Rock ’n’ roll and the genre of music that birthed it—the blues—are immediate art forms. Within a few beats of a drum kit or a few notes on the electric or acoustic guitar, the listener is taken to the core of the sound. Whether it’s rock and its electric punch or the blues with its solemn intimacy, feelings are transmitted quickly and true. And it’s this reality that drew a young Billy Gibbons to their sounds. Gibbons, who would go on to co-found the legendary blues-rock band ZZ Top as an adult, was first introduced to these styles of music as a kid. At a time when most his age were preparing for kindergarten, Gibbons was getting a different education. Now, some six or seven decades later, Gibbons has harnessed those lessons into an acclaimed career that continues to this day with the release of ZZ Top’s new live 12-track album, Raw, which features many of the band’s biggest hits and is officially out on July 22.
“Our household employed the services of a housekeeper named Stella Matthews who was known as Big Stella, and she had a daughter with the same name,” Gibbons tells American Songwriter. Gibbons, who grew up in Houston, Texas, had a father who was also an entertainer and musician, who worked with MGM Studios. “Big Stella would babysit my sister and me at her house several nights a week and Little Stella would take us out in the late evenings to see music performances at an inner-city nightclub.”
Thinking back on these formative experiences, Gibbons guffaws.
“Can you imagine a 5- or 6-year-old boy and a 4- or 5-year-old girl doing that?” he says. “But it really happened, and we sure got inculcated to the blues in a big way, right from the source.”
But his education didn’t end with the Stellas. Gibbons’ father also helped introduce him to music and to some of the biggest names in the business, including a blues legend.
“Sometime later,” Gibbons says, “my Dad took me to a recording session and that’s when I saw how records are made by—wait for it!—B.B. King. I knew then at the age of 7 what I wanted to do. Years later, I spoke to B.B. and mentioned that afternoon and he vividly remembered the little kid at his session from all those years before.”
From these early eyebrow-raising introductions, Gibbons’ thirst for knowledge continued. And as if his luck wasn’t already sky-high, he was, as a young adult, introduced to perhaps the greatest blues and rock guitarist of all time: Jimi Hendrix. As he began putting his first musical projects together as a young man, Gibbons’ path crossed with Hendrix’s. With his early band Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons even opened for the “Purple Haze” rocker during Hendrix’s first American tour as a headliner. The two became friendly. And Hendrix’s ability quickly rubbed off on Gibbons.
“Jimi Hendrix didn’t so much teach me how to play the guitar so much as teach me what the instrument was capable of,” says Gibbons.
Prior to meeting the guitar god, Gibbons remembers getting his first electric six-string. The new axe was a Gibson Melody Maker, which he paired with a Fender Champ amplifier. He got both for Christmas at the formative age of 13.
“I really took to it because you could play it loud!” Gibbons says. “Nothing’s been the same ever since.”
Then, of course, came the nascent stages of songwriting.
“As far as writing songs is concerned,” Gibbons says, “I knew I had to write some of my own because if you want to hear a Ray Charles song, your best bet is to listen to Ray Charles. You just never know where the inspiration will come from—sometimes a turn of phrase springs to mind and you build around that. Other times it’s a funky riff and you use that as the foundation. It’s never the same, which always keeps it interesting.”
ZZ Top formed in 1969 after the dissolution of Gibbons’ Moving Sidewalks project. The band released its first album—the aptly titled ZZ Top’s First Album—in 1971 and its seminal LP Tres Hombres in 1973. The group consisted of Gibbons, drummer Frank Beard (what a perfect last name for the band), and bassist Dusty Hill (until Hill’s recent passing in 2021). With giant beards, sunglasses, gravely riffs, and catchy songs, the group has been a mainstay in popular music and remains so. And Gibbons says he remembers seemingly every detail about the band’s early evolution.
“I remember everything including the day Frank suggested we try out Dusty on bass,” Gibbons says. “He came over and we figured we’d see if we could communicate musically. We started playing blues in C and it felt right, and we kept at it for about three hours, nonstop. We figured out we had the ‘keeper’ lineup for the band.”
But what about those beards? That facial hair you could seemingly see from space and has become so signature to the group, even leading to spoof Halloween-style masks made for sale to fans mimicking ZZ Top’s signature look?
