The Man Behind The Beard
Billy F Gibbons when he was just a tall, skinny, very polite young man making a lot of noise in the garage of his parents’ home in Tanglewood. His father, Fred Gibbons, was a musician who played the piano for many of the fashion shows in which I modeled; he also accompanied me when I sang on many occasions. I don’t think I ever went to rehearse in Fred’s home and didn’t hear Billy, amped up to the max, rehearsing with his band.
In 1969 Billy’s band, Moving Sidewalks, joined with a rival band, the American Blues, which included bassist and vocalist Dusty Hill of Dallas and drummer Frank Beard of Irving. They formed the blues-rock band, ZZ Top – aka That Little ol’ Band from Texas. With Billy as the front man, centerpiece guitarist and vocalist, the band has been a part of the American musical landscape ever since. The longest running major rock band still composed of its original members, they are known for their Texas-size energy, showmanship and unique image.
Billy is widely regarded as one of America’s finest guitarists working in the blues-rock arena. He is also an internationally recognized collector of cars, guitars and African art, as is chronicled in the best-selling book he wrote about his collecting obsessions, “Rock + Roll Gearhead,” which was published in 2005.
His astronomical guitar collection includes the “Muddywood,” constructed from fallen timbers from Muddy Waters’ childhood home; the famous “Furry One,” as seen in the “Legs” video; and his most cherished one, “Pearly Gates,” a Gibson Les Paul Sunburst, valued above all others.
Over the years, Billy’s cars have become stars in their own right. The Eliminator, CadZZilla, Kopperhed and others have been major attractions on the car show circuit and highlighted in numerous videos. They are considered art and icons of automotive history.
Theories have collected, as well, concerning the origin of the band’s name. One asserts that they put two brands of rolling paper, Zig Zag and Top together; another declares the name is a tribute to blues legend, Z. Z. Hill. The real story is told by Billy in his new book, “Rock + Roll Gearhead,” where he reveals that the name really came from “king of the blues” master B. B. King. They started to call themselves Z. Z. King, but it sounded too much like their hero; so they settled on ZZ Top.
The band’s first two albums, ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, were produced by the London Records label. National success and the first gold album came to the hometown boys in 1973 with the third album, Tres Hombres, featuring the now classic song, “La Grange,” about the famous bordello that inspired the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” This album also included “Beer Drinkers &Hell Raisers,” which became a favorite.
Fandango produced the huge hit “Tush;” Tejas featured “Arrested for Driving While Blind” and “El Diablo;” and The Best of ZZ Top quickly followed.
ZZ Top’s “Worldwide Texas Tour,” with sets that featured haystacks, live buffalo, a longhorn steer, rattlesnakes, buzzards and ranch equipment, lasted a year and a half, and reportedly, earnings were in the tens of millions. Exhausted, the band decided to take a sabbatical in 1977, which lasted for almost three years. When they reunited to record again, under the Warner Brothers banner, a cosmic revelation or cosmic comedy had occurred: Billy and Dusty, unbeknown to the other, had grown the chest-length beards that soon became part of their “wild man” image.
The members of ZZ Top are almost as well known for their appearance as for their music. Billy and Dusty are always pictured wearing sunglasses and their trademark beards. Ironically, Frank Beard is the only band member without a beard; logically, the group could be renamed, “The Beard Brothers.” All wear similar clothing. Billy has long since replaced his giant cowboy hat with an African Nudu tribal chief’s hat from Cameroon, a nod to his love of African art.
It was not until MTV started in the ’80s that ZZ Top decided to appear on television. Their first video, “Gimme All Your Lovin,” was soon followed by “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man” from the 1983 album Eliminator, which featured Billy’s bright red Ford ’33 hotrod. This multiplatinum album has become one of the group’s most successful. Becoming the “darlings” of MTV took the trio’s famous mystique and popularity to an all-time high.
Afterburner, the group’s eighth album, was a worldwide smash hit; Recycler came out on the Warner label before the group signed a five-disc deal with RCA. Deguello, ZZ Top’s first new album with Warner, featuring “I Thank You,” “Cheap Sunglasses” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” is believed by some fans to be the band’s strongest release. Six albums on RCA followed.
