ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons says ‘we’ll peel the onion and we’ll dig deep’ as he unveils new album


THE full red beard, the hats, the shades all give ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons a certain mystique.

Beneath what he calls “the cartoon character”, however, is a mighty fine guitarist with a deep rumble of a voice.

When he straps on his 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst, the white-hot licks are never far behind. Spend time in his company and you quickly discover that the Texan frontman also has a singular way with words.

“We’ll peel the onion and we’ll dig deep,” Gibbons promises me in his Southern drawl as he promotes new album RAW. He’s not averse to delving into his twin passions . . . guitars and cars.

“I enjoy speaking of all things, not only loud sounds but these four-wheel contraptions we call hot rods,” he says.

And yes, that includes his 1933 custom Ford Coupe known as the Eliminator, the souped-up icon of album covers and music videos.

‘Edge of seriousness’

“We can’t ignore the celebrity success of that little red car,” affirms Gibbons. “I wish I’d spent more time driving it before it became a star of stage and screen.

“Once it was on MTV, the girls got to drive it more than the band. We just stood at the side of the road!” Despite the familiar ZZ Top image of “sharp dressed men” with big beards, beautiful girls and THAT car, he maintains that “there has always been an underlying edge of seriousness” to the music.

“We’ve always held on to that which brought us to the party in the first place,” he decides. By that, he means how ZZ Top transformed blues rock into infectious full-tilt boogies with their own unique sound.

“But let’s not leave out the grand leaders who still remain, the Rolling Stones,” he adds. “They cut up (American slang for ‘played the fools’) from day one but they’ve always managed to maintain a serious edge to everything they do. That’s not unlike the way we approach things.”

Gibbons is having some downtime from ZZ Top’s Raw Whisky arena tour of the States when I give him a call. It’s nearly 12 months since the death of his bass playing “compadre” Dusty Hill, signalling the end after 51 years of the longest unchanging line-up in rock history.

On July 28, 2021, the surviving members, billy Gibbons and Frank Beard (the one without a beard), took to the band’s website to impart the sad news and pay tribute.

“We will miss your steadfast presence, your good nature and your enduring commitment to providing that monumental bottom to the Top,” they said. Later this month, the original trio’s last recordings together see light of day.

Called RAW, it’s a blistering, unvarnished soundtrack album to their biographical film That Little Ol’ Band From Texas. Despite the gaping hole left by Hill, Billy Gibbons reports that they’ve found the perfect replacement in Elwood Francis, the band’s long-serving guitar technician.

Reflecting on the latest shows, he says: “The word ‘miracle’ is probably in order. We’re pressing onward and having a blast out here. It’s everything that ZZ Top should be. Losing Dusty was quite unexpected but I’ve got to hand it to him. Not only was he a great player and a great friend but he also carried a bit of wisdom when he told me, ‘Give my guitar to Elwood if I’m late coming back’.

“I said, ‘Ok, well, if that’s your directive, we’ve got to go with it’. Furthermore, Elwood grabbed the guitar with a smile and said, ‘I’m no Dusty, but I know what he’d want from me’. After 35 years as one of our sidekicks, Elwood is a family member and he has stepped right in.”

The word ‘miracle’ is probably in order. We’re pressing onward and having a blast out here. It’s everything that ZZ Top should be.Billy Gibbons

The new band member looks the part, too, as Gibbons hilariously explains. “All the years I’ve known him, he would have an avocado sandwich in one hand and a skateboard in the other,” he says. “I’ve never even known him to have whisker No1. When he showed up at rehearsal, I asked the crew members, ‘Who’s that guy with the beard?’ and they said, ‘That’s Elwood!’”

Gibbons reveals that drummer Beard “is enjoying being part of this ‘new’ band because Elwood’s playing is so forceful and ferocious”. It must feel like a lifetime ago when, pre-pandemic, the intriguing ZZ Top story was told in That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.

Here was a genuine band- authorised attempt to uncover some of the mystique which, in part, came from their surroundings.

“Texas is a peculiar spot on the planet,” says Gibbons. “Some people talk about ZZ Top having that gunslinger mentality, bad boys from the badlands.

“But, going way back to when we started, it was more about not having much to do in Texas. We had the time to learn how to play.

“There are so many great players. I’ve talked to Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Johnson and nobody can really put a finger on it. As the old saying goes, we don’t know what else we’d do, this is all we know.”

The film trawls through the past lives of Billy, Dusty and Frank from pre-ZZ Top but also finds room for highlights from an intimate, stripped-back live performance at the oldest dance hall in the Lone Star state, the richly atmospheric Gruene Hall.

Their impromptu renditions of early triumphs such as Brown Sugar (not the Rolling Stones song) and La Grange as well as later smash hits like Gimme All Your Lovin’ and Legs are about to appear on the 12-track RAW album.

