-player by Brigitte Bardot), purchased a beret with a leopard-skin print from a boutique, and popped into a deli for egg creams. Every few hundred feet, a head or two would turn in vague recognition of Gibbons’ beard.

Later, they dropped in at Mojo Guitars to talk shop with the owners, who escorted them to yet another record store and a Japanese restaurant called Sappora East. It turned out that the chef, Shige Motsumoeo, had once owned the guitar that Gibbons played on the Letterman show. Motsumoeo, a young man with a ring in his nose and a huge tattoo on his right arm, came outside dressed in his cooking whites. When he met Gibbons, he bowed toward him, then shouted excitedly, “Wow! I saw you in Tokyo!”

After stopping at a deli to pick up some Knorr tomato soup and fig bars, Gibbons and Harman headed back to their hotel just in time to watch themselves on TV. Both smiled broadly when Letterman sang ZZ’s praises: “Look at these guys. How ’bout these guys? Yessir, I like them guys. Ain’t they cool, Paul?”

WHEN ZZ TOP FINALLY TOOK A BREAK from touring in 1977, they needed the rest. They’d been on the road for almost seven years, barely squeezing in time to record two albums, Fandango! and Tejas. ZZ Top’s Worldwide Texas Tour had elevated them to the big time, but at a price: The boys were fried. Worse, they were in danger of becoming dinosaurs. The boogie beat and Southern sound were passé. Album rock radio had become as narrowly defined and rigidly formatted as the Top 40 sound it had replaced. Guitars were old hat; synthesizers and electronics were in. Kids were into a younger, cooler, shinier version of rock called New Wave, which encompassed the punk ethic and nurtured the ethos that would eventually make alternative mainstream. By any measure, ZZ Top had to be on its last legs.

While Ham negotiated a new contract with Warner Bros., the silence from the ZZ camp was deafening. Rumors spread that the band had been killed in a plane crash (false), that Beard had entered a drug rehabilitation program to kick his heroin addiction (true), that Gibbons had converted to Tibetan Buddhism (false) and moved to Paris (true), that Hill had sailed around the world (false; Beard sailed while Hill hung out in Mexico). The occasional publicity stunt kept their names in the news—in 1978 it was announced that ZZ Top had volunteered to be the first lounge act on the space shuttle—but basically nothing was happening. Even when ZZ resurfaced in 1979 with a new release, Degüello, and again in 1981 with El Loco, it was still pretty much the same old blues ’n’ boogie.

Then a newfangled concept called MTV came along and changed everything. The cable television channel mimicked radio by playing video clips of bands performing songs around the clock. At first, video was not part of Ham’s strategy for success; he believed radio was the most efficient means of getting music to the people. Sure, ZZ finally broke overseas thanks to the exposure brought about by their live, in-concert appearance on Rockpalast, a German TV program broadcast throughout Europe—but video clips played several times a day? That would spoil the mystique, Ham contended.

Several developments persuaded him to think again. Following the multi-year break, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill showed up for work sporting full beards. The look was a stroke of unintended genius: The facial hair covered their wrinkles and defied time; they had become ageless in a young man’s game. Then Gibbons purchased a Fairlight keyboard synthesizer, which could be programmed to replicate any musical instrument. He started tinkering with it in Beard’s home studio with Linden Hudson, a would-be engineer who tweaked the knobs. According to David Blayney’s book, Hudson floated the notion that the ideal dance music had 124 beats per minute; then he and Gibbons conceived, wrote, and recorded what amounted to a rough draft of an album before the band had set foot inside Ardent Studios. Lone Wolf officials deny that Hudson was involved—they say the idea came entirely from Gibbons and Ham. In any case, the conspicuous presence of synthesizers marked a change of direction for the band (and prompted speculation that Hill and Beard didn’t even play their instruments on the recording. “The reaction was like when Dylan went electric,” Hill says). Another factor was a 1933 Ford coupe that Gibbons had had built. The bill was due and the builder wanted to get paid. Fortunately, Ham came up with an idea: He suggested featuring the souped-up car on the cover of the new album, thus allowing it to be written off as a prop. Mike Griffin, a friend of the band’s who had produced a documentary on drag racing, proposed that the album be called Top Fuel. Ham one-upped him and called it Eliminator.

