Billy Gibbons: Life Beyond ZZ Top

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You can’t miss Billy Gibbons. When ZZ Top broke through in the late 70s – the frontman sporting a beard so grizzly it could have been coughed up by Chewbacca – he instantly became the most iconic and oft-caricatured guitarist of the era. And since the millennium, when Gibbons cranked up his paparazzi appeal with a sideline as a TV actor, even a stroll down the street has become a negotiation of high-fives and camera phones. Naturally, as a serious, high-minded journalist, I tell myself to avoid the subject of the beard, but within seconds, I’ve caved in. “This set of chin whiskers has become pretty much a running advertisement,” chuckles Gibbons. “It’s fun to see that what started off as a disguise has become a trademark. There’s a turn of events for you.

“It’s part of the job, man,” he adds of the furore, “and we certainly enjoy it. The good news is that we’ve yet to encounter anything other than enthusiasm. Everybody’s like, ‘Hey now! You’re that ZZ Top guy!’ There’s a TV show that broadcasts here in the States called Bones. It’s one of these forensic whodunnit kinda programmes. It’s very popular, just now entering its 10th season, and they tagged me to play a part. So with all that exposure, I can’t go 10 blocks without someone saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on, man?’”

Texas’ favourite son, it’s fair to say, doesn’t do incognito. As such, it’s hard to imagine this 65-year-old superstar playing the part of a nonentity in a new band, road-dogging between ratholes and humping kick drums up urine-streaked stairwells. Gibbons feels otherwise. He’s relishing the chance to start over on the bottom rung with his new side-venture, The BFG’s, and hawk their debut album, *Perfectamundo*. “It’s back to sleeping in the van,” he insists, with a laugh that sounds like someone shucking gravel. “I guarantee ya, we’re gonna have to get real chummy, real quick. Will I enjoy being back playing in small venues? Yeah, I think so. I believe this assembly is gonna become very adept in the smoky room, as opposed to the airy arena.”

You’d never guess it from his verbose drawl, but Gibbons is a little nervous. Since ZZ Top formed in Houston, Texas, back in 1969, he’s always been flanked by bassist/co-vocalist Dusty Hill (who deserves an honorary mention for his own facial fuzz) and drummer Frank Beard (who, ironically, doesn’t). The frontman has ducked out for frequent one-off collaborations – with everyone from Queens Of The Stone Age to BB King – and has fingers in various business pies. “I got involved with an old buddy of mine in the launch of a tequila brand called Pura Vida. He’s just announced that he has intentions of expanding into a couple of other expressions, one of them being a rum. If I see you in a short while, we may sit down and throw one back…”

Unusually for such a big name, though, Gibbons has never before recorded a full-length solo album under his own banner. “There’s enough unreleased tracks from the last five or six years to constitute a proper release,” he calculates. “Y’know, material that has yet to see the light of day. But it was either just an extension of ZZ Top, or a proper blues record. Nothing was so ground-shaking that it demanded a release, at least at the time. “But this record took on a colour that was just different enough to legitimise taking a stab. It’s probably safer that I take the risk, because my two partners would probably say, ‘I don’t want any part of this.’ It was uncertain, having spent four decades trying to interpret blues and rock’n’roll in the ZZ Top fashion, what this sudden turn of the corner was going to present. But we pressed onward, throughout a bit of furious trepidation. Towards Cuba…” You heard him right – Cuba. If the recent thaw in historic political tensions between the US and its hard-left neighbour seemed unthinkable, Gibbons’ splicing of blues riffs and Latin rhythms on Perfectamundo is just as unexpected. “Will ZZ Top fans be surprised by this new album?” he ponders. “Definitely. I hope, when the sun rises, that we’ll see smiling faces. It’ll bum a few people out, though. They’ll ask, ‘What in the hell are they thinking?’ Let’s take a guess and say that it might take a true blues purist a bit off-guard, but I don’t think it’s gonna throw a wrench into the works.”