Throughout the years, Billy, Dusty and Frank have relished playing gigs in their hometown. ZZ Top was the second act to play at the Summit; they played there 23 times, more than any other act; and performed at the closing of the Summit, renamed the Compaq Center, renamed Lakewood Church. As Billy was quoted by Houston Chronicle columnist Bruce Westbrook, “ZZ Top walks out, Jesus walks in.” Continuing, Billy said, “We have to give our best for the home folks; the home shows are the fun shows … You get to show off in front of your buddies, new girlfriends, old girlfriends – girlfriends you wish you had.” As Houstonians, they felt honored to play at the Houston Livestock Show &Rodeo the last year in the Astrodome (2002) and again the first year at Reliant Stadium (2003).
ZZ Top, an acknowledged symbol of Texas, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 2004, by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, a longtime friend of Billy’s. It was the first Houston band to join the roster of rock legends.
Beyond his work with ZZ Top, which includes 14 albums, six compilations and myriad singles, Billy has recorded with many notable artists, such as B. B. King, Kid Rock, John Mayall, Les Paul, Nickelback, Queens of the Stone Age and others. He has acted on the television shows “Bones” and “Yes, Dear,” as well as appeared in a Quaker State motor oil commercial and innumerable television appearances.
Additionally, Billy was instrumental in raising funds for The Orange Show when it was in its beginning stages. And The Cancer League honored Billy in 2002 with its Texas Hall of Fame Award. It was a joy to catch up with Billy, who people say is still the sweetest, most modest superstar in the world.
H: What was it like growing up in Houston?
BFG: “Bright … with no traffic. The same great community then as it remains today.”
H: Tell me a little about your mom, dad and sister.
BFG: “That’s the family. My dear ol’ Dad surrounded us with his musical talents, Mom (Lorraine) listened; Pam and I listened and learned.”
H: When did you know that music would be your life?
BFG: “Early on, back as far as I recall … probably around age zero!”
H: Who did you listen to when growing up? I know that one of your housekeepers influenced your direction.
BFG: “Loads of influences! As the song says, ‘Country, Jesus, Hillbilly, Blues, that’s where I learned the licks.'”
H: How did you choose the guitar as opposed to piano, like your dad?
BFG: “Easier to carry! Get up and go!”
H: You’re an icon. It’s so often said that you’re the finest guitarist in the world. How did you learn to play?
BFG: “That’s quite a send up! Rock ‘n’ roll on records and on the radio was the start and still remains a beam of attraction. Good stuff!”
H: ZZ Top has sold 60 million records. Can you think back to the time when you had your first big success? Remember how you felt?
BFG: “ZZ Top’s third release landed our first ‘Top 10,’ ‘La Grange’ – then the touring travels began taking the famous Houston and Texas feeling around the world.”
H: What comes to mind immediately as one of your most memorable moments in a performance?
BFG: “Perhaps one of the first performances where the curtain opened, and we were greeted by the one paying customer of the evening. We looked at each other, then launched into the show. Played the first set, took a break, went out and bought the guy a Coke and went back and completed the night. We’re still friends with the guy!”
H: Describe your band members, Dusty and Frank.
BFG: “My stalwart pals; Fine entertainers and superb instrumentalists each. We still like what takes place on the bandstand ’cause we’re never certain who’s gonna do what. Challenging, yet cool.”
H: Describe Billy for me.
BFG: “Just that eccentric guy tryin’ to be a good ‘un!”
H: It’s such a tribute to all of you that you’ve stayed together all these years. What’s the secret to the success?
BFG: “We still enjoy playing and creating above anything. It’s a passion which maintains our focus and enjoyment.”
H: When did you fall in love with cars?
BFG: “Well, I’ve been told the first words out of my mouth were ‘Ford, Chevrolet and Cadillac’ … that says it all.”
H: What was your first car? How many cars do you have? Do you have a favorite? What do you drive now?
BFG: “The first car was a Saturday Westheimer Special, a 1953 Packard Golden Clipper, complete with sawdust in the transmission to keep it in gear … picked it up from a notoriously gifted TV pitch-man for $50 and took off straight for the Mexican border. That’s the start of it all … now too many to count. We do have some favorites, the little rod ’33 Ford, seen in the videos, ‘the Eliminator Coupe,’ and, of course, ‘CadZZilla,’ the radically customized ’48 purple Cadillac. And after all that, our daily driver is provided by Houston’s Yellow Cab!”
