By: Jim Ryan
“Same three guys, same three chords.”
As ZZ Top approaches its 50th anniversary, those six words, frequently uttered by guitarist and vocalist Billy Gibbons, remain an adequate description of a band that, since it’s 1969 formation, has never experienced a single lineup change.
ZZ Top has sold in excess of 50 million albums worldwide. And with that anniversary looming, the trio remains busy. The group released a box set of their first five LPs in June and is prepping the release of their sixteenth studio album, their first since 2012’s La Futura. Gibbons is also working on the followup to his 2015 solo debut Perfectamundo and will join Supersonic Blues Machine for a quick European tour in July.
But, first, there’s a run of dates alongside founding Creedence Clearwater Revival singer, songwriter and guitarist John Fogerty to finish. For fans, the pairing is an incredible one – with plenty of bayou grooves, blues-infused licks and stories to go around. The pairing has also resulted in the aptly titled “Holy Grail,” a new song featuring the first ever studio collaboration between Fogerty and Gibbons.
Few artists tell a story on stage quite like Billy Gibbons. Even in his writing, his voice is obvious in his rhythm and his swagger. Gibbons checked in via email with his thoughts on the relationship between music and cars, the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog, the key to spinning a tale in a song and his favorite example of that in John Fogerty’s work. A lightly edited transcript of that email exchange follows below…
Q. CCR has songs like “Travelin’ Band.” ZZ Top seems to be eternally on tour. You’ve certainly featured cars in a number of ways in your work throughout the years. What is it that allows the idea of cars and the road to go so well with rock and roll?
Billy F. Gibbons: It dates back to that teenage revolution in the 50s. It was car-meets music. Cars and rock have always connected – and, of course, that was a “drive fast with rock ’n’ roll radio” connection.
From down Texas way, there were those crazy South of the Border radio stations blasting blues, rock and rhythm across the airwaves. It was inescapable and marked a societal paradigm shift in no uncertain terms. The first song known as rock ’n’ roll was “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston, recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis, later released on Chicago’s Chess label.
The message is simple: those supersonic sounds really do get you moving.
Q. The entire recorded history of CCR took place between 1968 and 1972. I think, in such a quickly changing music industry, it’s safe to say we’ll never see a catalog like that, with that type of lasting impact, occur over such a brief stretch ever again. To what do you attribute the lasting power of that music?
BFG: Sí, Señor! Correcto.
The string of CCR hits was just non-stop and, more often than not, both sides of the singles were nationally renowned chart records! Each of their songs hit hard with huge impact and, as a result, most assuredly, they continue to resonate today across generations, then as now.
Just lean in and dig the depths of John Fogerty’s gifted voice. Powerful stuff like that just tends to endure.
Q. What was it like working with John on “Holy Grail?” I’m sure there’s no lack of descriptive superlatives but can you describe your initial feelings in that moment a bit?
BFG: It stands as a creative high for sure. The announcement of the touring collaboration of ZZ and Fogerty sounded like a stone natural. The combo of Mr. Fogerty’s particularly special sound mixed with ZZ’s notorious rumbling made for an infectious, spooky and swampy feel with some real bluesy horsepower to beat the streets.
It’s a raucously righteous get-down in no uncertain terms.
Q. You’re no stranger to making the blues your own. What was it like hearing the Creedence take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” for the first time?
BFG: Interpreting the blues form is what ZZ Top reached out to from the start. Fogerty as well. And the Creedence take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ bluesy creation of “I Put a Spell on You,” well… definitely spooky. We knew of the original, then came the “out there” treatment from CCR which sticks like glue.
Q. One thing I feel is most recognizable about the music of both ZZ Top and CCR/John Fogerty is that ability to tell a compelling story within the confines of a two or three minute song. What’s the key there and what’s an example in John’s catalog where you feel he did that particularly well?
BFG: It’s always about putting the listener into what scenario is being created.
I joined the famed female from the Los Angeles Latin Quarter, “La Marisoul,” for Concord Records’ Latin tribute to CCR and recorded our duet version of John’s, “Green River” which is one of our favorites from him that does just that. It throws an immediate visual and one can just see those “barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight.”