The BFG’s project took form, explains Gibbons, after fate gave him a series of digs in the ribs. “The question that seems to come up,” he reflects, “is how and why this started. Well, I’ll give you the long version and you can chew it up as you wish. I received a phone call from a pal in Los Angeles. He’s well acquainted with one of the gentlemen involved in organising the Havana Jazz Festival, which is a government-officiated annual event, now going into its 35th year. He quite simply said to me, ‘Would you consider coming down [to play]?’ “So I immediately said, ‘Well, let me call Frank Beard and Dusty Hill.’ And he said, ‘No, they just want you.’ And I said, ‘Well, how did my name get on a jazz roster, of all things? Y’know, I play blues and rock.’ And then I very quickly added: ‘But don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to go to Havana.’ Perhaps you’ve heard, the United States has recently announced they were going to thaw out [relations with Cuba]. The opening of the [US] embassy in Cuba made great headlines. So I said, ‘Give me a couple of days to think about it.’”

Gibbons never did make it to the festival in Havana. “But ironically, that phone call was on the same day I had booked some studio sessions in Houston. I got downstairs in the hotel and I spotted what looked to be a new restaurant across the way. I made a mad dash into this restaurant, introduced myself, and said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ And they said, ‘Well, we have a kinda Latin-flavoured menu. We have quite a few dishes from Cuba. Feel free to come and try us out, we’re new here.’ “So I grabbed a business card and off we went to the studio. And when the engineer said, ‘Okay, what are we doing?’ I said, ‘We’re gonna go to Cuba.’ Of course, they thought I’d lost my mind. But there in my fisted fingers was this business card. The name of the restaurant was Sal Y Pimienta – which is Spanish for salt and pepper – and I said, ‘Well, here’s the first song title.’ “And off we went. By the close of the day, on that fateful first stab at taking things in an AfroCuban direction, we felt very confident that this was something. It was certainly of interest, in that it was starting to feel like a real, genuine interpretation of the little we knew of Cuban music. We felt like this might just be able to take off, much to our delight. And, I must say, much to our surprise.”

Helping Gibbons navigate these foreign waters was a musical crack squad. For a nominally ‘new’ band, The BFG’s line-up has serious pedigree: alongside bassist/rapper Alex Garza, drummer Greg Morrow, second guitarist Gary Moon and co-producer Joe Hardy, there’s a pair of keyboard titans in Martin Guigui and Mike Flanigin. “So they make up the double-trouble threat of twin Hammond B3 organ,” explains Gibbons. “And then [Alex Garza] is a very talented hip-hop stylist. He does some of the vocals, like on Perfectamundo, and he hops in and out, but he’s also a great percussionist. So he’s an all-around guy.

“If this band was a car?” Gibbons says. “Come on. You gotta go with a Cadillac.” Up front, as you would expect, the ZZ Top man handles most of the stinging guitar work and growled vocals, though it’s a revelation to hear his expert touch on the timbales, among other Latin percussion. “That started early on,” he remembers of his childhood percussion lessons. “I had long-time antagonised the sounds within the household, banging on the bottom of a garbage pail. At one point, my dad had just had enough, and he sent me to New York City to meet an old friend of his, Tito Puente, who had reached a pinnacle of a lifelong career and accepted the title of ‘Mambo King’.

Billy Gibbons: goin' solo...

Billy Gibbons: goin' solo...

“So now, on this record, all of those rather lengthy lessons came back immediately. I picked up some sticks and, fortunately, we had some timbales in the studio. We pulled them out of the back room and to the delight of the engineer, we were hittin’ on eight, man. And as the old saying goes, it comes back like riding a long-lost bicycle.”

Driven by Gibbons’ beats, there’s a groove to Perfectamundo that marks it out among the boneheaded four-to-the-floor of many traditional rock albums. “A fighting album, a dancing album,” muses the frontman. “I think it’s a little of both. Some of my pals around here have taken an interest, they said, ‘Give us a taste.’ There’s an excitement that the girls get [when they hear it]. They say, ‘Oh yeah, we can dance to this!’ And they get rather giddy. Should rock fans be encouraged to dance? Oh yeah. Without question.”

