Top (pronounced [zɪː zɪː top]) is an American rock band that formed in 1969 in Houston, Texas. The band comprises guitarist and lead vocalist Billy Gibbons (the band's leader, main lyricist and musical arranger), bassist and co-lead vocalist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard. One of the few major label recording groups to have held the same lineup for more than forty years, ZZ Top has been praised by critics and fellow musicians alike for their technical mastery. Of the group, music writer Cub Koda said "As genuine roots musicians, they have few peers; Gibbons is one of America's finest blues guitarists working in the arena rock idiom ... while Hill and Beard provide the ultimate rhythm section support." Since the release of the band's debut album in January 1971, ZZ Top has become known for its strong blues roots and humorous lyrical motifs, relying heavily on double entendres and innuendo.
ZZ Top's musical style has changed over the years, beginning with blues-inspired rock on their early albums, then incorporating new wave, punk rock and dance-rock, with heavy use of synthesizers. One of the best-selling musical artists in history, the band has had global album sales in excess of 50 million as of 2014. ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. As a group, ZZ Top possesses 11 gold records and 7 platinum (13 multi-platinum) records; their 1983 album, Eliminator, remains the group's most commercially successful record, selling over 10 million units. ZZ Top also ranks 80th in U.S. album sales, with 25 million units.
Early years (1969–1972)
The original line-up formed in Houston, by Billy Gibbons, organist Lanier Greig (died February 2013) and drummer Dan Mitchell. There were longstanding rumors that, at the end of a tour, Hendrix gave Gibbons the pink Stratocaster he had been playing as token of his appreciation for Gibbons' level of talent. ZZ Top was managed by Waxahachie-native Bill Ham, who had befriended Gibbons a year earlier. They released their first single, "Salt Lick", in 1969, and the B-side contained the song "Miller's Farm"; both songs were credited to Gibbons. Immediately after the recording of "Salt Lick", Greig was replaced by bassist Billy Ethridge, a band mate of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Mitchell was replaced by Frank Beard of the American Blues. Due to lack of interest from record companies, ZZ Top was presented with a record deal from London Records.[clarification needed] Unwilling to sign a recording contract, Ethridge quit the band and Dusty Hill was selected as his replacement. After Hill moved from Dallas to Houston, ZZ Top signed with London in 1970. They performed their first concert together at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Beaumont on February 10.
In addition to assuming the role as the band's leader, Gibbons became the main lyricist and musical arranger. With the assistance of Ham and engineer Robin Hood Brians, ZZ Top's First Album (1971) was released and saw the inclusion of the band's humor, with "barrelhouse" rhythms, distorted guitars, double entendres and innuendo. The music and songs reflected ZZ Top's blues influences. Following their debut album, the band released Rio Grande Mud (1972), which failed commercially and the promotional tour consisted of mostly empty auditoriums.
First decade and signature sound (1973–1982)
ZZ Top released Tres Hombres in 1973. The album's earthy and infectious sound was the result of the propulsive support provided by Hill and Beard, and Gibbons' "growling" guitar tone. Dan Erlewine wrote that the album "brought ZZ Top their first Top Ten record, making them stars in the process". The album included the boogie-driven "La Grange", which was written about a brothel in La Grange, Texas. On the subsequent tour, the band performed sold-out concerts in the US. ZZ Top recorded the live tracks for their 1975 album, Fandango!, during this tour; the album showcased their prowess in exciting live audiences. Fandango! was a top ten album and its single, "Tush", peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Tejas, released in 1976, was not as successful or as positively received as their previous efforts, although the album went to No. 17 on the Billboard 200. ZZ Top continued the Worldwide Texas Tour in support of Tejas, though they had been touring for seven years.
The band went on what was supposed to be a 90-day break from public appearances. Gibbons traveled to Europe, Beard went to Jamaica, and Hill went to Mexico. The break extended to two years, during which Gibbons and Hill grew chest-length beards.
In 1979, ZZ Top signed with Warner Bros. Records and released the album Degüello. While the album went platinum, it only reached No. 24 on the Billboard chart. The album produced two singles, including "I Thank You," a cover of a song recorded by Sam & Dave, and "Cheap Sunglasses." The band remained a popular concert attraction and toured in support of Degüello. In April 1980, ZZ Top made their first appearance in Europe, performing for the German music television show Rockpalast. The next album, El Loco, was released in October 1981, featuring three singles ("Tube Snake Boogie", "Pearl Necklace", and "Leila").
Synthesizer period (1983–1991)
ZZ Top's next album was even more successful. Eliminator, released in March 1983, featured two Top 40 singles ("Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "Legs"), four Top Rock hits (including "Got Me Under Pressure" and "Sharp Dressed Man"), and "Legs" peaking at No. 13 on the Club Play Singles chart. Eliminator was a critical and commercial success, selling more than 10 million copies, and several music videos were in regular rotation on MTV. The band also won their first MTV Video Music Awards in the categories of Best Group Video for "Legs," and Best Direction for "Sharp Dressed Man". The music videos were included in their Greatest Hits video, which has been released on DVD ever since and quickly went multi-platinum.
