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ZZ TOP a/k/a “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” lay undisputed claim to being the longest running major rock band with original personnel intact and in 2004 the Texas trio was be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, there are only three of them – Billy F Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard -- but it’s still a remarkable achievement that they’re still very much together after more than 40 years of rock, blues, and boogie on the road and in the studio.
With the release of each of their albums the band has explored new ground in terms of both their sonic approach and the material they’ve recorded. ZZ TOP is the same but always changing. It was in Houston in the waning days of 1969 that ZZ TOP coalesced from the core of two rival bands, Billy’s Moving Sidewalks and Frank and Dusty’s American Blues. The new group went on to record the appropriately titled ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud that reflected their strong blues roots. Their third, 1973’s Tres Hombres, catapulted them to national attention with the hit “La Grange,” still one of the band’s signature pieces today.
As a touring unit, they’ve been without peer over the years, having performed before millions of fans through North America on numerous epochal tours as well as overseas where they’ve enthralled audiences from Slovenia to Italy, from Australia to Sweden, from Russia to Japan and most points in between. Their iconography – beards, cars, girls, and that magic keychain – seems to transcend all bounds of geography and language. Following a lengthy hiatus during which the individual members of the band traveled the world, they switched labels (from British Decca’s London label to Warner Bros.) and returned with two amazingly provocative albums, Deguello and El Loco.
Their roots blues skew was intact but added to the mix were tech-age trappings that soon found a visual outlet with the nascent MTV. ZZ TOP had accomplished the impossible; they had moved with the times while simultaneously bucking ephemeral trends that crossed their path. They had become more popular and more iconic without ever having to be “flavor of the week.” They had become a certified rock institution, contemporary in every way, yet still completely connected to the founding fathers of the genre.
The elements that keep ZZ TOP fresh, enduring and above the transitory fray can be summed up in the three words of the band’s internal mantra: “Tone, Taste and Tenacity.” Of course, the three members of the band have done their utmost to do their part in assuring that ZZ TOP prevails. As genuine roots musicians, the members of the band have few peers. Billy is widely regarded as one of American finest blues guitarists working in the rock idiom. His influences are both the originators of the form – Muddy Waters, B.B. King, et al – as well as the British blues rockers who emerged the generation before ZZ’s ascendance. In his early days of playing, no less an idol that Jimi Hendrix singled him out for praise. Part mad scientist, part prankster, he’s a musical innovator of the highest order.
Dusty has long had an affinity for rock’s origins; his earliest performances as a child included Elvis songs convincingly performed. Not only is he a bass virtuoso in his own right, his vocal prowess is awe-inspiring. He’s the lead voice you hear on “Tush” and his ferocious vocals are heard, to great effect, on “Piece” on the new album. Good natured and diligent, Dusty is the rock solid bottom of ZZ TOP.
Frank has also been keeping the beat in that great tradition. As both a roots and progressive drummer, he has been acknowledged as key to the band’s powerful on-stage and in-studio presence. He and Dusty, in their early years together, served as Lightnin’ Hopkins’ rhythm section which, as Frank tells it, was a life changing experience. Frank, despite his last name, is the guy in the band without a beard. But when you’re with him, you’re with a Beard. He’s a rockin’ paradox who provides the pulse of ZZ TOP.
ZZ TOP’s music is always instantly recognizable, eminently powerful, profoundly soulful and 100% Texas American in derivation. The band’s support for the blues is unwavering both as interpreters of the music and preservers of its legacy. It was ZZ TOP that celebrated “founding father” Muddy Waters by turning a piece of scrap timber than had fallen from his sharecropper’s shack into a beautiful guitar, dubbed the “Muddywood.” This totem was sent on tour as a fundraising focus for The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, site of Robert Johnson’s famed “Crossroads” encounter with the devil. ZZ TOP’s support and link to the blues remains as rock solid as the music they continue to play. They have sold millions of records over the course of their career, have been officially designated as Heroes of The State of Texas, have been referenced in countless cartoons and sitcoms and are true rock icons but, against all odds, they’re really just doing what they’ve always done. They’re real and they’re surreal and they’re ZZ TOP.