Gibbons and co followed up Sal Y Pimienta with some snake-hipped originals. Then he felt an icy pang of self-doubt. “We got about three tracks done during that first session and at the end of the day, our curiosity had turned to confidence. On about the third or fourth day, as the project seemed to start wanting to continue unfolding, we stopped for a moment. “I called an old friend of mine in Manhattan, Señor Chino Pons. He’s from Cuba, and he runs a four-piece band out of New York, very popular. ‘Chino,’ I said, ‘I’m tiptoeing through the land of Afro-Cuban sounds and I need your opinion.’ And he said, ‘Believe it or not, I’m actually flying through Houston. I’m on my way to Miami.’ So he stopped in at the studio and we spent half an afternoon together. We had three tracks to exemplify what we were doing. He said, ‘You got it. Go on.’ But he also said, ‘We in Cuba, we know this kind of music. Can you give us the same thing – but can you give it a twist with the ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin [sound]?’ We were completely taken off guard. First of all, we were delighted he sprinkled holy water on the whole affair – but then he pulled the rug out from under us!”

The sessions continued, spitting out genre-blurring cuts like the hard-rock swing of Piedras Negras and the salsa stylings of Hombre Sin Nombre. When the outfit ran out of creative steam, they threw a couple of blues benchmarks – Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It and the hardy perennial Baby Please Don’t Go – into the culture-mulcher.

“Well, that was just my limited command of the Spanish language,” reasons Gibbons. “After three songs exhaustively digging for some rhyming words in Español, we thought it’d be interesting to go back to some familiar territory, with a blues-based [song], threaded through with Latin percussion. But what’s funny is, Got Love If You Want It, the famous Slim Harpo number, is already kinda starting out as a cha-cha. And by adding some authentic Latin percussion on top, it truly becomes a cha-cha.”

Gibbons has spliced sounds divisively in ZZ Top before – see 1981’s synth-driven *El *Loco – but the frontman insists that blues and Latin music are natural bedfellows. “Yeah, without question. This music [we’re making] enters a field that’s not really so far removed from what we do in a more contemporary, westernised fashion. If one were to take on the task of doing homework and studying up on the breadth of Cuban influences throughout musical styles, it’s quite illuminating just how far-reaching that whole genre really is. Without wanting to flog a dead horse, the thread that is unequivocally present throughout so many styles, of course, is the backbeat. The beat is the grabbing force with so many different kinds of music, and the backbeat got very sophisticated [in Cuba], y’know, with polyrhythms, and just different ways to slice up the time signatures.”

Never mind the beard: what resonates during an encounter with Gibbons is the man’s whirring musical brain, and his patent fascination with the blues. “Unabashedly, man,” he reflects. “I can tell you it was Jimmy Reed that was my first influence. When mentioning Jimmy Reed, a lot of folks will say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the simple stuff.’ It’s really not. It’s got elements of sophistication that demand relistening. I’ve been listening to Jimmy Reed since I was five. My favourite songs? Y’know, *Honey**, *Don’t Let Me Go. Caress Me Baby. And, of course, there’s Big Boss Man, You Got Me Dizzy, Going To New York – it’s all still of value.”

How did you pick up your own early platters?

“The housekeeper – that had a constant presence within our household – was Stella Matthews. Big Stella. She always, without question, without fail, had the radio tuned in to a station that blasted the blues, and once we figured out that Jimmy Reed was part of this bigger picture, we started listening. And we would beg our mom, my younger sister and I, if we learned that she was going out for shopping, we’d ask her to stop at the local record store. We’d ask Big Stella, ‘What records do we want?’ She was always ready to hand over a list of the great blues stylists, and that’s kind of what started the ball rolling.

“So we amassed a collection of singles, which I’ve still got. I’ve got every single record that ever found its way on to our record player. Howlin’ Wolf. BB King. Muddy Waters. Y’know, the usual run of the well-known artists, and even some of the more obscure stuff. Albert Collins – who was from Houston too – we’ve got some singles of his that were never even released. Those are some of the rare gems.”

