By Chris Willman
That little ol’ band from Texas is now, sadly, littler. Dusty Hill, one-third of ZZ Top for the last 51 years, was revealed Wednesday to have died of indeterminate causes. On Thursday, remaining members Billy Gibbons announced that the tour they just began would resume Friday after a brief lull, with their guitar tech of three decades filling in. A funeral is expected to take place next week, but it’s perhaps not surprising that the survivors would work through their grief by wrapping some of their scheduled road dates around a memorial that will represent friends’ and family’s last chance to see Hill as a sharp-dressed man.
Variety caught up with Gibbons on the band’s touring coach Thursday afternoon, where he laughed as he recalled Hill and his “fierce” right hand on the bass… while also allowing, in about as sentiment-laden a fashion as ZZ Top is going to get, that “the waterworks” had set in some since they got news of Hill’s unexpected death.
Says Gibbons: “Passing through the grieving process, I can tell you it’s no less than anyone else that loses a good friend or a close associate. And at the same time, knowing that this came up so suddenly — going to bed and not waking up… That was the luck of the draw. He was in, and he was out.”
VARIETY: Was it just the first two dates of the tour that Dusty did with you, before he had to leave?
He did the first two. And then he requested dismissing himself. He said, “Yeah, let me go check this out.” And of course I said, “Hey, man, health is number one. Go do your thing.” And I could tell through those first two valiant attempts, if he’s not giving it 110%, he was the first one to kind of say, “Gee whiz. Let’s go take care of this.”
So it wasn’t anything where you had partly expected it or thought, boy, he’s seriously ill, and he might have a real problem on his hands?
Well, it’s no secret that over the past few years he had a pretty rough go with a broken shoulder, followed with a broken hip. And he had some problems with some ulcers. So he’s been kind of tiptoeing through keeping himself ship-shape, best he could. But I think that this was a real challenge. And by throwing in the towel, it might’ve caught up with him. Who knows? I’m just glad he’s in a good spot.
Is there an official cause of death now, or is it just he really fell asleep and didn’t wake up, and people don’t know?
That’s about all they can determine. Let’s face it, you don’t necessarily pass away from a broken shoulder or broken hip. Although the attending physician had earlier warned him that bursitis was not uncommon, even arthritis, and they said it’s not a very comfortable place to be. And I could tell that he was moving a little slow. He said, “Boy, this shoulder and hip are really starting to become a problem.” But, as of this juncture, yeah, it was off to dreamland and beyond.
What’s it been like for you emotionally? Is it helping to know that you’re going to be out there celebrating every night regardless? Or is it pretty tough to deal with right now?
Yeah. I had a couple of moments with the waterworks coming and going, and I really felt a sense of relief. I said, “Gee whiz, maybe I am human after all,” This is coming from a very deep and glorious place, with respect to knowing that after 50 years with the guy, we were all joined at — no pun intended — joined at the hip.
But knowing that we can take his wishes forward and give him all due respect… You know, he was adamant. He said, “I’m going to go down and see what’s up. In the meantime,” he said, “the show must go on. Don’t forget it.” And he was pointing his finger and shaking it. [Laughs.]
How are you feeling about continuing on with your guitar tech filling in?
Well, it was a direct directive from Mr. Dusty Hill. When he grabbed my arm and said, “I think I’m due to go visit the physician to see if I can bounce back,” he said, “In the meantime, I want you to grab our guitar technician, Mr. Elwood” — Elwood Francis — “and take him out of that tech station and strap him up with my guitar and make him carry on with every single note.” And I said, “Well, if that’s your wishes, I’ll respect that.” And sure enough, we’ve been very, very fortunate to have a stalwart standby to fill in.
What’s really got everybody on the ropes is that Elwood had been holding down the guitar technician post for 30 years as a clean-shaven young fellow. And when the lockdown was imminent, we all gathered for a band meeting, before things got too fierce. And I said, “Dusty, it looks like we’re not going to be able to go do much or go anywhere. What do you plan to do?” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do. And that’s cut the lawn. I’m not going to cut the grass.” And I smiled and said, “Well, I’ll join you on that.” And Elwood piped up and said, “Well, if you guys aren’t going to cut the grass, I’m not going to cut my whiskers.” And when we regathered to commence rehearsals just a week and a half ago, here came Elwood, and I said, “My gosh, you’ve got chin whiskers as long as me and Dusty!”
