For nearly 47 years, prospector-bearded guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, along with ironically clean-shaven drummer Frank Beard, have been uniting catchy blues rock and boldly humorous lyrics with raunchy innuendo as ZZ Top.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trio is one of only a few groups to avoid lineup shuffles for so long. Over the years, they grew from unheralded rockers to multi-platinum MTV video stars. They succeeded with simple guitar, bass and drum arrangements and again when they added synths in the ‘80s.
Thirty-three years removed from their most commercially successful album, Eliminator, they’re still constantly touring the world and putting out records. Their most recent is September compilation release Live — Greatest Hits From Around The World. The record includes 15 of their biggest hits, recorded live over several tours in several countries and three continents.
Many of those hits, including “Legs,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “La Grange,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin,’” are likely to make an appearance Oct. 1 at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga and Oct. 2 at the Warfield in San Francisco. Frontman Gibbons took some time to answer questions about making classic music videos and collaborating with the greats—he began his music career opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Moving Sidwalks and has shared the stage and studio with the likes of The Raconteurs, B.B. King, Les Paul, John Mayall and Jeff Beck, who makes two appearances on Greatest Hits.
You have shared the stage and recording studio with many iconic, talented musicians. Which one or two mean the most to you?
The Rolling Stones have to be at the top of the list and, of course, that’s where you’ll find Jimi Hendrix, too. We shared bills with Jimi back in our Moving Sidewalks days and got to know him both on- and off-stage. He was a fiery, flamboyant performer but a down-to-earth and, essentially, shy but warm guy off [stage]. None of us would be where we are today without his having broken through back then. The Stones are a huge inspiration insofar as they took the blues and made it rock. We’ve joined them on numerous occasions and each time was a noteworthy experience in blues brotherhood. Keith is the real deal!
Dusty Hill fractured his shoulder at a show in April but recovered pretty quickly, within a month or two. How big of a scare was it, and do unplanned vacations like this make you stop and think about how much you have left in the tank and how long you want to continue playing live or making music?
Like your reference, this is an “unplanned vacation.” That’s exactly the downtime bonus. We’re maintaining an “onward forever” policy until further notice.
What’s old becomes new again. These days, many bands—and if their sound includes a banjo, mandolin or fiddle, it’s a given—have the long beards, the retro hats, etc. It’s a look you’ve carried since the late ‘70s. What do you think of it being trendy again, and could you envision you guys shaving and walking on stage?
We, of course, dig the look and always have. Not sure if these contemporary times of changing fashion are following ZZ’s footsteps or just too distracted to deal with cultivating a slick look, but it’s all good. The trend sure saves time in the morning, and if you multiply that by multiple decades, it adds up. On the other hand, we have yet to envision taking the stage sans whiskers.
You’ve released several compilations in the past. Tell me about Greatest Hits, and what’s something new or different fans can expect from it?
It’s somewhat out of the ordinary as these are recordings from the world over: North America, Europe, South America; so [it] is a reflection when we play for crowds wherever we go. It’s an audio document of the enthusiasm we feel up on stage. A couple of our blues-bound friends, Jeff Beck on some mean guitar and, harmonica [and the] great James Harman take guest spots on a couple of tracks: ZZ’s “Rough Boy” and the old Tennessee Ernie Ford [and] Merle Travis saga “Sixteen Tons,” as well as the super standby numbers, “Waitin’ For The Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.”
How many guitars do you own and which one is your favorite?
That’s always a tough question as it’s a constantly changing item on the acquisition list! The old saying still stands: “One’s too many and a hundred ain’t enough!” The favorite is, of course, Pearly Gates, our ’59 Les Paul Standard that’s been our “best girl” geetar for quite a while. She’s the best!
Do you have a favorite memory or experience in the San Francisco Bay Area?
Hanging out with [guitarist and composer] Mike Bloomfield in Mill Valley [in the late ‘70s or early ’80; (Bloomfield died in 1981), when the band had an off-day from touring] has to rank high on the list. What a great, gone cat!
You hit the perfect wave with MTV in the early ‘80s. Music Television is years past what it used to be, but the video seems to be more popular than ever. How has the use of the video changed from those years?
Some of ZZ videos had a charmed cinematic quality and, thanks to the genius of our director, Tim Newman, very high production value. In these “everything digital” days, it’s become quite easy to shoot without the constraints of film. And, of course, it is still really all about a great song. Gotta rock it!