Like every young shaver in 60s America, Gibbons was also looking across the water. “Then it was the British to the rescue,” he remembers. “It’s really no secret that the British were the saving grace of the blues, which was running the risk of vanishing forever. The blues was on its way out, it had been largely discarded, it was gathering dust. And then along came Keith Richards and Brian Jones and John Mayall – the list goes on and on. And looking back, it could be stated accurately that the British were the salvation for this great American art form.”

Gibbons wasn’t the only young blues fanatic in Houston. “When I met my two ZZ Top partners, we made the discovery that we had grown up listening to the same radio stations, and pretty much been influenced by many of the same acts that were paving the way. And, y’know, rest his soul, Mike Leadbetter and his associates had launched this great magazine, Blues Unlimited, and that was first published right when ZZ Top was starting out in 1970. I just happened to see it and sent in a money order to get on the mailing list. And throughout the 70s and 80s, there still seemed to be quite a robust community that embraced this genre called the blues.

“Even now,” he continues, “it’s still a growing concern. Y’know, there’s some great speciality labels in Britain. I’ve become friends with the guys behind Ace Records, and then there’s Flyright, which is Bruce Bastin’s reissue label. All these great British blues reissue programmes. There’s no question that it’s still a going thing. Gotta keep it going there, bro!” Gibbons is happy to be questioned on the superstar years of the mid-80s – when the glossy MTV rock of *Eliminator *shifted some 10 million copies – but he seems particularly ready to revisit spit-and-grit early days on the Houston blues circuit. “That Houston scene really got its foot in the door back in the 40s,” he explains, “and it continued to be quite robust. You saw a community rediscovering that which had been their own personal property all along, and you watched it become revitalised. It may have had a little bit of a different flavour. Houston was home to Duke and Peacock Records, and they had Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Junior Parker, even Little Richard and BB King.

“Just the amount of talent there,” he swoons. “Frank and Dusty had both worked behind Freddie King for a period: they were his backing band. Dusty also worked with Lightnin’ Hopkins, and they did a stint with Jimmy Reed. I also got to play for a short time with him. Early on in ZZ Top, we embraced the notion that, well, we’re not the originators, so let’s try to be interpreters, as best we can. And four decades later, you’ve got a pretty good example of what came from that. “That Houston scene was so lively. You’d find your way through some sleepier parts of town – some of the surrounding avenues were not much to speak of. But once you hit Dowling Street, brother, look out. Dowling Street being the main avenue in black Houston, with such a history. It’s so rich in blues, rhythm and blues, big band stuff, you name it. And it would be bumper to bumper, every night. Just all kinds of action on the streets. It seemed like every corner had something going on. Little food stops along the way, music blaring out of seemingly every other door. It was quite the scene.”

There’s a song on the new album called Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street. Written from experience? Gibbons laughs: “Believe it or not, I’m unabashedly here to say yes. “In fact,” he continues, “we were out of town, but it was just announced this week that they’re reopening the Eldorado Ballroom. Somebody called us up rather excitedly and said: ‘Man, did you hear?’ Now, the Eldorado Ballroom was the most famous destination on Dowling Street. It was a hot nightspot, starting in the late 40s, all through the 60s, and it was run by Don Robey, the famous impresario of rhythm and blues. He was the owner of the Duke label and he was the black gangster that had everything going. He had gambling halls in the back, he had dancing in the front, big blues presentations on stage. He ran the record label, he ran the booking agency – he did it all.”

