Who are those tough-looking cowboys? The title says this is about ZZ Top, but that can’t be them. Those beards barely cover much more than their chin. Also, where are their coats and sunglasses?
But of course it is them. Those beards had to start somewhere, and before the age of MTV they were just good ole’ Texas boys playing blues-rock. I do wonder if that hair that is on their chins there in that picture is the exact same hair at the end of their stomach-length beards now 40 years later.
Billy Gibbons was born in Houston, Texas in 1949.
The son of an orchestra conductor and concert pianist, he began playing electric guitar at 13. As he was growing up, he was inspired to play by the music he heard on the “outlaw” Mexican border radio stations which played all types of rock n’ roll and blues not heard on regular American top 40 stations. At the age of 18, he formed his first rock band. Named The Moving Sidewalks, they played psychedelic rock and in 1969 released an album, Flash.
During this time, Gibbons became friends with Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix brought them in to be his opening act during The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s American Tour. While the story that Jimi once said that Christian guitarist Phil Keaggy is the greatest guitar player of all time on The Tonight Show is apocryphal, Jimi did once state on The Dick Cavett Show that the next up and coming great guitarist is Billy Gibbons.
Not long after the end of their tour with Hendrix, two members of The Moving Sidewalks were drafted into the army. Gibbons and drummer Dan Mitchell were the only two members left. Instead of continuing on with The Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons and Mitchell added an organist, Lanier Greig, to form a new band that Gibbons named ZZ Top.
Gibbons has given multiple origins for the name. At one time, he said it came from the name of two types of rolling papers “Zig-Zags” and “Top.” In his autobiography, he says he had a poster of Texas bluesman Z.Z. Hill on his wall and liked the Z.Z. part and wanted to name the band ZZ King to also pay tribute to B.B. King, but thought it sounded too much like B.B. King and would confuse people, so he changed the last part to “Top.” A third origin story was that he read it on a dilapidated billboard on the side of a barn where only the letters “ZZ” and “Top” were legible anymore. I guess the answer is, no one really knows which of these is the truth except Billy Gibbons.
The trio recorded one single “Salt Lick,” on the (unfortunately named) Scat label. However, they weren’t really getting the sound that Gibbons wanted, as the organ was still giving them a more psychedelic sound than the blues sound that he desired. So he replaced both Mitchell and Greig with bassist Billy Etheridge and drummer Frank Beard.
Beard was born in Frankston, Texas in 1949.
He had played in many bands throughout Texas, mostly in the Dallas area, but at that time he was playing with the band American Blues.
Gibbons was hoping to get the band a recording contract. Etheridge enjoyed playing with the band, but also liked working on side projects with other Texas bluesmen and was not interested in signing a long term contract with one band and amicably, he left.
On the verge of signing a recording deal, the band was in need of a new bassist. Beard recommended a former bandmate of his in American Blues, Dusty Hill.
Hill was born in Dallas in 1949.
He and Beard had known each other for some time even before they were bandmates as they had both been playing in various bands in the Dallas-Fort Worth area throughout their teen years.
The band signed with London Records in 1970 through the help of their manager Bill Ham, who became, in a way, almost a fourth member of the group. He was the one that put together their image and co-wrote many of their songs as well as producing many of their albums.
Here’s an odd personal anecdote, one of my college accounting professors grew up in the same town as Bill Ham and talked about him quite often. Mostly about how when Ham was young he was a complete screwup and nobody thought he’d amount to anything, but he was always a fast-talker, like a used car salesman, and could talk his way into anything including talking his way into becoming ZZ Top’s (or as my professor, who was in his seventies at the time, called them: “The ZZZ Tops”) manager backstage one night when he had merely originally gone back there only to complement their playing as a fan.
Ham talked the label into signing them by telling London’s people that the band would be “the next Rolling Stones” knowing that The Rolling Stones had just left London to form their own label. London agreed to sign the band with limitations as they would only pay for mastering and distributing their albums, but the band would have to pay for everything else, supposedly only giving the band $1,000 to make their first album.
The band worked all through 1970 completing their first album, recording it in the very small Robin Hood Studio in Tyler, Texas. The album was released in January of 1971. Aptly titled ZZ Top’s First Album.
ZZ Top’s First Album is a good debut. It starts out rocking hard with songs like “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree,” “Squank,” and “Goin’ Down to Mexico.” The second side is good, not great, as it is more traditional blues rather than rock. Still, it is an album worth checking out, though the original LP is somewhat hard to come by and has not been reissued. Also the CD version released in 1987 is oddly remixed for the worse.
The album got pretty good reviews from the music press, with most of them impressed with the band’s mix of Rock, Blues, and Boogie to go with touches of humor in their lyrics. One criticism some critics had was of Bill Ham’s production, as people thought it sounded too muddy. The album was not a huge seller and it failed to break into the Billboard charts.
