Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top Finds Inspiration Deep in the Heart of Texas
In playlist made for AARP, the vocalist-guitarist shares his favorite smoking-hot tunes
With a history dating back to 1969, Texas blues-rock legends ZZ Top have the distinction of being the longest running rock band with an unchanged lineup. So what’s the trio’s secret to longevity? “We’ve been asked that question a number of times,” says vocalist-guitarist Billy F. Gibbons, 71; vocalist-bassist Dusty Hill, 71; and drummer Frank Beard, also 71. “And it’s one set answer — separate buses.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees had planned to spend much of 2020 on the road in those buses, playing a Las Vegas residency at the Venetian hotel and touring with Cheap Trick, all of which have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On the other side of the coin,” Gibbons says, “we’ve been able to get into the recording studio with three buses and three guys, playing the same three chords.” When it all comes together, it will be the band’s first album of new material since 2012’s La Futura, produced by Gibbons and Rick Rubin. The acclaimed producer is once again on board for the new project. “I really admire Rick’s methodology,” Gibbons says. “He’s listening for something of value. When it appears, that’s when we stab a stick in the ground and go from there.”
While it’s too early to say exactly what the new album will sound like, you can bet it will be steeped in the influence of Texas blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lead Belly and T-Bone Walker, whom the members of ZZ Top heard on Mexican radio while growing up and chronicled in their song “Heard It on the X,” from 1975.
“I still hearken back to listening to XERF, which was one of the great border [radio] stations that blasted across the planet,” Gibbons recalls. “Much of the music that ZZ Top was raised on came from early ’50s and ’60s days. We were all youngsters, just hiding the transistor radio under the pillow, listening to the late-night stuff, and that’s where it all started.”
When ZZ Top rose out of the ashes of Gibbons’ previous band, the psychedelic blues combo Moving Sidewalks, the trio didn’t have high expectations. “We were never certain about a career,” he says. “We were just three guys playing loud noise, hoping we could get free beer and good-looking girls.” However, that all changed in 1973, thanks to a stunning piece of Texas boogie. “We heard ‘La Grange’ on the car radio,” Gibbons recalls. “It’s one of our favorite songs, and we still play it to this day. When it came on the airwaves, we thought, Wow. Maybe we should stick to this.”
That initial rush of fame and nearly nonstop touring in the mid-’70s left the band burned out, with Beard battling a substance abuse problem. It was during a hiatus when Beard got sober that Gibbons and Hill grew out what became their trademark beards to outrageous lengths. (Beard, ironically, is the only member without one.) “It comes back to one simple word — lazy. We all threw our razor blades away and low and behold, when we returned, we all had these chin whiskers. And we said, ‘Well, let’s let it fly,’” Gibbons recalls.
ZZ Top created their best-selling album in 1983, thanks to an updated, revved-up sound influenced by punk rock, and incorporated synthesizers and striking music videos that brought the trio to the attention of a new generation. “What we started in the ’80s seems to be returning in the 2020s,” Gibbons says. “This hands-on experience of using anything and everything to make great music, and that’s the bottom line. When you listen to Eliminator, the ZZ Top signature sound was based on good tuning and good timing. And those two elements seem to be important as we move through to today.”
When he’s not making music with ZZ Top, Gibbons devotes his time to some of his other passions. He published an expanded version of his book, Billy F Gibbons: Rock + Roll Gearhead, which looks at his wildest cars and guitars. And with his bearded songwriting pal Tim Montana, he launched the Beez & Teez Whisker Bomb line of pepper sauces — which includes the Whisker Bomb Original and Whiskey Bomb Have Mercy ¡HOT!, which could be paired nicely with some chow and the scorching playlist of Texas blues that Gibbons compiled exclusively for AARP.
Guest Playlist by Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top
Vocalist-guitarist Billy F. Gibbons calls ZZ Top a “rock-blues aggregation” band, and many of its influences are rooted in the American art form. Here he shares his Texas blues favorites.
Read about his picks here, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
Wine Wine Wine performed by the Nightcaps
“Here’s the band hailing from Big D who broke the mold in ’62 when their brand of Texas blues hit the scene. The guitar work from the soloist, David Swartz, hangs in with the best from back in the day, and the sound of the band holds sway today.”
Hideaway performed by Freddie King
“One of the great instrumental hits still held in high esteem by guitarists in contemporary circles now. The six-string pyrotechnics heard in the ‘Hideaway’ grooves are certain to satisfy.”
Movin’ On Out Boogie performed by Lightnin’ Hopkins
“Lightnin’ shows his stuff with this ’50’s classic from Houston. The verbal commentary heard throughout the track’s 2 minutes and 12 seconds needs no more time to show off some fierce invective from Lightnin’ as he blasts away and follows suit with some fine electric guitar ferociousness.”
Chicken Stuff performed by Hop Wilson
“A super instrumental number bolstered with Hop’s title shout-outs as the song moves ahead with some genuine foot-stomping’ sounds. Hop’s steel-guitar wizardry stands out way ahead of the pack, which leads the track in fine form.”
Walking With Frankie performed by Frankie Lee Sims
“Another Dallas bluesman playing one of his many popular guitar-driven songs with some supportive singing that floats through the number right along. Frankie [who’s related to Lightnin’ Hopkins] reveals his Texas roots here with some loudness that’ll rock the night away.”
Frosty performed by Albert Collins
“As instrumental numbers remained a favorite through the ’50s, this one from AC is, title notwithstanding, a scorcher.”
The Freeze by Albert Collins
“Staying the course is another barn burner as Albert squeezes the strings as a true master of the Telecaster. This is the same song later covered in fine form by Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
Baby, Please Come Home performed by Jimmie Vaughan
“One of Jimmie’s finest moments from the album of the same name. Jimmie wails through the number reminding the listener how mysteriously appealing the sound of Texas blues stands. Then again, anything by Jimmie is fine by me. Check it out.”
West Texas Blues performed by Mike Flanigin
“Here’s the most recent release from Austin’s wizard on the Hammond B3 organ, featuring Mike bringing some crafty wordsmithing to soothe one’s soul. The organ-grinding Mike pounds out is worth its weight in that Texan heavy expression. This brings it on.”
Stormy Monday Blues performed by T-Bone Walker
“One of the first and one of the finest! T-Bone’s impact on the future of blues guitar solo technique can be enjoyed to the fullest with one simple review of this famed track. Often imitated, the song is in the tradition of guitar greats and comes down to total sensory pleasures.”
Where Did You Sleep Last Night and “Midnight Special” performed by Lead Belly
“There’s need no introduction other than calling out these Lead Belly songs as one of the most illustrious from the bluesman from the Lone Star State.”
Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’ by Billy F. Gibbons
“Yes, from yours truly, this is the number composed by none other than [my wife] Gillian Gibbons, inspired from a return trip back from a visit in Spain. It’s a clever way to mark another Texas blues to round out the set. Give a dig …!”
How to add playlist directly to your smartphone
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your smartphone. To use, open Spotify, click on the Search field in the middle bottom of the screen. Click in the Search field and when you see the camera icon on the top right, click on that. Aim your camera at the code and it will bring up the playlist. To save the playlist, click on the heart.
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