By Peter Blackstock
Way back in 1969, around the same time astronauts were landing on the moon as NASA engineers watched breathlessly from mission control in Houston, the city was launching another rocket into the maw of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the year ZZ Top was born.
With native Houstonian Billy Gibbons at the helm, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard came down from the Dallas area to solidify a power trio that soon would leave an indelible mark on American popular music. Gritty Tex-Mex-blues albums such as “Tres Hombres” and “Fandango” paved the way for a major ZZ Top breakout with 1983′s “Eliminator,” which sold more than 10 million copies behind singles such as “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.”
Across five decades, the group has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. Gibbons, Hill and Beard all will turn 70 this year, and they’ll celebrate this summer and fall with dates across Europe and the United States. But first: Texas.
This weekend, ZZ Top’s 50th Anniversary Bash hits Dallas on Friday and Houston on Saturday before finishing in Austin on Sunday for a 6 p.m. show at the Austin360 Amphitheater. Two more 1970-80s rock titans, Bad Company and Cheap Trick, join them on the bill. It’s their first Austin-area date since playing last year’s Republic of Texas Rally, following a 2015 show at the HEB Center in Cedar Park.
Houston remains ground zero in ZZ Top world, but Austin always has been a special place for the group. Gibbons visits here frequently, and in recent years he’s employed Austin keyboardist Mike Flanigin in his band when he plays shows under his own name. We connected with Gibbons last week to mull over the 50th anniversary celebration.
American-Statesman: Most of the dates on the 50th anniversary tour are this summer and into fall, but these Dallas-Houston-Austin shows are happening much earlier. Was there a reason for doing the Texas shows first?
Billy F Gibbons: The band wanted the feel of a few “home games” before crossing the pond. It just seems right to kick off the big anniversary celebration “where it all began.”
The Austin show happens to be on Dusty Hill’s birthday! What’s harder about playing music at your ages now, and what’s easier?
Like previous years, the big challenge is finding time to binge watch “Perry Mason” reruns. Then again, we’re delighted the “way back machine” has finally been perfected. As far as performing, playing loud sound seems to be easier now as we feel we’re getting good at it. It is said the first 50,000 hours are the toughest yet we believe we’re getting it by now.
Let’s go back to 1969 for a moment. Can you tell me what the shows were like in y’all’s first year as a band?
Like those early Volkswagen ads used to read, “Think Small” — and we did. ZZ played little clubs, big clubs, middle sized clubs, just about anywhere there was space to set up a get after it. We played a show early on and when the curtain opened, just one paying customer stood before us. “Well,” we thought, “he paid to hear us so let’s give him what he paid for!” The guy was most appreciative. We took a break and bought him a Coke. Now that’s connecting with the audience.
Another fond recollection that springs to mind was hearing one of our first records, “Francine,” coming in very faintly on an AM station as we were driving to a gig out in far West Texas. Although we were cruising through a desolate stretch of desert, we slowed to a crawl as to not lose the signal. Lo and behold, we got stopped out of nowhere and were about to be ticketed for grinding underspeed til the patrolman leaned in and heard the song. He grinned and let us go. One of our earliest devoted followers!
The band’s origins have always been tied closer to Houston because of you, and Dallas since Frank and Dusty were from that area — but it’s always seemed like Austin has been important to the group’s history as well.
Austin has always been much like the infamous crossroads Robert Johnson’s blues song describes. It’s where creative energies combine from so many differing points of origin. Rich men, poor men, lawyers, statesmen, vagrants and vagabonds mingle with intellectuals and just plain, old-fashioned good folks. And nary a complaint is heard about being entertained. To this day, there’s a wide swath of uplifting imagination around Austin town that maintains a mystical magnetism.
This is the 50th anniversary of the band but it’s also 45 years since that legendary show ZZ Top played at Memorial Stadium in Austin in 1974. Do you remember much about that show? (The stadium didn’t host a rock show again until the Eagles played there in 1995.)
Make no mistake, that field is most certainly sacred turf for the Longhorns. Despite the unbelievable heat across the gridiron on that fateful day, a monumentally memorable good time was enjoyed by many.