They began work on their sophomore album a few months later. Returning to Robin Hood Studios, they wanted to keep what they did on their debut album, but now with more confidence, they felt freer to experiment and jam on some of the tracks. The band released the album Rio Grande Mud in April, 1972.
The album cracked the Billboard Top 200 Albums. The opening track “Francine” became their first single to chart, reaching #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. The second track “Just Got Paid” has remained one of the longtime songs on their concert setlist, and it rocks. “B-B-Q” on side two is pretty awesome as is the slow ballad “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell.” Rio Grande Mud is very good, a definite step up, in my opinion, from their debut. Also, avoid the CD of this album, too. Apparently, the label wanted to remix these early albums to sound more like “Sharp Dressed Man” era ZZ Top.
While the band was having success locally in Texas and also in New Orleans, they still were not having much success nationally.
They decided to move to Memphis, Tennessee to record their next album. The band wanted to get away from Texas for recording since it had yet to bring them much luck. They felt that the vibe in Memphis was almost mystical as far as music goes. They have talked in interviews about how crossing the bridge into Memphis somehow heightens your music sensibility which allows you to get the most out of your musical talent.
The band went to Ardent Studios in Memphis and enlisted famed Stax engineer Terry Manning to work on the album. (That’s his second appearance on this list as he also engineered Boz Scaggs.) Bill Ham would once again serve as producer. A few tracks were recorded in Texas at Brian Studio, though I’m not sure which tracks were recorded where.
The Album Cover:
The title Tres Hombres, much like their preceding album refers to their Tex-Mex background with the title being in Spanish. The “three men” that the title refers to obviously being Billy, Dusty, and Frank. The title has the pseudo-Aztec styled zig zag pattern on the lettering. The cover was designed by Texas counter culture artist Bill Narum, who designed all of ZZ Top’s posters, logos, and covers for the next few decades.
The trio is shown in three separate pictures each in sort of Texas-styled scenes. Billy is shown from behind dressed like a rancher and obscured by light. If you look close, there is a little kid in the background. Dusty is climbing a telephone pole with the ruins of what appears to be an old mission in the background. Frank is sitting on an archway that looks like part of those same ruins.
The most famous part of the Tres Hombres album cover is the gatefold picture.
The food came from ZZ Top’s favorite Houston area restaurant: Leo’s Mexican Restaurant. The Tex-Mex food was real food and the band has said they polished it all off as soon as they finished having the pictures taken. They made sure to include a bottle of Southern Select Beer, which was a Houston brewed beer, though it had not existed for about 15 years at that point, so the beer in the glass must’ve been some other brand. According to Billy Gibbons, the radio in the background is tuned to station XERF, a Mexican border radio station. The picture of the woman had some connection to Pancho Villa. They included it in there since Leo, the owner of the restaurant, had ridden with Villa or at least claimed to have.
The back cover is kind of styled like a menu with a drawing of a soup bowl and the little advertising banner in the corner saying “In The Fine Texas Tradition.” The font appears to be handwritten on the tracklist and credits. It is kind of interesting that Frank Beard is credited by his nickname “Rube” on the back.
The innersleeve has a collage of candid pictures of the band and other people around town with the state of texas and the band’s name stenciled over the pictures.
I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of Tres Hombres released on London Records in 1973.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)
The album opens with a medley of sorts. “Waitin’ For A Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” which are two of ZZ Top’s more famous early songs. “Bus” is a hard driving piece of blues-rock with a great harmonica break. The second track “Jesus” flows right out of the first track making them into an odd suite of sorts. For 40 years those two songs have always been linked as one opening track, but they were written and recorded to be separate and aren’t in the same meter or anything. It just happened as the album was being mastered the spacer tape was accidentally left out between the two songs and the band liked the immediate transition so much that they still play those 2 songs that way to this day. The awesome opening tracks streak continues!
“Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” is the only song that has Dusty Hill on vocals and even here he shares the vocals with Billy, alternating lines with each other. Another great hard rocking blues song with a great guitar solo from Gibbons.
“Master of Sparks” is an odd subject for a song. Written by Billy about this odd bit a misadventure that teenagers in the Houston area did when he was growing up. They would make a ball out of cage wire, weld an airplane seat to it, then attach it via hook to the back of a pickup truck. The bravest (or dumbest) teens would strap themselves into the metal ball and be dragged down the road going 60 MPH which would cause sparks to go all over the place and nearly catch them on fire not to mention nearly sending them flying to their death. Billy calls it “Redneck Road Surfing.” The song kinda reminds me, oddly, musically of something Alice Cooper would do in the early days, with a touch of Tex-Mex of course. It’s kind of hard to make out the lyrics, but still a pretty good song.
Side one closes out on “Hot, Blue, and Righteous.” It is a slower, more ballad type song, and it is quite lovely and cool. One of the album’s best tracks.
I liked every song on side one. Let’s see about side two.
