ZZ Top broke pop-star big right around the time I became a young, callow consumer of music videos. That means I was fed a steady diet of “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” and other party jams on heavy rotation. The driving synth and the twirling, white fur guitars of “Legs” were what really caught my imagination, though the driving riff of “Sharp Dressed Man” was more my musical speed. I had no idea at the time that these guys were already hard blues legends. That would come later for me.
This all flashed through my mind when I heard that Dusty Hill, the Top’s strong, steady bassist, had died in his sleep at the age of 72. My first thought: rest in peace. Followed by: that’s the end of ZZ Top as we knew them. Yes, earlier this month guitarist Billy Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard played some gigs with guitar tech Elwood Francis on bass. They said Hill was recuperating from a hip ailment. In any case, it’s hard to imagine this power trio continuing long-term without their center of gravity (which doesn’t mean they won’t).
While most will remember ZZ Top for those video hits, here’s hoping everyone is familiar with, or will get familiar with, the work that preceded the band’s ’80s lunge for the brass ring. When Hill and Beard ventured from Dallas to Houston in the late ’60s and teamed up with the squalling Gibbons, a snarling, playful Texas giant was born. The 1973 album Tres Hombres yielded “La Grange,” a catchy John Lee Hooker–style tribute to a storied Texas brothel. But it was the raucous “Jesus Just Left Chicago” that really set the tone. This was wailing, raw-boned blues with a deep Texas twang. And Hill was the pacesetter, the man who, as many have already pointed out, created the heavy bottom for the Top.
You’ll find some of Hill’s best work in the Top’s late-seventies output. The nimble jamming of “Cheap Sunglasses,” a highlight of the band’s live shows, hinted at the pop stylings that were right around the corner. Looking back today, I don’t know if any band sold out as skillfully as ZZ Top. They remained listenable, for the most part, and they got paid. MTV came along at just the right time for them. Suddenly all the nod-and-wink sexuality of songs like “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Tush” had a visual corollary. All that, and furry guitars too.
So yes, ZZ Top eventually became pop culture figures, a role that fit them quite handsomely. But let’s not forget what came first. The band occupies a special place in Texas blues and rock, appreciative of forebears but always blasting off to new frontiers. The Tres Hombres are down one now. The bottom is no more.