Billy Gibbons Shares Insights on Life, Career in Advance of ZZ Top’s Capitol Theatre Performance
By W.B. King—
“Play what you want to hear,” B.B. King often said. Whether or not Billy Gibbons heard the blues legend say the phrase when he first encountered him as a young boy, those six words have continually informed Gibbon’s approach to creating indelible music.
“My dad, a composer and band leader, had entry to Houston studios and took me over to one when I was six or seven. It was a B.B. King session, and I was mesmerized and knew right then what I had to do,” Gibbons told The Hudson Independent. “My mom took me and my sister to see Elvis [Presley] around that same time so that kind of sealed the deal having been influenced by two true ‘Kings.’”
Originally attracted to the drums or anything that he could bang a beat on in the family’s home in Houston, Texas, Gibbon’s father called in a favor to an old friend, Tito Puente. The mambo and Latin jazz multi-instrumentalist, known for his defining approach to the timbales, invited Gibbons, then 13, to Manhattan to study under his tutelage. This rhythmic experience seeped deep into the soul of the bourgeoning musician.
Under the family’s Christmas tree that year wasn’t a drum set, but rather an electric guitar, which placed Gibbon’s on a musical adventure from which he has never veered. By the time he was around 18 years old, he founded the band, The Moving Sidewalks. The psychedelic, bluesy outfit had scored a hit in 1967 with “99th Floor,” eventually landing them on concert bills with The Jeff Beck Group, The Doors, The Animals and The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“Jimi was warm and friendly and essentially, shy. However, when out on stage he was like man possessed,” Gibbons recalled. “He took us under his ‘not so little wing’ after we met him while joining the Experience tour.”
As a newer band, The Moving Sidewalks were short on material and had been covering Hendrix’s hits “Foxy Lady” and “Hey Joe” prior to joining the tour. One night, Hendrix caught their interpretive act from the wings.
“When we came off stage, he was grinning with arms folded and said: ‘You got a lot of nerve…I wanna get to know you,’” Gibbons said. “And so he did as we were friends until the end of his tragically short life.”
Hendrix would become so impressed with Gibbon’s musicianship that he purportedly counted Gibbons among his favorite guitarists. But due to two members being drafted into the U.S. Army, The Moving Sidewalls disbanded in 1969. The following year, Gibbons, undeterred, teamed up with fellow Texans, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard. The trio formed what became the official ZZ Top lineup.
The band released a string of successful albums, such as Tres Hombres (1973) and Fandango! (1975), scoring big hits with songs like “La Grange” and “Tush.” By the 1980s, they reinvented their sound and mystique — Gibbons and Hill became known for their trademark sunglasses, long beards, spinning sheepskin-covered guitars and cowboy hats, while Beard remained beardless expertly keeping the beat. Hits like “Sharped Dressed Man,” “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” were in constant rotation on MTV. The visual medium allowed the band to showcase their distinct look and sound to a new generation of fans, while also featuring classic cars like the stunning red “Eliminator” 1933 Ford Coupe — iconic automotive imagery for which ZZ Top is forever tied.
The car and guitar relationship, Gibbon explained, has been closely aligned for decades. “Certainly, since the dawn of the rock ’n’ roll era which, some suggest, began with the recording of ‘Rocket 88’ at Sun Studios back in 1953,” he offered.
While his passion for cars preceded his love of the guitar, they soon became one in the same. Asked if he could pick a favorite car and guitar from his vast collections, the answer came quickly to Gibbons whose distinctive guitar playing is complemented by an equally distinguishing baritone, raspy-bluesy voice that delivers imaginative lyrics.
“As kids, we dug hot rods, built model cars and yearned to play the guitar. When we ‘sort of’ grew up, we followed both pursuits,” he said. “As far as respective favorites are concerned, I’ve got to go with Pearly Gates, our very special 1959 Les Paul Standard Gibson guitar that sounds like no other. For a favorite car the obvious choice is that little red ’33 Ford three window coupe, but there’s also a great affinity for CadZZilla, the ’49 Cadillac custom that’s got a wow factor that is un-ZZ Top-able.”
Further insights into the band’s celebrated history can be gleaned by watching the Grammy-nominated Netflix documentary ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas (2019), which Gibbons gives high marks.