Billy Gibbons, breaking three decades of silence on the subject, stated reasons for a change in their direction as he discussed engineer Linden Hudson to a journalist (Joe Bosso) in June 3, 2013, Gibbons said: "He (Linden) brought some elements to the forefront that helped reshape what ZZ Top were doing, starting in the studio and eventually to the live stage. Linden had no fear and was eager to experiment in ways that would frighten most bands. But we followed suit, and the synthesizers started to show up on record." However, the Eliminator album was not without controversy. According to former stage manager David Blayney (15 years as ZZ Top's stage manager) in his book, Sharp Dressed Men, sound engineer Linden Hudson co-wrote much of the material on the album while serving as a live-in high-tech music teacher to Beard and Gibbons. And, despite continued denials by the band, it settled a five-year legal battle with Hudson, paying him $600,000 after he proved he held the copyright to the song "Thug" which appeared on Eliminator.
Despite not selling as many copies as Eliminator, 1985's Afterburner was still as successful commercially, becoming their highest-charting album, and racking up sales of 5 million units. All of the singles from Afterburner were Top 40 hits, with two hitting No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. The music video for "Velcro Fly" was choreographed by pop singer Paula Abdul. ZZ Top's grueling Afterburner World Tour lasted well into 1987, which also saw the release of The ZZ Top Sixpack, a three-disc collection of ZZ Top's albums from 1970 to 1981, with the exception of Degüello. The albums ZZ Top's First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango and Tejas were remixed with the result that the sound of the material from the first five albums was changed to sound like they had been recorded in the 1980s, with echo and drum machines, and very unlike their original album sound. Many of the original mixes were used on the 2003-CD box set Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, and its companion piece Rancho Texicano. Also, remastered versions of Tres Hombres and Fandango! were eventually released on CD in 2006 with the original mixes intact. In 2013, Warner Bros. released The Complete Studio Albums 1970–1990, a 10-CD box set which contained the original mixes of ZZ Top's First Album, Rio Grande Mud, and Tejas for the first time on CD.
Recycler, released in 1990, was ZZ Top's last studio album under contract with Warner Records. Recycler was also the last of a distinct sonic trilogy in the ZZ Top catalogue, marking a return towards the earlier, simpler guitar-driven blues sound with less synthesizer and pop bounce of the previous two albums. This move did not entirely suit the fan base that Eliminator and Afterburner had built up, and while Recycler did achieve platinum status, it never matched the sales of Eliminator and Afterburner. The cartoonish and sexy-ZZ-girl videos continued in singles like "My Head's in Mississippi", "Give It Up", and "Burger Man".
Return to guitar-driven sound (1992–2003)
In 1992, Warner released ZZ Top's Greatest Hits, along with a new Rolling Stones-style cut, "Gun Love", and an Elvis-inflected video, "Viva Las Vegas". In 1993, ZZ Top inducted a major influence, Cream, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1994 the band signed to a $35 million deal with RCA Records, releasing the million-selling Antenna in 1994. Subsequent RCA albums, Rhythmeen (1996) and 1999's XXX (the second album to feature live tracks) sold well, but did not reach the levels enjoyed previously. ZZ Top, however, continued to play to enthusiastic live audiences. In 2003, ZZ Top released a final RCA album, Mescalero, an album thick with harsh Gibbons guitar and featuring a hidden track — a cover version of "As Time Goes By". RCA impresario Clive Davis wanted to do a collaboration record (in the mode of Carlos Santana's successful Supernatural) for this album. In an interview in Goldmine magazine, artists Pink, Dave Matthews, and Wilco were among the artists slated for the project. ZZ Top performed "Tush" and "Legs" as part of the Super Bowl XXXI halftime show in 1997.
A comprehensive four-CD collection of recordings from the London and Warner Bros. years, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, was released in 2003. It featured the band's first single (A- and B-side), several rare B-side tracks as well as a radio promotion from 1979, a live track and several extended dance mix versions of their biggest MTV hits. Three tracks from Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ band, The Moving Sidewalks, were also included.
Critical acclaim and retrospective releases (2004–2011)
Expanded and remastered versions of the original studio albums from the 1970s and '80s are currently in production. Marketed as "Remastered and Expanded", these releases include additional live tracks which were not present on the original recordings. Three such CDs have been released to date (Tres Hombres, Fandango!, and Eliminator). The first two were released in 2006 and use the original mixes free from echo and drum machines, while Eliminator was released in 2008. The Eliminator re-release also features a collector's edition version containing a DVD featuring several videos and additional live tracks.
The Eliminator Collector's Edition CD/DVD, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band's iconic RIAA Diamond Certified album, was released September 10, 2008. The release includes seven bonus tracks and a bonus DVD, including four television performances from The Tube in November 1983.
The band performed at the 2009 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo on the final night on March 22, 2009. In July, the band appeared on VH1's Storytellers, in celebration of their four decades as recording artists.
La Futura (2012–present)
Billy Gibbons stated in an interview in August 2011 that the new album had been recorded, with initial recording taking place in Malibu, California, before moving to Houston, but was still unnamed and had yet to be mixed and mastered. Gibbons said that the expected release date was sometime in March or April 2012 but later on, a release in the late summer or fall had been announced. Subsequently, the album was released on 11 September 2012.
Entitled La Futura, the album is produced by Rick Rubin. The first single from the album, "I Gotsta Get Paid," debuted in an advertising campaign for Jeremiah Weed and appears on the soundtrack of the film Battleship. The song itself is an interpretation of "25 Lighters" by Texan hip hop DJ DMD and rappers Lil' Keke and Fat Pat. The first four songs from La Futura debuted on June 5, 2012 on an EP called Texicali. DJ Screw was a major influence on the album as well, particularly because Gibbons and Screw both worked with the engineer G. L. Moon during the late 1990s.