H: Why did you decide to write a book? How long did you work on it? Did you enjoy the book tour?
BFG: “The collection of cars and guitars came to the attention of some young associates from Motorbooks International who suggested following the idea of creating a coffee-table photo presentation and essay. The work commenced and a quick few months later, the project hit the streets. A robust book-signing tour ensued and along the way, I rekindled a long standing friendship with another Houstonian, the lovely Adrien Seixas, now residing down the street in Los Angeles! She appears in the book and recognized an early photo of herself when she danced as a go-go girl, way back when!”
H: Do you have any other hobbies in addition to cars and guitars?
BFG: “Oh yes! African art holds intrigue in a most peculiar manner … the somewhat exotic expressions of functionality … in the western eye, considered art, represent feelings of the way, way back. Quite grounded and solid.”
H: How about exercise? Favorite foods? Do you ever cook?
BFG: “Exercise? Try walking through an airport looking for the gate! Favorite foods? Mexican as found in Texas or anywhere else. Cook? What’s that!?”
H: You’ve accomplished so much. Do you ever make goals? Is there anything you want to do that you haven’t realized?
BFG: “Oh, yeah. I just want to aim at what remains to be discovered. Keep writing songs.”
H: Do you ever get nervous performing anymore?
BFG: “No, unless Mom is in the audience!”
H: Any favorite singers?
BFG: “Jeff Beck. Jeff is as good a guitarist as it gets and yet he, at one time, chose to assign the singing chores to someone else. However, I invited him to appear on ZZ Top’s XXX release as a singer. It was an unexpected invitation and to capture the moment, we revisited the Robert Johnson blues recordings method of setting up the recording session in Dallas in a hotel room. One take and he nailed it! ‘Hey Mr. Millionaire’ became another stunning example of Jeff’s genius and delivery. Mercy!”
H: How many songs have you written, if you know?
BFG: “A bunch … and still willin’ to hammer on!”
H: There’s so much humor in your choices of songs. Are all of you that funny? Or, who’s the funny one?
BFG: “Well, I suppose if one were to encounter us off stage, we would all be thought quite funny.”
H: Can you narrow down your favorite song or songs?
BFG: “I like most all of ’em. Especially the one being played at the moment.”
H: In concert, is there one song you MUST do for fans … such as “La Grange”?
BFG: “La Grange,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Bang Bang Shang-A-Lang,” “Legs,” “Tush.”
H: How long have you had the beard? Did Gillette really offer you $1 million to shave it?
BFG: “The beards are now part of the trademark. We have turned down all bets to shave ’em as we don’t really know what’s under there! The answer that seems to fit is: we’re too ugly. Ha!”
H: I love the sunglasses. Do you wear them all the time now?
BFG: “Oh, yes. Part of the image.”
H: I hear you’re working on your 15th album? Tell me about it. When it’s coming, etcetera? When do you go out on tour again?
BFG: “New recordings [are] in the works. Seems that remains an ongoing prospect, followed with touring and, of course, Houston square in the middle. Gotta love the H-town.”
H: Talk to me about what Texas means to you.
BFG: “Big, and BIGGER. This is home.”
H: When you look back on your career, can you believe what you’ve accomplished? What has all this success meant to you?
BFG: “The accomplishments are a reward. Family and friends make ’em worthwhile.”
H: What do you tell young performers that want to follow in your footsteps?
BFG: “Keep at it. Learn to play what you want to hear.”
H: Do you have any favorite sayings that live with you, keep you positive and energized?
BFG: “The great blues singer, Muddy Waters, said it best. ‘You don’t have to be the best one, just be a good ‘un!’ That pretty well says it all.”
Billy F Gibbons has been described in many ways: “the guru of the guitar,” “the musician’s musician,” “an iconic guitarist,” “the legendary master of the six-string,” “music’s most highly regarded Renaissance man” – even as “The Reverend Willy G.,” making that title official when he was ordained in 2002, so that he could perform a wedding ceremony. Boogie on, Billy; you have made your hometown very proud!