“We were all quite pleased with the film as it succeeded in what it set out to do: tell the story of three guys who only wanted to get out there and entertain as many people as possible for as long as possible,” he shared. “As far as heartwarming interludes, getting to see the band out there having a good time is psychically rewarding.”
What amazed ZZ Top about the filming experience was a happy accident that occurred along the way — recording a live album.
“The surprise was the ad hoc recording session at Gruene Hall in Fredricksburg,” he said of the no-frills, honky-tonk built in 1878. “The filmmaker asked us to get over there for a still session but since our gear had been shipped over we just figured we might as well play and that live album is a result…kind of like when a store offers a ‘gift with purchase.’”
While Tito Puente passed away in 2000, some 15 years later his encouraging and enlightening spirit would again tap Gibbons on the shoulder.
“We were offered the opportunity to do something a bit left field and unexpected outside the constraints and format of ZZ Top so we jumped at the chance,” said Gibbons. “It’s good to stretch one’s musical legs every now and then and having a solo project made that a viable proposition.”
In December 2015, Billy Gibbons and the BFGs were invited to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival in Cuba. “We had that background based on apprenticing with Tito Puente and we figured it would be instructive, informative and fun and that it was,” he noted. “The festival was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and we were delighted to have been able to take part.”
During the same time period, musicians Mike Flanigin, GG Maartine, Joe Hardy and Greg Morrow joined Gibbons on his debut solo album, Perfectamundo (2015). Among songs on the bluesy, Afro-Cuban themed album is “Sal y Pimiento,” which Gibbons, who produced the album and played numerous instruments, including bass, Hammond B3 and piano, wrote.
“Sal y Pimiento was derived from the name of a new — at the time — Houston restaurant named Sal y Pepe,” he said. “We needed an extra syllable when we sat down to write the lyric and took a little Latin-tinged poetic license.”
Building on the success of his first solo effort, three years later Gibbons released his second album, The Big Bad Blues. With tracks like “Second Line” and “That’s What She Said,”’ the collection of high-energy songs was a return to his roots.
In reviewing the album, American Songwriter noted: “He’s clearly infatuated with this raw sound and, like the [Rolling] Stones, at this late stage in his career, isn’t concerned with moving units or getting radio play. All of which speaks to the honesty and love of blues exuding from every track on this heartfelt tribute to the music that has always inspired Billy Gibbons’ best work.”
Just Us and the Music
Over the last half-plus century, ZZ Top has maintained its musical integrity. From 1971 to 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees recorded 15 studio albums, earning four gold, three platinum and two multiple-platinum album certifications, and one diamond album. The trio has popped up in some interesting places as well, including performing as the “Old West” band in Back to Future III and played the Super Bowl halftime show in 1997, along with The Blues Brothers and James Brown.
Most recently, ZZ Top released RAW (2022), the live soundtrack from the aforementioned Netflix documentary. The album’s liner notes, co-written by Gibbons and Beard, read in part: “It was, in a very real way, a return to our roots. Just us and the music, no audience of thousands, no concession stands, no parking lot social hour, no phalanx of tour busses. Just us. We knew right then it was a very special circumstance, all of us in the same place at the same time and what a time it most certainly was!”
ZZ Top fans, and the greater music community, suffered a tremendous loss in 2021 when news spread that Hill had sadly died. Hill had requested that in the event of his death, Gibbons and Beard keep the band alive with his longtime bass technician in his stead.
“The passing of Dusty was huge to be sure, yet he urged us to continue with Elwood Francis to fill the bill. Elwood is Elwood and a big bit of ‘The Dust,’” Gibbons reflected.
With the new lineup complete, he said the band is eagerly anticipating their upcoming show at The Capitol Theatre on Sept. 6, 2023. The gig finds the busy trio on a night off from co-headlining “The Sharp Dressed Simple Man Tour” they are currently undertaking with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“It’s a ZZ Top show so expect the songs just about everybody knows ‘Legs,’ ‘La Grange,’ ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and some kind of left-of-center stuff, including a selection from our debut long player, cleverly titled ZZ Top’s First Album,” Gibbons said of the upcoming performance in Port Chester. “Good news is ZZ continues rocking on.”Read or leave a comment on this story...