“Coming up in Houston presented a grand exposure to some of the greats — B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed,” says guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. “When you hear those guys, you know they were advanced, almost other worldly.”
ZZ Top is the only blues-fan-endorsed multi-million-selling band to retain its original members for 50 years. They tour major arenas almost constantly, and Billy Gibbons also records and tours as a solo act. His recently released second solo album The Big Bad Blues contains covers songs by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley, whom he freely calls a genius.
Bobby Rush calls his bi-racial appeal a “criss-crossover.” Elvis Presley 42 years after his death has a fan base in multiple genres. Blues, rock and roll, rockabilly, rock, and country fans all consider Elvis Presley to be one of their own. The Rolling Stones have been called the greatest rock band in the world but have returned to their blues roots in the last couple of years. Stevie Ray Vaughan reinvigorated the blues in the ’80s.
More than 65 years after Elvis bridged the gap between black blues and white Johnny-Come-Latelies, why does an act like Z Z Top sell hundreds – sometimes times thousands – more records than literally every black blues act in the business? Why did B. B. King have to point out to me when I complimented him on filling the main stage at the Chicago Blues Festival that all his fans got in for free while the Stones attract many times that number at hundreds of dollars a head in large arenas?
Blues purists tell us its simple prejudice. There are more white music fans than black, and they identify with one of their own. But its more than that.
Billy Gibbons is a phenom. As popular as ZZ Top is, Gibbons is underrated as a guitarist who describes the group’s image “as if we stepped out of the pages of a strange spin-off of the Katzenjammer Kids.” That colorful presence is complemented by the wink of humor on their hits that expands their popularity way beyond that of most blues acts – and most white rock acts for that matter – playing blues festivals and the club circuit.
ZZ Top’s 1983 Eliminator album sold 10 million copies in the United States alone. They’ve sold a total of 50 million albums worldwide including 11 gold, seven platinum and three multi-platinum CDs. The lyrics of many of the songs on Eliminator are prime examples of Puck-like wink and nod, good times stance.
From “Legs,” She’s got hair down to her fanny/She’s kinda jet set, try undo her panties/Everytime she’s dancin’ she knows what to do/Everybody wants to see if she can use it/She’s so fine, she’s all mine/Girl, you got it right.” And from “Tube Snake Boogie:” I got a gal, she lives on the block/She’s kinda funky with her pink and black socks/she likes to boogie/She do the tube snake boogie/Well now, boogie-woogie baby/Boogie-woogie all night long.
What does Billy Gibbons have that Chicago blues artist Toronzo Cannon does not?
And is it unfair that Cannon has to work a day job driving a Chicago bus to earn the right to play South Side clubs and make the occasional trip to Europe where he plays relatively small clubs while ZZ Top tours the world almost constantly playing arenas at 110 db?
As early as 1955, Pat Boone stole success out from under African American R&B artists by rerecording their songs, including Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind,” and the Flamingos’ “I’ll Be Home.” He would release his white washed versions before the originals could climb into the top 20 in the ’50s. Boone was one of many white artists to mine black American musical culture and offer covers to an audience that more closely identifies with a blond-haired guy in a sweater than a black face in a shark-skin suit.
Sixty-some years later, white artists continue to blanch African American sounds, but the audience for “real” blues has grown older, more sophisticated, and comes from a more eclectic racial mix than in 1955. The successful white blues artists today tend to be those who are colorblind in their influences and the color of the artists they have in their bands and vice versa for black band leaders.
If one were to ask if they’re simply the modern equivalent of a Pat Boone, I would have to answer with a resounding NO! While the success of some multi-million selling acts is more marketing than musicmaking, Billy Gibbons is the real deal by any measure. And ZZ Top’s success comes not from stealing black music.
“Relax and take time to decipher the elements that make a certain delivery exceptional,” says Gibbons about the secret to their addictive bluesy sound.
“The element of flow is key to finding one’s way. Sometimes, it’s the empty spaces between phrases that are as mesmerizing as anything else.”
So, is it fair that Toronzo Cannon has to drive a bus to feed his family while ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones play arenas worldwide while scalpers sell tickets to their shows for upwards to thousands of dollars?
Of course not, but these two acts alone bring to the party more than simple copies of songs by their black mentors. They touch a nerve with fans that identify with them on many levels, sonically, emotionally, thematically, humorously, and visually. Like the best of the blues, what they do may be simple, but it’s not easy.
An ugly result of today’s racism is the mistaken assumption that African Americans are no match for white intellect. Gibbons, to the contrary, is overwhelmed by black “geniuses” in music.