For Gibbons, there was a big element of surprise about the whole thing. “That old honky-tonk at Gruene has been going as long as anybody can remember,” he says.

“We showed up thinking all we had to do was step in front of a camera and pose for a few snapshots . . . but the road crew were told something different.

“The entire stage was filled with our equipment and the next thing we knew, we’d taken up our guitars, Frank had got behind the drums and away we went. It’s also worth noting that the recording technicians had set up their equipment but the band didn’t know!”

‘Something magical’

The album kicks off with Brown Sugar, a track which first appeared on their 1971 debut, ZZ Top’s First Album. Released a few months before the Stones’ song, it begins in full-on blues style before morphing into driving hard rock.

Gibbons says: “We were coming at the same subject from different angles but both tracks have a strident, infectious character. I guess we hadn’t played Brown Sugar for eons until that day at Gruene Hall but now we’re performing it live.”

Another key inclusion on RAW is La Grange, with its addictive groove and references to the fabled brothel later made famous by The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

Originally on ZZ Top’s seminal 1973 album Tres Hombres, it signalled their breakthrough.

“There’s something magical about the way it hits most folk, right from the very first few bars,” says Gibbons.

The track only came about when “we were successful in getting rid of our manager (Bill Ham), who was also trying to act as producer.

“We sent him on a wild goose chase to grab some barbecue, knowing it was a good 30-minute drive away.

“That gave us one fleeting free hour to come up with La Grange.

It became the ground breaker, our first top ten hit, which brought everything into focus.” Next, Gibbons tells of the inspirations behind that focus . . . The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, both trailblazing blues-rock trios, and British guitar hero Jeff Beck, who would become his great friend.

We were out of the recording studio and we had to refrain from taking to the road.Billy Gibbons

Before ZZ Top came together in 1969, budding guitarist Billy was a member of Houston band The Moving Sidewalks. He recalls how Hendrix touched his life at that time. “A friend sent me an early copy of his first album,” says Gibbons. “I remember placing the needle in those grooves and just grinning. I just said, ‘Oh my gosh!’.

“The Moving Sidewalks were so enamoured with the sound this record brought forth that we learned how to play Foxy Lady and Purple Haze.” Sometime later, Gibbons found himself in dreamland when the Sidewalks were invited to be Hendrix’s support act.

His joy quickly turned to embarrassment, however. “We only knew enough songs for 40 minutes. These included Foxy Lady and Purple Haze so we had to play them. I was leaving the stage at the conclusion and Jimi grabbed me. He said, ‘Hey, I want to get to know you, you’ve got a lot of nerve! I like you’. That opened a door for me.”

Key to opening the door even wider and forming ZZ Top was finding the powerhouse rhythm section of Frank Beard and Dusty Hill, who both played in Dallas band American Blues. They also needed the right equipment to achieve their vision.

Gibbons says: “Jeff Beck arranged for us to take delivery of the first stack of Marshall amps in the States.

“I had just scored a wonderful guitar, a 1959 Les Paul Sunburst, the Holy Grail if you will.

“That instrument has all the right elements . . . the right amount of glue, the right kind of wood, the right thickness of the paint. It is still my unerring cornerstone.”

Next, a visit to a famous pawn shop on the outskirts of Dallas yielded a “Fender Telecaster bass guitar, just like Ron Wood’s. I went, ‘There it is!’. We’d got the pieces to the puzzle”.

No chat with Gibbons would be complete without his views on the early Eighties rebirth when, after a hiatus, the band returned with fulsome beards, monster hits and the red Ford Coupe with black and yellow ZZ stripes.

“We were leaving our former label in favour of Warner Brothers,” he says. “So we were out of the recording studio and we had to refrain from taking to the road.

‘Mysterious miracle’

“The objective was to join up with a team who claimed they knew what to do with this oddball group, ZZ Top. It turned out they believed in us and we believed in them.”

Gibbons calls his and Dusty’s beards “a mysterious miracle”. “During that layoff, we were only in contact by telephone,” he says. “I had taken off to Europe, spending most of the time in and around London.

“Dusty was hanging out in Mexico and Frank was in Jamaica laying down backbeats with the reggae guys. When we finally got back together, Dusty and myself had gotten so lazy that we had tossed the razors away.”

As for the car they call Eliminator after a hot rod racing term, Billy Gibbons remembers his frustration at not being able to drive it during filming of the band’s videos.

He says: “I got so irritated waiting to get the keys of the red car, I acquired the bad little sister, a 1934 Ford 3-Window Coupe with no fenders. We named it the Whiskey Runner.”

Finally, Billy Gibbons discusses the likelihood of a new ZZ Top studio album, their first of new material since 2012’s La Futura and first with Elwood Francis on board.

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