“The beards just kind of showed up organically,” Gibbons says. “There was never a plan to come up with a ‘look.’ In fact, we had been on a very lengthy break—though, keeping in touch by phone. When we actually got back together in person, we realized that we had all grown some significant chin whiskers quite serendipitously and we just never stopped. Of course, Frank doesn’t really count here because his last name is ‘Beard.’ So he always had that base covered and his chin clean.”
ZZ Top’s new live record, Raw, features many of the band’s best tracks, including songs like “Legs,” “Blue Jean Blues,” “Tush,” and “La Grange.” While each has a rollicking backstory, perhaps the most notable is the latter, which was born from a rather titillating legacy. The single was written in homage to a place in Texas known as the “Chicken Ranch,” which was a popular brothel in La Grange, Texas, and inspired the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.
“It was a collaborative effort about a subject with which we—and thousands of Texas kids coming of age—were familiar,” Gibbons says. “We dug the groove and thought it might get some traction, but we didn’t cut it thinking it would be a hit single and end up as one of our signature songs. It was our first foray to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where we engaged the engineering services of Terry Manning who really helped us get over sonically. What can I say? We were inspired.” Sadly, for the brothel’s patrons, after the song came out, the place was soon closed.
As for the new LP, which offers a rousing, fuzzy, buzzy, electric journey, Gibbons says the process took only about a day. The new LP was, in part, the brainchild of Sam Dunn, who directed the 2019 feature-length documentary ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas. Dunn, Gibbons says, wanted to “capture us in a recording circumstance.” So, he put the band in one place and recorded them live. The songs from those sessions turned into Raw, which is the official soundtrack for the doc.
“Typically,” he says, “recording sessions are as compelling to the outside observer as watching paint dry—it can be a tedious process and not particularly videogenic, if there is such a word. He thought that putting us together in that old dance hall where we’d be recording together as opposed to layering tracks one at a time would lend the film a chance to get an inside look at our interactions. That certainly was the case as we knocked it out, for the most part, in one day. It just felt really natural and unhurried.”
While the documentary, which earned a Grammy nomination, and Raw are highlights for the group, a recent low is certainly the passing of Hill, who died on July 28, 2021, at the age of 72. While the loss of his friend and collaborator is sad, Gibbons chooses to remember his friend fondly and remember the bright side of their relationship.
“There’s never been a more loyal, more dedicated guy I’ve ever met,” says Gibbons. “I spent five decades with him and during that time, he was good-natured about whatever we had to face—both the good and the bad. He was the kind of guy you could literally count on, and [he was] a brilliant musician in his own right. He’s certainly missed but we do carry on in his righteous memory, so he’s never really gone.”
Another recent milestone for ZZ Top came near the end of 2021 when the band sold its publishing catalog and royalties to BMG and the investment company KKR for some $50 million. ZZ Top is one of many artists to sell their catalogs for millions, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and more. For the 72-year-old Gibbons, the move just made sense.
“Seemed like the time was right for it to happen,” he says. “We’re still very much in the music business and in league with some pros who know how to get the most out of what we’ve done over the years.”
Now, with a new chapter beginning for both Gibbons and his Texas blues-rock band, there remains much to enjoy and look forward to. There is new studio work on the way, along with an upcoming tour with the legendary singer John Fogerty. These are achievements in their own right, exciting moments on the horizon. Though, Gibbons says, he’s in no real hurry.
“It’s all good,” Gibbons says, considering what’s ahead. “We were off the road for far too long, so getting back out there and turning it up and bashing it out is something very cherished. What’s the saying? You don’t know what you’ve got until you don’t. Well, we’re glad we found it again. As far as a new studio album, we do have some material recorded so it’s just a matter of time to nail things down. Obviously, we’re not in a rush. We toured with John Fogerty in the past and that was a great time so we’re looking forward to ‘chooglin’’ again with him on the bill.”
For Gibbons, who has had an illustrious career (which also includes collaborations with Les Paul, Jeff Beck, and Jack White, as well as roles as an actor), it’s all really about the music, first and foremost. Such was the case for him as a young boy, introduced to the world of it by the Stellas and his father. Since then, it’s all remained the same: to get that rush of rock and the blues both in and out of him. It’s a source of mental health, stability, and purpose. In this way, he’s a filter for the world of song, a conduit. And he’s certainly one of the art form’s best and most accomplished, to be sure.
“It liberates the soul,” Gibbons says, “and gives you a means of communicating your innermost feelings without having to say a word to a psychiatrist. That’s the deal of a lifetime!”
Photo by Ross Halfin