Gibbons beams at the memories. “Ah, you got me fired up, man, thinking about the good ol’ days of Houston. And last Saturday – this is funny – ZZ Top actually played at La Grange, Texas. That was the launchpad of our career. That turned out to be as crazy as you can imagine. But that’s another story…”

Even now, Gibbons reckons there’s still musical mileage in his beloved home state. He lights up at the mention of fellow Texan, Gary Clark Jr. “Oh yeah, I bumped into his presentation at a big festival in Holland a couple of months back. He was part of the line-up, and fortunately he was booked to appear on the same day. I was with Miss Gilligan [Stillwater, wife] and we were kinda sequestered, hunkered down in the dressing room. And amidst the din of a 100,000-watt PA system literally shaking the tent sides, we kept looking at each other going, ‘What is this?’ There was just something about it that was catching our attention. So we had the gumption to get up and make our way to the stage, and lo and behold, there was Gary Clark Jr. We tiptoed up and watched his set unfold. It was just brilliant. My God. Now, I’m a little fuzzy on this, but doesn’t he have a new release set for hitting the streets?” Yes, The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim. It came out last month. “Well, I’d certainly like to get my hands on that. Andy Langer – who’s a journalist from Austin – was trying to describe it. He was saying it was really interesting, and that Gary Clark Jr took a hand not only in writing the stuff, but that he played a lot of the instruments. Andy told me: ‘It’s not hard blues and it’s not hard rock, there’s actually some very soulful R&B.’ Whatever Gary Clark Jr does, I’m sure it’ll be entertaining. And he’s not one of these late-coming transplants to Austin. He was born and raised there.”

ZZ Top in '75, from left: Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard.

ZZ Top in '75, from left: Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard.
(Image: © Getty)

Like Gary Clark Jr, you’re now climbing the showbiz pole once again with The BFG’s. Do you think it’s harder conquering the rock industry now, in the internet age?

Gibbons sighs: “Boy, isn’t that the truth. I was just speaking with another associate called Tim Montana, who now fronts a band called The Shrednecks. They’ve kinda taken the harsher side of rock into a country twist: they’re quite edgy. But I had to stop for a second to say: ‘Gee whiz, as a young upstart taking a stab at notoriety at this particular time – what’s that like?’ Well, youthful enthusiasm wins out. Fortunately, they’re not misguided by thinking they’re gonna step up onto a Led Zeppelin arena audience. “But the one thing I’ve noticed… y’know, we were in Nashville just last week, and we had a few days off after the ZZ Top show. I’d booked a few writing sessions with some rather gifted artists around town. And maybe you’ve seen this too, either from going out and watching new bands or even speaking to them one-on-one – but there does still seem to be some value [in live music]. Let’s face it: people still want to be entertained. “And it is a little more difficult to gain some traction and win some attention now – we’re still doing battle with the application writers and the tech-heads, y’know? But at the end of the day, you can only stare at a computer screen for so long, then you’re gonna scream. And that’s the good news. Because everyone makes a beeline for the exit and heads for the local pub.” And there, if you’re lucky, you might just find the world’s most recognisable rock star playing his smallest stages in three decades. “Once Perfectamundo was all buttoned-up and we felt that we had a good launching-spot,” says Gibbons of future touring plans, “the challenge of putting a live act behind it was rather daunting. Y’know, starting a band seems like it’d be an easy thing, but who do you go to and what do you do? “The novelty of having two B3 players on the deck demanded two drummers. So immediately, it was, ‘So who’s gonna take those spots?’ I found a couple of gals from Los Angeles [SoZo Diamond and Melanie DiLorenzo], and everybody became quizzical once again, and the question became: ‘So you’re gonna get two drummers – and they’re gonna be female?’ And I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing like distraction, brother.’ So that kinda rounds out what’s going to constitute the live presentation of Billy Gibbons And The BFG’s. It’s gonna be a six man – or I should say, six-person – outing.”

By this point, of course, you’ve enjoyed three decades of towering commercial success. Do you actually care if this new record sells a million?

“I think that’d be great,” considers Gibbons. “But we’re going to stay focused on remaining as legitimate as we possibly can. In reality, I think if there’s any secret to this stuff, it’s maintaining the good times that went into making it, and just bringing that forward. We’ve yet to crack the code, but rehearsals begin in a few short weeks and we’re all getting lathered up. I think this band has got everybody’s attention, and that this is gonna be something to embrace. At least we’ll be able to bang on things loudly!”

Perfectamundo is released on November 6 via Concord/ Universal Music Catalogue. For more information, see www.billygibbons.com.