“Let’s take Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” included on The Big Bad Blues album,” he says. “That upside-down and backwards guitar intro seems simple — until attempting to reproduce it… and then it becomes an analytical challenge to delve into what Bo might have had in mind. Delivering that figure was the definitive science experiment.
“Bo didn’t leave a how-to manual. I’m guessing it came quite naturally to him as you would expect of a genius. Same goes for Lightin’ Hopkins. He wasn’t specifically playing predictable scales which, in a way, tells you that he invented something solely original. He (and Bo) were free from the constraints of any accepted norm, yet everything they did was accepted! They invented what they did out of thin air. That’s a reflection that they reserved an open mind and a vivid imagination. There’s not necessarily any particular “right way”… Sometimes a so-called “wrong way” is so, so right.”
The members of ZZ Top, Billy, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard, are not blinded by prejudice and they never take their own success as a reason to look down on their fans. They have a catholic view of society while at the same time using their status to advance blues music as the music of all the people. They were given a piece of wood from Muddy Waters’ shack in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The group members made it into a guitar dubbed the “Muddywood.” And when the band played Schenectady, New York in 2017 Billy Gibbons told the audience about his dad who had grown up in nearby Gloversville. Gibbons said he had walked into a Dollar Store and bought a shirt with FFA (for Future Farmers of America) stitched into it, and told the crowd, “I know plenty of farmers in Hollywood.”
How does the group stay fresh and connected with the mundane “real” world of their fans?
“The answer to how to stay connected is avoiding isolation. It’s about checking into what folks are up to, both sonically and otherwise. It’s about strolling down the alleys in Anytown, USA (or Anytown, Macedonia or elsewhere) and engaging in conversation. Most people are well meaning and have enjoyable experiences to share. Don’t wanna miss that certain entertaining and/or interesting ‘something’. Gimme a Costco, and we’ll stock up, or gimme a day with our hot-rodding pal, Jimmy Shine, for some torch and wrench details, or let’s catch a band in one of the clubs around LA. It’s about being part of the world, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, yes…there’s always a destination with Mexican cuisine on the horizon.”
In September, 2018 Gibbons released The Big Bad Blues, his second solo album of six originals and covers of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters classics. The production is grittier than ZZ Top and features Mike Flanigin on Hammond organ, Fender bass player Joe Hardy, drummer Greg Morrow and electric guitarist Matt Sorum. The LP is the follow-up to Perfectamundo, a 2015 Afro-Cuban-flavored solo release.
In a press release, Gibbons explains, “We successfully made our way through those uncharted waters with the Cubano flavor of Perfectamundo and completed the journey. The shift back to the blues (in The Big Bad Blues) is a natural. It’s something which our followers can enjoy with the satisfaction of experiencing the roots tradition and, at the same time, feeling the richness of stretching the art form.”
Other than the obvious reason that solo work frees him from the responsibilities of meeting ZZ Top fans’ expectations, what does he get out of solo recording and touring that he doesn’t get with ZZ Top?
“There’s a certain similar element of spontaneity recording outside the (very loose) confines of the group, yet the song selection with The Big Bad Blues band is far more out of left field. In a ZZ Top session, we’re not quite sure if we’d ever get away with covering two Muddy Waters songs and two Bo Diddley songs. Then again, it might be worth having a go at it. Dusty, Frank and I love those guys, too, so perhaps it might be a good fit.”
Perfectamundo with its Tito Puente sound was another thing altogether.
“It’s a format thing. In rock, the rhythm is out back and the guitars, etc. are up front. With Perfectamundo, it was the other way around. We put the backbeat in front and the guitars out back. It’s something that’s simply a bit outside the purview of ZZ Top. Although the Cubano thing we came up with included enough bits with that ZZ Top approach to round up Perfectamundo’s success.”
When do the pedals and gadgets stop being an aid to sound and become a crutch? And how does he know the difference?
“They’re more accomplices toward creating interest in the sonic spectrum… The vast range of effects demands a genuine evaluation of what works within the frame of expression. One dramatic entry into the field of effective devices is a wild guitar pickup known as, “The Little Thunder.” That’s the singular effect which supported the outing with The Big Bad Blues show. It was the effect which added a serious bass-line to the Spanish electric 6-string guitar. A killer effect. It was a lo-fi freight-train effect driving the band night to night.”
Somehow, ZZ Top’s synthesizer never sounds synthetic, and their concerts are a dynamic delivery of their recorded sound. Does it ever become problematic translating studio sonics into a live concert setting?
“The studio is an adjunct to what we do and something of a tool shed for us. There’s not much we’ve done in the studio that we haven’t been able to do on stage and that’s quite intentional. We aim to sound like ourselves. it’s much more comfortable that way. Then again, we do enjoy going about figuring how to replicate the exotic when contemporary tech is in the blend.”
