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ZZ Top drives 'Eliminator' home Part 1

ZZ Top had a fantastic dozen-year run, helping to define the music of the '70s, and with any other band, the story would have ended there. How Eliminator gave the little ol' band from Texas a modern makeover.

You could hear it in the first second of the first song on the first record. It was tight but with an ever-so-slight guitar drawl, and just one second later, a wailing steel guitar dropped in on top of the powerful rock and roll below.

A real drawl — that is, a singing human one — came in nine seconds later into “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree.” It was 1971, it was the hardest of rock, and it was unmistakably Texan, even though nobody had ever heard such a sound.

“Well, I’m tryin’, yes I’m tryin’ just to get a line on you

Where you been?

Where you been?

But I’m havin’ trouble puttin’ a find on you

I’m wearin’ thin.

I’m wearin’ thin

Somebody else been shakin’ your tree

Supposed to be savin’ all that stuff for me”

Texas had, of course, already been responsible for some of the very best rock and roll, but this had little in common (on the surface, anyway) with Buddy Holly And The Crickets. And while it had plenty in common with the Texas Wall of Sound that came from psychedelic pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators, this was blues-based rock and roll — really hard blues-based rock and roll.

The blues had plenty of roots in Texas, too, and it was the blues that drew a guitar player from Houston and a rhythm section from Dallas together.

The guitar player, Billy Gibbons, had fronted a band called The Moving Sidewalks, whose rocking nugget, “99th Floor,” was an underground hit. Drummer Frank Beard and bass player Dusty Hill had been playing in bands together since they were kids, and they found musical synchronicity when they connected with Gibbons in 1969. All three players were just 20 years old.

With a tip of the hat to bluesmen ZZ Hill and BB King, the power trio considered calling itself ZZ King, but that homage was a little too obvious. ZZ Top they would be, and the top was where they were headed, in a very short time.

Their hard-driving blues boogie powered through night after night in clubs across Texas, on their first album (ZZ Top’s First Album) and Rio Grande Mud, their second album. It was the third release, Tres Hombres, that made a blast from Texas to both coasts and back.

In a dirty little ditty about the same brothel that inspired the Broadway play “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” the group got widespread airplay, even though the song didn’t even crack the Top 40. That was okay, as it was the advent of FM radio, and that’s where the hard-edged four minutes of unforgettable guitar hook and vocal growl called “La Grange” took flight.

Those four minutes were enough to propel the band to headline a footballstadium gig just a few short years after playing the National Guard Armory in Alvin, Texas, to a paying audience of one. It was 1974 and 80,000 sweat-soaked fans gathered at the University of Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin for a show that included friends and contemporaries like Santana, Joe Cocker and, in their American debut, Bad Company.

The event was humbly titled “ZZ Top’s First Annual Texas Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barn Dance and Barbecue.” It was also the last annual, and the university never quite got over it since they had to replace the football field’s brand-new Astroturf after ZZ Top fans carved it up in the shape of the State of Texas (from the 50 yard line to the 40; legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal was not amused).

Shortly thereafter, the fourth album, Fandango, would include another sexually charged, tough little tune called