There are few things so undeniably Texas than ZZ Top, the long-running blues-rock band featuring two men with extremely long beards (guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill) and the ironically-named, relatively clean-shaven drummer Frank Beard. But if one were to select a driving force behind the band’s success, it would have to be Gibbons, who was once suggested to be the next great guitar player, by no less than Jimi Hendrix himself.
William Frederick “Billy” Gibbons was born on December 16, 1949 in Houston, Texas, and grew up in a musical family – his father Frederick was a known concert pianist who worked for MGM Studios. Gibbons got his first electric guitar as a 13-year-old, and as an art school student in Hollywood, where his father was working, young Billy formed a series of short-lived garage bands. At 17, Gibbons was back in Texas, where he formed the seminal psychedelic band the Moving Sidewalks, playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals. Their single “99th Floor” is considered one of the all-time garage rock classics of the 1960s, though its local success in Houston did not translate to a spot on the Billboard charts.
The Moving Sidewalks were history by 1969, when two of their members were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. That led to the formation of ZZ Top, which started with the trio of Gibbons (again on vocals and lead guitar), Lanier Greig (keyboards) and Dan Mitchell (drums). Following several lineup changes, the classic three-piece lineup of Gibbons, Hill and Beard was cemented. Their debut album, simply called ZZ Top’s First Album, was released early in 1971, and generated a #50 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles, “(Somebody Else Been) Shakin’ Your Tree.”
The rest may very well be history, as ZZ Top would become one of the leading American bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, releasing albums such as Tres Hombres (1973, featuring the hit single “La Grange”) and Deguello (1979, featuring “Cheap Sunglasses”). Messrs. Gibbons, Hill and Beard weren’t shy about telling the world what part of America they came from, as ZZ Top’s ‘70s and ‘80s albums featured several odes to life in the Lone Star State. It was raw, down-and-dirty blues-rock, not rocket science, and the blue-collar nature of their songs made them among working-class America’s favorite acts. The 1983 album Eliminator produced “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Legs” and became ZZ Top’s biggest album to date. Though the use of synthesizers on Eliminator turned off some loyal fans of their back-to-basics sound, it was a move that was generally well-received, as it showed ZZ Top can keep up with the times without sacrificing their roots.
The changing of musical trends naturally led to a decrease in ZZ Top album sales, starting with 1990’s Recycler, but the band itself and their hirsute axeman have remained active up to this day. Gibbons has collaborated with artists as diverse as industrial rockers Revolting Cocks (featuring Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen), modern-day garage rock supergroup the Raconteurs and the always-innovative Queens of the Stone Age. His white 1959 Gibson Les Paul, “Miss Pearly Gates”, is one of rock music’s most famous signature guitars. And he’s even made recurring appearances on Fox TV show Bones and endorsed his own line of barbecue sauces under the BFG brand name. Underrated as he may be by many, Billy Gibbons is an institution in Texas blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and rightfully so.