In many ways, ZZ Top’s take on humor in their dress and lyrics is more in step with today’s popular trend of looking at comedians’ sarcastic view of current events as a reality check on “fake news.” Most blues, on the other hand, has avoided humor with the possible exception of Elvin Bishop, Li’l Ed, Rick Estrin and ZZ Top. How important is humor to their music, and what is the secret of making humorous blues more than an oxymoron?
“Well, we figured early on that we’re closer to Howlin’ Wolf and that secret language of the blues. It’s a genuine American art form loaded with some twists and turns worded into the blues subterfuge. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “Arrested For Driving While Blind” and “Cheap Sunglasses” spring to mind. An entertaining turn of phrase, an inside happenstance among us band members most likely gives us a jump start for a song. It’s the kind of thing which seems to have come quite naturally. One of the favored numbers from our La Futura album, “chartreuse” rhymed with the seldom used term, “caboose”… both a color and a class of liqueur. Somewhere therein lies rhythmic gold for one’s imagination.”
And what about those salacious lyrics?
“The entendre is oft times double and sometimes triple, but coming right out and saying it wouldn’t be much of an artistic challenge. It’s not that we’ve “gotten away” with anything over the years — those who know the subtext might get a charge but those who don’t still get off so it’s a win/win. I don’t know of anything from recent vintage that’s out of sorts from ten, twenty or even thirty years back. Nuance is everything.”
In Clint Eastwood’s film “The Mule,” he plays a 90-year-old horticulturist who ignored his family through three generations of births, weddings and funerals to follow his bliss with flowers. Is blues performing an addiction like Eastwood’s character’s addiction to flowers, and if so how does the band escape to another reality? Is there a balance?
“Clint Eastwood solidified our admiration of having a long-standing career of success. No doubt he still enjoys it and is still killin’ it. On the subject of the blues as another reality, we are constantly inspired to interpret what remains a strident focus. Living in Texas, the blues scene made for some kind of mega-mojo that’s stayed with us ever since. The real blues effect was the jumping off point for whatever we’ve been able to do since our beginnings.
“Having seen the great B.B. King in an early recording session down in Houston when I was probably 7 or 8 years old was a genuine point of no return. I knew right then that was where I was going and that moment stayed on. I caught up with B. B. years later to embrace a sentiment he shared with the simple outlook of, ‘Play what you want to hear.’ Alright! Let’s play them blues!! We’re still compelled follow suit, and it’s safe to say we’re thankful that quite a few folks have a good time checking us out doing just that… getting to do what we get to do. Simply stated, we just keep doin’ it.”
I was somewhat surprised when I saw ZZ Top in 2017 that Gibbons rarely relies on gadgets to enhance his colorful guitar sounds. I asked him when do the pedals and gadgets stop being an aid to sound and become a crutch? And how does he know the difference?
“They’re more accomplices toward creating interest in the sonic spectrum. The vast range of effects demands a genuine evaluation of what works within the frame of expression. One dramatic entry into the field of effective devices is a wild guitar pickup known as, “The Little Thunder.” That’s the singular effect which supported the outing with The Big Bad Blues show. It was the effect which added a serious bass-line to the Spanish electric 6-string guitar. A killer effect. It was a lo-fi freight-train effect driving the band night to night.”
The bottom line is that Gibbons and ZZ Top are able to stay fresh, funny and connected with the mundane “real” world of their fans whereas rock stars like the Stones can’t seem to get beyond Steel Wheels creatively.
“Hey! Don’t knock the Stones,” he says. “They’re still fantastic, and we’ll always be superfans of Keith and Mick.”
The Stones have a deeper and more varied repertoire than ZZ Top, but the Keith and Mick magic has been tarnished by their brotherly love-hate relationship that has prevented them from shooting a new song into the public consciousness since 1989 on Steal Wheels. ZZ Top celebrates their 50th anniversary this year, They continue to release new product as a band, and Gibbons as a solo artist still hits general public’s magic twanger. A look at their beginnings offers clues as to why they still work so well together. What do they get out of a Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker songs that inspires their sound without ever sounding retro?
“We rarely think of the blues as something immutable. It’s ever evolving so there’s scant reason to be too doctrinaire about such an art form. It’s difficult to imagine if Muddy Waters had never plugged in. That would have been a way different detour and perhaps that’s why we do what we do…create experimental situations. The blues really remains a living organism on so many levels which leads us to just do what we do and let it flourish. The bottom line is ZZ sounds like ZZ which is that of interpretation rather than a slave to form. It’s what keeps it funky.”
For more about Billy Gibbons visit: www.billygibbons.com.