So when he took the stage the other night, I was looking over the front row and everybody was kind of giving each other the elbow, and they were pointing up and said, “Look, the ZZ Top circus still rolls on. There’s another freak up there.” In fact, I had to stroll over and grab him by the chin to give him a yank, just to show the audience — I said, “Folks, this is the real deal here.” [Laughs.] But he’s honoring Dusty’s wishes, and I know that, wherever Dusty may be, he’s probably smiling, just knowing that all the notes are in place and that the fierceness rolls on.
It wasn’t hard for Elwood to pick up what you needed to do?
Yeah. I don’t think it took 30 minutes with a coffee table rehearsal, and he kind of rolled his eyes. He said, “Yeah, you may remember, I’ve been on the side of the stage for 30 years. I think I know it.”
Even well prior to Dusty’s passing, people have marveled that ZZ Top was the longest-standing band with the original lineup intact. On the one hand, it seems like it shouldn’t be that impossible, if people are pros and in good health and the money is still coming in. But history shows it just doesn’t happen, even at half your tenure.
Yeah. You know, during the shutdown, we took advantage of our little studio and started laying down some new tracks. I came in early one day, and I was fussing about this band issue here and fussing about that band issue there. And the engineer turned to me, smiling, and said, “Yeah, I hear you. There’s always something to complain about if you want to go there. But look, five decades with these guys, I think you’ve done pretty good.” [Laughs.] I had to back up a little bit. I said, “Wow. You know what? I’m just going to play the gih-tar today.”
Are you resuming the tour with your Friday night show?
Yes. We’re making tracks down to southern Alabama. We did elect to postpone last night’s performance out of just respect and trying to get our wits together. I think everybody was relieved that we had a little bit of time to regroup and think things through. But at the same time, everybody was ready, standing on point. And they said, “Come on. You heard Dusty’s directive as he was bowing out to go off the deck. He turned and pointed and he said, ‘Come on. The show must go on.’” So here we are. Tomorrow night, we’ll kind of pick up sticks and carry it on. I may grab his stage hat and throw it over his microphone, and I’ll sing one for the Dust.
I’m not sure how (a tribute moment) will unfold. I’ve heard from so many folks, and it’s kind of a shame that you have to lose a band member to realize just what it means to have been an important figure for our friends, fans, followers. In my text inbox,, if there’s one (text), there’s 1500-and-one. It’s really remarkable from all over the planet. So, I think it’s worthy of giving him some special moment during (the show) as we proceed. And one up. Not only can you not forget five decades very easily, but you certainly can’t forget a character like the Dust.
Is there one overriding trait that comes to mind about him right now?
Yeah. In fact, just within the last couple of months, we were reviewing a couple of the rough tracks that were starting to come together from the sessions that we were conducting just a few months ago. I remember a night where they said, “Well, you’re the producer. You’ve got to tell Dusty to stick around or let him go. He’s delivered his parts.” And I said, “Oh yeah, hold on a sec.” I say, “Hey, Dust, thanks, man. Great job.” So off he goes, and no sooner had he left the parking lot and gotten well on his way down the freeway than we encountered a very short section that I had overlooked. It was only eight or 10 bars. And I said, “Gee whiz, that goes by in not even 30 seconds…” I said, “Bring me Dusty’s bass,” and I handed it to the engineer and said, “You’re a bass player… It’s only eight bars. Let’s just fill in.” Two hours later, we had passed the bass guitar around to every single living soul in the studio, and we still couldn’t match Dusty’s tone. He had something in that damn right hand of his that can’t be described, other than fierce.
How far had you gotten on that album with him?
It’s gonna require some completion work. I think the luck of the draw was, I handed Dusty a couple of lyric sheets and I said, “Hey, see if you can make heads or tails out of this.” He said, “Can I sing it?” I said, “Dusty, you could sing the calendar if you wanted to — people would love it.” He goes, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. If we ever get back to go to work, can we add the calendar into the show? I know all the words.” I said, “Get in there. Go sing.” So, yeah, we’ve got a couple of things [with Dusty singing lead] that’ll make sense.
Thank you for talking about this with us. It can’t be an easy time.
I’m trying to keep a chin up. Despite the fact that you can’t see it — the whiskers are still there —… I’m gonna embrace this exchange and it’ll keep me smiling for the rest of the afternoon.