Rocking The House - Billy tells the story behind his legendary ‘Muddywood’ guitar…

“I can recount the tale. I had a friend called Tony Fortune. He was a salesman, selling frozen drinks machines, and his route led him down through Mississippi. One day, he had passed through Clarksdale and he told me, ‘I saw a small, handpainted sign stabbed in the ground next to the road. It was an arrow that led to a blues museum.’ “So the next weekend, we hopped in the car and headed off to find that museum. Sid Graves was the caretaker, and that was the humble beginnings of what has blossomed into a full-blown, freestanding, dedicated museum to the blues. The Delta Blues Museum – it’s on the National Register [Of Historic Places] now. “During that visit, Sid Graves was speaking with Jim O’Neal – the founding editor of Living Blues magazine – and they said, ‘We’re gonna go up-road and take a look at the cabin Muddy Waters grew up in. Would you guys like to travel with us?’ He said, ‘We had a storm here recently and it caused a little damage, and the Highway Department thinks [the cabin] is causing a hazard next to the road. They want to see it torn down.’ That was a real concern to these guys.

“So we fell in line and followed them up-road. We kinda traipsed around the grounds, and the cabin, fortunately, was intact – but there were some chunks of wood that had been dislodged from the high winds. We were about to leave and Jim said, ‘Well, here’s a stick of wood. Why don’t you take that home with you? It’s a piece of Muddy Waters.’ “On the way back, we were talking it over and I said, ‘Y’know, there’s a couple of guitar-makers back in town. I bet we could take this wood, glue it together and make a healthy chunk. And out of that was carved what became known as the Muddywood. To this day, it’s one of the nicest guitars. Not only does it look nice, it’s got a great sound. We made a decision that it would be our contribution to the museum, maybe just as a conversation piece. “Did I ever actually meet Muddy himself? Yes, back in ’79, when we had just wrapped up what became Degüello. Muddy travelled around with us for a short time. He had a full five-piece outfit. Willie Smith was on drums, I think Pinetop [Perkins] was on keyboards, all the great names were part of his line-up at that time. It was a pretty glorious time. I remember we were on an airplane together and somebody snapped a photograph. Sitting next to Muddy Waters. Can you imagine? I was in heaven. I treasure that image.”

Tip Top - The pick of ZZ Top’s back catalogue for blues fans.

*Tres Hombres *[London, 1973]

1983’s Eliminator would shift a squillion more units, but it didn’t have the earthy swagger of the Top’s breakthrough, which saw classic songs like La Grange, Master Of Sparks and Jesus Just Left Chicago revved up by the band’s airtight interplay and Gibbons’ jawbreaking guitar tone. “They were really burning on all cylinders by that point,” producer Terry Manning told The Blues. “Tres Hombres was almost like an incredible live performance.”

ZZ Top’s First Album [London, 1971]

After six months in the clubs, the Top were still rough diamonds in the studio, but this debut was full of nudge-wink Texan wit and rabble-rousing dirt-blues riffage. Brown Sugar, (Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree and Goin’ Down To Mexico were all belters, and hinted that better was to come. “We called the record ZZ Top’s First Album,” Gibbons told Music Radar, “because we wanted everyone to know there’d be more. We were sure hoping there would be a second album…”

Rio Grande Mud [London, 1972]

ZZ Top’s sparky debut had been compromised by limp sound. Recorded in Texas under producer Bill Ham, this follow-up corrected that in style, making its mark with chart-scraping single Francine and Gibbons’ sprawling epic, Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell. The highlight is* Just Got Paid*, with the frontman’s brittle, mouth-busting riff and a slide solo from his top drawer. Avoid 1987’s derided Six Pack CD remastering and hunt down the original vinyl.

Degüello [Warner Brothers, 1979]

ZZ Top opened their account on Warners with this career highlight, which strikes the balance of blues grit and modern production. Gibbons was on leery lyrical form with* A Fool For Your Stockings*, turned in a classic in Cheap Sunglasses and took a credible stab at Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s I Thank You. With the synth years looming, Degüello was where many of the band’s hardcore fans drew the line.