With their long beards and even longer career, ZZ Top is one of the most iconic bands in music history. Known for their bluesy hard rock sound, they gained mainstream success in the mid-1980s. In addition, their humor and effortlessly cool aesthetic earned them fans across genres and borders.
But the lineup that most folks associate with ZZ Top wasn’t the first version of the band. And the trio was hit with another unexpected lineup change in 2021.
Join us as we learn about the origins of this Texas band and what, if anything, they’re up to currently.
Let’s get rolling!
The Story of ZZ Top
Billy Gibbons, who would become the vocalist and guitarist for ZZ Top, was born into a musical family. When Gibbons showed an early interest in percussion, his father booked him lessons with the famous Tito Puente. But it was seeing one of B.B. King’s recording sessions that hooked the young boy.
At 13, Gibbons was learning to play the electric guitar. His first band, The Moving Sidewalks, opened for Jimi Hendrix during his first headlining American tour. When The Moving Sidewalks broke up, Gibbons decided to start another band. He came up with the name ZZ Top, a play on words combining B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill.
Gibbons initially formed the band with two roommates. But by 1970, he’d replaced them with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard.
Hill and Beard had been bandmates in a psychedelic blues group American Blues. Earlier in his career, Frank Beard played in a knock-off version of The Zombies and a band called The Outlaws. It was during his time with The Outlaws that Beard met Hill. Dusty played cello as a teen, but his interest was always in blues music. The two joined Gibbons in ZZ Top in late 1969.
The band played their first show in Beaumont, Texas, at a Knights of Columbus hall. In 1974 their third album hit number 8 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. Teetering between global success and personal issues, the group took a two-year break from 1977 to 1979. But in the mid-1980s, their albums Eliminator and Afterburner made them international stars.
Since then, ZZ Top has released six more albums, appeared in movies and TV shows, and won multiple Video Music Awards. Eliminator wasn’t just their best-selling album but one of the best-selling rock albums of all time.
ZZ Top’s Best-Known Songs
ZZ Top’s been making music for more than 50 years. In the process, they churned out dozens of classic songs. So even if you aren’t a ZZ Top fan, you’ve probably heard their music.
Let’s explore some of the band’s biggest hits.
La Grange is on the band’s 1973 album Tres Hombres. The guitar melody is taken from the song Boogie Chillen by blues legend John Lee Hooker. A producer who owned the rights sued for copyright infringement, but the tune’s public domain status won ZZ Top the suit.
La Grange is about a real place: a brothel in Texas called The Chicken Ranch. The establishment operated for 68 years until bad publicity from a vice reporter resulted in its closure. The song was the band’s biggest hit at the time of its release.
Sharp Dressed Man was one of the lead singles on Eliminator. It was one of ZZ Top’s first songs to use a synthesizer. The new instrument gave the group a fresh edge, which helped attract new listeners without driving away existing fans.
Gibbons was inspired to write the track while watching the credits for a movie. He saw a character listed as Sharp-Eyed Man and decided to put his own spin on the name. The song’s music video, which was a sequel to the video for Gimme All Your Lovin’, frequently played on MTV.
Gimme All Your Lovin’
This song was another lead single from Eliminator. The track was a smash hit in the U.S., reaching number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was also the first of their tunes with a music video, which helped cement the band’s aesthetic.
The video was the first to feature the titular Eliminator, Gibbons’s 1933 Ford hot rod. The guitarist sank about $250,000 into the vehicle between the purchase and restoration. In fact, because the car appeared in multiple videos, Gibbons was able to write it off as a work expense.
Is ZZ Top in the Hall of Fame?
ZZ Top remains one of the most successful rock bands of their time. Eliminator was their most successful album, but the group put out multiple platinum-selling recordings through the 1990s. In addition, their status as cultural icons led to portrayals in media from The New Yorker to The Simpsons.
And after 39 years, the trio was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. At the induction ceremony held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones introduced the band. Other inductees that year included Prince, George Harrison, and Bob Seger. To celebrate their rock god status, the band performed La Grange and Tush for the crowd.
Did ZZ Top Make a Documentary?
Fifty years after forming, ZZ Top received something they’ve long deserved: a documentary. ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas is a one-and-a-half-hour film directed by Sam Dunn. It premiered on Netflix in 2019 and still holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film follows the group’s history from its inception to today. Band members recall their zanier moments, including taking multiple wild animals on the bus for their 1976 Worldwide Texas Tour. Beard also candidly discusses his history of addiction.
Much of the documentary focuses on ZZ Top’s unique place in music history. Southern rock wasn’t always a popular genre, but ZZ Top sounded different even from those bands. That Little Ol’ Band from Texas highlights this talented trio’s true genius and foresight.
Is ZZ Top Still Around?
ZZ Top is one of the few internationally-known acts to retain the same lineup for over five decades. But sadly, during their 50th-anniversary tour in 2021, bassist Dusty Hill died in his sleep. However, the rest of the band knew Hill’s wish would be for ZZ Top to complete the tour. So, their guitar tech Elwood Francis came forward to fill his shoes.
The band released its most recent album, Raw, in July 2022. The recording is from the band’s live session while making their documentary. Director Sam Dunn requested a basic live performance to balance ZZ Top’s history with the present day. The trio didn’t know it, but the recording would become their last album together.
Francis filled Hill’s position like a true professional. Since the guitar tech worked with the band for nearly 30 years, he knew many of the songs by heart. Francis even grew a beard despite spending most of his life clean-shaven. The new lineup performed shows through the fall of 2022.
The musicians in ZZ Top are known for their humor, love of cars and beautiful ladies, and gritty, groovy sound. But through the years, they’ve also developed a reputation for tenacity. Only the most dedicated artists can retain a healthy working relationship for five decades.
ZZ Top might not have taken themselves too seriously, but they were always serious about the music. The fact that they’re still around after all these years is proof.
What’s your favorite ZZ Top song? Tell us all about it in the comments below.