Side two opens with “Move Me On Down The Line” might be what Bill Ham was promising when he said that ZZ Top would be the “next Rolling Stones” to London Records. This sounds so much like Exile On Main Street Stones.
It is another great hard rocker. I admit, I like this version of The ZZZ Tops much more than the MTV-era group.
“Precious And Grace” is a true story of how Dusty and Billy picked up two hitchhiking girls by the title names. They propositioned the guys and took them to a secluded area where a compatriot of theirs came to the window of the car with a shotgun causing Billy and Dusty to speed off pushing Prescious and Grace out of a moving car. Not bad, but the song is not as exciting as the story.
“La Grange” is far and away the most famous song on the album, and one of the most popular rock songs of all time. It instantly became an FM radio staple, and missed the top 40 by one spot. It has been used so many times in movies and commercials that it is hard to remember that this was how much of the USA was first introduced to ZZ Top.
I think it is so well known that not many people think about how unusual Billy’s voice is on this song, have you heard any other ZZ Top song where he sings like this? Still, after hearing it probably over 500 times in my life it still rocks hard, just awesome guitar work here. Not to bring this song down at all, but I will say that the guitar riff isn’t original, as it is taken from “Shake Your Hips” which The Rolling Stones had recorded just a few months prior on Exile On Main Street and that song was based on blues riffs by John Lee Hooker and was a song originally recorded by bluesman Slim Harpo.
The story being told with “La Grange” is about the (in)famous Chicken Ranch bordello in Texas that was considered a very high class brothel. Coincidentally, a Houston news reporter had been doing an investigative report on the Chicken Ranch way before the release of the song, and with the help of the District Attorney’s office, they got the place shut down. Because the timing of the closing was so close to the release of the song, many local people blamed ZZ Top for the closing due to shedding national light on this place which had operated in plain sight for 140 years and was tolerated by the people of Texas. In truth, the song had nothing to do with it’s closing and the band members were upset to hear about it. The story of the Chicken Ranch and it’s closing was the basis for the Broadway and movie musical “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas.”
“Shiek” is another good song. The lyrics are pretty funny, at the beginning he is stuck in Africa and just wants to eat a burrito. It’s really solid musically with very clear sounding production. I do like the last little bit of the song with wind chimes and a slow guitar strum, that is something different on this album.
“Have You Heard?” is a very bluesy track with some hard rock thrown in. Not a bad track, though it might be the weakest song on the album, and yet it was what they chose to close it out, which may not have been the best idea.
Altogether the band put together a really great album that definitely sounds more lush than their previous two albums. There is not anything to skip on the whole album. I feel like the recording in Memphis gave them a richer sound and no doubt having a master engineer in Terry Manning there to mix the album really helped.
The album was huge for ZZ Top. It made the top 10 on Billboard’s album charts and went Gold. No doubt fueled by the popularity of the hit “La Grange.” The album made the band into one of the most popular touring acts in the country and gained many fans that just liked hard rock or blues or southern rock as they crossed many genres.
The band’s follow up to Tres Hombres was comprised of half live, half studio recordings titled Fandango!
Fandango! included the hit “Tush” which became their first pop hit reaching the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
They released their fifth album Tejas in 1975
Once they finished touring in support of Tejas they decided to go their separate ways as the band had been touring for seven years together and were burned out.
They were just originally going to go on hiatus for 3 months and then return to the studio, but instead they took 3 years off.
In 1979, when Bill Ham brought the band back together for discussions about recording a new album, both Billy and Dusty had grown their beards past their chest.
The band then returned the studio to record what would be titled Deguello.
With the band’s new image, Bill Ham suggested that they take their music in a slightly different direction to progress with the times.
Their 1981 release, El Loco was the first time the band used synthesizers and the first time they recorded tracks isolated rather than playing together live in the studio. This marked the beginning of their direction which would bring them the biggest success of their careers, but also alienate many of their fans they just wanted to hear the early blues-rock of the Tres Hombres era.
The rest of ZZ Top’s story will be continued in entry #392.
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS: “A decade before the Texas blues trio became MTV stars, ZZ Top got their first taste of national fame with this disc, which features one of their biggest hits, the John Lee Hooker-style boogie “La Grange,” as well as the boozy rocker “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and the concert anthem “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.””
After listening to ZZ Top’s first three albums over the last two days I really enjoy that early era blues-rock boogie that they do. Tres Hombres is definitely the peak of their style. Really there is not one bad song on this entire album and the whole thing, frankly, just rocks. However, I can’t quite give it a perfect rating since there are a couple of tracks which I feel are good but not great. If I graded by tenths of points I might give this album a 4.9, but I grade in quarters and I have to stick with that.
4.75 Stars out of 5, highly recommended.
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
4. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres
5. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
6. Outkast- Aquemini
7. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
8. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
9. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
10. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
11. Eurythmics- Touch