Ham finally relented on his no-video policy when the album was finished. The synthesizer sound was perfect for the MTV generation, which until then had seen ZZ as an old-fogey band. Tim Newman, the cousin of songwriter-pianist Randy Newman, was hired to direct the video, which centered on a teenage gas-pump jockey, a bevy of beautiful babes, and the hot rod dubbed the Eliminator. Other than providing the song, the band’s involvement was limited to a brief appearance in a desert mirage: Gibbons, Hill, and Beard made a synchronized circular motion with their arms and tossed a ZZ key chain to the pump jockey so he could drive the hot rod off into the distance. All of a sudden, ZZ Top wasn’t just about Texas anymore; the band symbolized America as a land of rock and roll, cars, and girls. Videos for two other Eliminator songs, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” followed, earning ZZ Top band of the year and video of the year honors at the 1984 MTV music awards. To date, Eliminator has sold 11 million albums in the U.S. alone.

But even if the good vibe carried through to 1985’s Afterburner and 1990’s Recycler, all was not well at home. In the late eighties Lone Wolf moved its offices from Houston to Austin, ostensibly to let Ham spend more time on his Hill Country ranch, which was closer to the Austin music scene. But in truth, a change was called for. Behind the curtain, the organization had taken its share of hits. A trusted bookkeeper was found to have embezzled nearly $2 million from the company. Linden Hudson successfully sued the band for $600,000 in damages for copyright infringement after he was neither credited nor paid for writing the song “Thug” on Eliminator. And there were other suits too, including one by the Nightcaps, a Dallas band that contended ZZ’s “Thunderbird” had borrowed too liberally from a song of the same name that the Nightcaps had recorded in 1961. (A U.S. District Court judge eventually ruled that the Nightcaps had waited too long to challenge the copyright.)

In 1991 ZZ and Clint Black, Ham’s other prominent client, were among the top ten grossing acts in the rock and country genres, respectively. Ham had taken Black out of the Houston lounges and built him into one of the first country acts who could pack an arena. But Black was preparing to file suit to sever their business relationship. Then Ham’s wife, Cecile, was murdered by an ex-con who had just been paroled in Houston and stole her red Cadillac from a parking lot because he was tired of walking. All of a sudden, show business seemed trivial. “It made us all aware how insignificant success is,” said Ham aide J. W. Williams. In 1994 Ham himself nearly died when his aorta ruptured. With mortality staring him in the face, neither he nor Lone Wolf would ever be the same. Meanwhile, Gibbons seemed to be getting thinner and thinner, triggering more rumors: He was dying of AIDS, he was bulimic, he was propped up on Prozac, he was trying to live up to his reputation as the Howard Hughes of blues. (For the record, Lone Wolf officials have said that Gibbons is not sick and that his weight loss has been “a conscious decision. That’s how he wants to look.”)

With the master of mystique sidelined by tragedy, it was almost miraculous that ZZ pulled off its biggest coup of all in 1993: a five-record, $35 million deal with RCA. On the surface, it appeared to be a win-win situation for the boys, their manager, and their new label. The contract was one of the most lucrative in the business and brought instant prestige to RCA, a company not known for rock acts. But it also marked the end of ZZ’s happy relationship with Warner Bros. and brought on a new set of career pressures. If the band didn’t deliver the sales necessary to justify the deal, there was a danger that RCA might eat the contract and cut its losses. When the first release of the RCA deal, 1994’s Antenna, sold just over a million copies, that danger seemed more real. To keep the machine going, the next release would have to do better. That release is Rythmeen, and while the jury is still out on its success, the signs are fairly ominous.

Understandably, people wonder why the band even trifles with such problems. Unlike thousands of musicians who’ve quit the straight life to devote themselves to music, ZZ Top has actually succeeded at it. They’re not hungry teenagers anymore; they’re what passes in the music business for aristocracy. Gibbons collects African art and travels the world. Hill rides Harleys and shares courtside Houston Rockets season tickets with a group that includes Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer and society swan Carolyn Farb. Beard subsidizes a car racing team by buying and selling Porsches, Ferraris, and American muscle cars. Ham, meanwhile, is presently handling the career of two promising Austin alternative acts, Pushmonkey and El Flaco. Hamstein Cumberland Music Group, which Ham co-owns, was the number two music publishing company in Nashville last year—even though its parent company is in Austin—and has one of the largest staffs of any independent song publisher in the U.S.

