By Jeb Wright
Goldmine dropped in on ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons while on the band’s last tour, the Grooves & Gravy Tour, with the opening act Blackberry Smoke. Here’s what the “Reverend” had to say in a quick Q&A:
GOLDMINE: A tour gives us time to reflect on ZZ Top’s amazing worldwide appeal. Why do so many people love your music?
Billy Gibbons: All our friends, fans and followers love it because we all connect to something that’s very elemental: the blues. It’s the fundament of the music and it gets into one’s life; it will make you feel good. I tell ya’, playing and singing the blues is a way to chase the bad times away and embrace the good. That’s why we love playing it … it just makes us feel really good. And again, friends, fans and followers of all shapes and sizes respond to it, and in turn, we all feel that much better. It’s a self-renewing ethos that stood in good stead for the past four decades, and we trust it will continue for another four and more.
GM: ZZ was able to switch gears. You were more blues rock and then you took a three-year break, switched labels and came back with a great trifecta of albums: “Degüello,” “El Loco” and “Eliminator.” Now you were a modern blues-based rock band. Did you make this happen or did it just grow into what it was?
BG: Well, this band, pretty much, simply continued to be ourselves. Of course, over time, technology evolves, so we embraced what worked and incorporated the “anything and everything” into our music. Think Muddy Waters. For years Muddy played acoustic and then, lo and behold, he discovered electricity and then incorporated that into what he was doing. He was the same brilliant artist, and then there were new tools and tricks to work with. If we didn’t continue to experiment and move forward, we would have just put our first album and called it a day.
GM: I have heard you’re a big fan of Peter Green. If so, why does his music speak to you?
BG: Yes, the first generation of Fleetwood Mac that Peter Green led was rooted in some deep blues, and his guitar playing was — and is —downright inspirational. He seemed to have some big mojo guiding his hand, and we picked up on it early on, as it spoke to us quite directly.
GM: Tell me about the song “99th Floor” and why it was such a hit in Houston but not the rest of the world. For history’s sake, explain the Moving Sidewalks to us.
BG: The Moving Sidewalks were our pre-ZZ band that was a four piece: bass, guitar, drums and keys. We had a psychedelic side that was inspired by what The 13th Floor Elevators were doing at the time. We knew no bounds in terms of style or direction and that was quite liberating. We got into the studio and recorded that track and it was a kick to hear it on the radio but, of course, not every song is destined to be a hit, though we thought it sounded like one. It was, in fact, a regional sensation, so we did get a psychic reward for having put it out, though fame and fortune somewhat eluded us. Perhaps if we had continued — Uncle Sam claimed some of our members — we could have developed into a national act, but we just segued into ZZ Top. And the rest, as they say, is the real bonus.
GM: Did that band open for Jimi Hendrix…?
BG: Yes, we did. It was a charging large experience, especially, getting to hang out with Jimi, who was the most soft-spoken gentle guy you’d ever want to meet. He was a real beacon to us, and even now that he’s long gone, he continues to inspire. That’s the guy who changed everything — for the better.
GM: MTV was huge for ZZ Top. When did the idea come to do a trilogy of videos with the car and the girls with “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man”?
BG: We met with Tim Newman, Randy’s cousin, who directed all three of those, and told him we didn’t really want to be the star of our own videos but, rather, on the fringes. We and Tim thought the car should be the featured player and, of course, you have to fill that car with something, and pretty girls were a natural choice. It worked out well for everybody. We took a role in those videos and were never nothing short of excited, for obvious reasons.
GM: You recorded a song with B.B. King. Seeing as we lost The King recently, I wanted to ask how that makes you feel today, since he is gone, and if you have a good story about him.
BG: B.B. King is, perhaps, the reason I picked up a guitar. My dad brought me to a Houston recording session of his when I was, maybe six or seven (years old). It was just enthralling and made a huge impression on me. I think the die was cast right then and there, so it was a huge honor to get to spend time with him during my adult life. One of the giants of music — of any genre — for the ages. He really was a King in every way.
GM: You’ve quietly done much collaboration over the years. Is there one project that you consider the most odd?
BG: There’s one that I did recently that isn’t odd, per se, but maybe a bit from left field. Of course, you know Shemekia Copeland, who has earned the right to be called The Queen of the Blues? I knew and admired her dad Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, who was a great Texas bluesman. When she got in touch with this idea of covering ZZ’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” we thought it would only be right to join in on that. She’s got an album including that one coming out on Alligator Records, so see what you think.
GM: ZZ Top is a band that has had the same three dudes for four decades. Was there any time the band came close to breaking up?
BG: No, not really. We took some time off but we never threw in the towel as a band. We’ve stayed together because we continue to have a good time doing what we do. If we ever split and I went looking for a bass man and a drummer, I’d just go and recruit Dusty and Frank, so why bother breaking up since a reunion would be inevitable. Just being realistic.
GM: You have a lot of classic Blues records. What are the gems of your collection and is there anything you’re missing that you want to get your hands on?
BG: Here’s one that you need to hear: J.B. Hutto’s “Combination Boogie.” Man, that’s sayin’ a taste! Would love to add a Robert Johnson 78 on Vocalion to the collection someday. I just can’t get enough Lightnin’ Hopkins, and his output was massive! Seems like he recorded an album a week for 30 years!
GM: What is your favorite rock ‘n’ roll memory? And, conversely, is what is your lowest moment as a musician?
BG: Favorite has got to be induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by none other than Keith Richards. I mean Keith is the man! Lowest had to be going into a club to play an early paying gig and finding the audience consisted of just one guy. We played our full set and bought him a Coke, too. GM