Past suspicions about what Ham and the band might be hiding behind the curtains have evaporated. Even the most recent rumor about ZZ Top—that Gibbons has a “ghost” do his vocals in the studio—is beside the point. Whatever it is, however they do it, it’s some kind of art. Every two or three years, they manage to crank out an album’s worth of songs that are as loud, macho, greasy, and distorted as ever, stuffed with the kind of unrepentant, misogynistic references that represent, as Charles M. Young observed in Musician magazine, “the optimum balance between gonads and technoglitz.” Strip away the artifice and it still boils down to three guys and three chords.

ON THURSDAY NIGHT, FOLLOWING A photo shoot, Hill motioned to Gibbons, who was getting into a car sent by the Letterman show. “Hey, Billy!” he shouted, miming guitar licks. “Look good now.”

Once the tinted window was rolled up, Gibbons turned quiet. He leaned over and switched off the radio, which was playing some classic Moody Blues; the music clearly irritated him. But he sprang back to life at the Fifty-third Street stage-door entrance to the Late Show set. After exiting the car, he signed autographs and slid past Letterman regular Calvert DeForest, who was rehearsing his role as Larry “Bud” Melman by sputtering the line “You skinny talk show host.”

Just before rehearsal, Shaffer sidled up to Gibbons, checking out the African knife necklace he calls his Johannesburg boxing glove.

“How did it sound last night?” Shaffer asked.

“Cool,” Gibbons replied, giving him the thumbs up.

After a bit of small talk, Shaffer asked, “Are you ready to rock?” and they went to work. For the taping, Shaffer’s band would do an instrumental version of “What’s Up With That” with Shaffer assuming James Harman’s harmonica part. At the rehearsal, Gibbons was tentative and deferential as the band ran through “Legs” (“It’s actually C sharp minor, F sharp minor,” he told them with a smile), “Green Onions,” a peppy version of “Yellow Rose of Texas,” and the theme from The Honeymooners. But by the time Shaffer conducted a blues shuffle in the key of C and Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down,” Gibbons felt confident enough to throw in a few trademark riffs.

When the taping started an hour later, Gibbons got a couple of nice lead licks in, several close-ups, and more positive comments from Dave. There was a nice shot of him laughing, his gold tooth gleaming, in reaction to Letterman’s story about how ZZ Top’s music inspired him. “I love to drive,” Letterman said. “Couple years ago, I put a ZZ Top CD in the car and drove to Kansas City. The other thing I like to do while listening to ZZ Top is fight. Drive and fight.” When Letterman made fun of his “toupee,” the camera zoomed in for a tight shot of him, then switched to a close-up of Gibbons’ African hat. When the orchestra reprised “Legs” as an instrumental break to commercial, guitarists Felicia Collins and Sid McGinnis and Huntsville-born bassist Will Lee sashayed in place and swung their guitar necks in unison with Gibbons, just like ZZ Top.

After the taping, Gibbons stuffed several cans of Diet Coke into his backpack and described what it had been like to play on national television without Dusty and Frank. “It was like a fine limousine ride,” he said. “Through my earpiece, I could hear Paul say, ‘C’mon, Dave, give me one more [verse]. This is too good.’ Anton told me, ‘I was handing you that Texas backbeat.’”

Back at the hotel, several fans were waiting for autographs and pictures. Gibbons obliged them, making nice with one admirer holding an Instamatic by telling him, “Anyone with a camera like that deserves a photo. Hey, now, how you doin’?” Once he was inside the lobby, the shucking and jiving eased up. When the elevator door closed in front of him, Gibbons cast a furtive glance to his companions, J. W. Williams and crew members Pablo Gamboa and Graeme Lagden, and as if on cue, the four let out a collective sigh. For the next few hours, whoever the guy behind the beard and shades really was, he could step out of character if he so desired. In the morning, the show would start all over again.

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