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THE DAY ZZ TOP DIED?

RIP DUSTY HILL

5/19/49 - 7/27/21


by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN

@LonnPhillips


After the tragic death of bassist Dusty Hill on 7/28/2021, one of the most under-appreciated, spoofed, lampoon'd, and disregarded forces in rock and roll history saw their original lineup finally flame out after 50+ years.

For all intents and purposes, the real ZZ Top will never take the stage again.....despite how quickly Billy Gibbons & Frank Beard returned to playing live music, still using the name ZZ Top, it won't really be the Top....right???

ZZ Top was built on the shared alchemy between these three blood brothers: together, they were a Texas-fried bluesy synthesis of Hendrix, Holly and Cash thrown into a gutbucket of doom grooves.....creating both Queens Of The Stone Age and Pantera over night.

ZZ Top was all Dusty, Billy and Frank ever understood....

Grown out of the desert dirt and saguaro, ZZ Top are as much a part of Texas' geography as the Rio Grande...and though I should change it to "were" instead of "are", I don't feel their influence has been left in the past whatsoever.


In fact, following a critically acclaimed Netflix documentary, a few unearthed YouTube nuggets of World Wide Texas Tour footage, as well as Billy Gibbons' constant guest appearances on other artists' records, the appreciation and admiration for That Lil' Ol' Band from Texas began to build.

More & more, young axe slingers were referencing Gibbons over Jimmy Page....especially when talking about intensifying the live performance;

The Top's time as kitschy MTV frame-ups was left in the dust, & once and for all, their unparalleled run from 1970-1983 began receiving its justified dues.

More & more, young online seekers started figuring out there was much more to ZZ Top than three old bastards wearing beards & belting out sex-crazed songs riddled with more double entendre than an episode of Two and a Half Men.....there was much more to their musical synthesis than "Gimme All Your Lovin", "Legs", "Sharp Dressed Man" or "La Grange"....

Behind the "cheap sunglasses" and 13th floor beards, there stood the greatest power trio in rock and roll history.......yes, that's right....I said it:

Tighter and more natural than Cream, funkier and more adventurous than Nirvana, and although Rush were definitely better musicians, ZZ Top were a greater band with fresher songwriting alongside underrated dual vocal power;


Compared to ZZ Top, the Police were a propped up corpse; perhaps only The Jimi Hendrix Experience can lay claim to being the #1 all time power trio above the Top, but for me, there isn't a single three man unit that gave better musical orgasms than Dusty, Billy and Frank.

Losing Dusty Hill this week is a blow the trio can't recover from, and after 52 years touring, recording and being ZZ Top, it's a messed up way for the band to hit a wall....although it made perfect sense:

Finally, after 2,976 shows since 1969, bassist Dusty Hill had to be replaced for the final three gigs of the Top's recent tour; he'd recently endured through horrific hip pain and hadn't recovered fully before the tour went ahead, here's footage of Dusty leaning up / nearly sitting on an amp for 60 of the 90 minutes on 7/18 at the Iroquis Ampitheatre in Louisville.

For a band who relentlessly toured whether they were injured, sick, drunk, strung out, hurtin', heartbroken or aching, it was a fitting and almost inescapable end:

A real musician's death.

During 29 of their 52 years in operation, ZZ Top played at least 50 shows; across 11 additional years, the Top played over 90 shows each calendar year.....hell, the 1986 Afterburner tour saw the band play 172 shows in a single calendar year!


Only the years 1978, 1989, 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2006 saw the band off the road completely, yet as the aging three felt "father time" gathering steam over the past decade plus, they made sure to get as much juice out of the cactus as possible. Playing 442 shows since January 2016, the Lil' Ol' Band outpaced many of their surviving peers from the 70s (The Stones, The Who, & AC/DC among others).

After playing only a single show throughout 2020 for obvious reasons, the trio were looking forward to getting back on the road...and I was looking forward to catching them for a few gigs in Nevada this fall....but it was not to be.

Dusty Hill suddenly passed away "peacefully in his sleep" according to a press release from the band......and once he was gone, it was abundantly clear: this was the end for ZZ Top, really....they can still tour, they can still record even...but the rest will most likely be an epilogue. Through Elwood Francis, perhaps they're not losing the power to continue touring as a musical entity, but due to Dusty's passing, they've lost their core spirit & brotherhood.

He was usually the driving force behind the Texas Trio's most iconic sounds, songs, shows and moves, both Dusty & Billy forming a two-man partnership as the main eye candy throughout their 50+ touring years:

During their heyday, it was often Dusty Hill leading Billy through a series of wild choreography, hilarious dances, telepathic moves with their guitars...all of it synchronized.....too bad their original manager Bill Ham recorded so very few shows and filmed even fewer, especially when it pertains to their mid 70s apex.

If Frank Beard is the spine as well as the clock of ZZ Top, with Billy forever cast as rock and roll's most underrated guitarist & greatest stand-up comedian, then Dusty was their soul.

For the most part, Billy Gibbons' guttural doctrine took the lead, but when the Top ever needed to head to the wild side, whenever they needed to go crazy....when they just had to go downtown: Dusty Hill's vocals stole the show.

It seems his biggest tracks came on 1975's magnum opus Fandango! & 1976's Tejas:


His lead vocals on "Tush" are still arresting; To this very day, I am yet to hear any singer wail as melodically as he does on this buoyant track; With one of the great classic rock riffs to kick start its engine, "Tush" remains one of Hill's crowning achievements, definitively his signature song.

"Balinese" was another treasured track featuring Dusty's top shelf wit & vocal narrative, the chill mirror to Billy's frantic delivery on "La Grange", another song about some other infamous Texan house of ill repute. Listen to the way he sings "I remember Ruby....she always dressed in red..." pure golden honey.

"Heard It On The X" is chaotic cow-punk, Dusty barking out hazy memories of the formative rock & roll radio station during his childhood; it was on a station not too dissimilar from Utah's own version of "the X" where I first heard ZZ Top (a station called 103.5 The Arrow).

It was "Tush" and "La Grange" played back to back on a wild summer weekend trip to Pineview dam, laying on the beach, grilling, the whole nine yards....but the highlight was the drive to and from Pineview where I first heard songs by ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who, and the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed.


So yeah....the first voice I associate with ZZ Top is Dusty Hill's....his was the first I heard.

Another lead vocal for Hill was "Ten Dollar Man", a fierce workout led by Dusty's brawling spitfire....you can feel the barbecue sauce coming off his vocals on the standout from 1976's overlooked Tejas.

His backing vocal contributions or duets were what took the cake though, offering ZZ Top something few true rock and roll bands could pull off: Beatles harmonies and vocal arrangements within high octane blues rock. Following and perfecting the vocal formula of Fandango!, a record like Tejas has many of these moments, perfected on the road during that year's legendary (and still largely unseen) World Wide Texas Tour:

Just listen to the way Dusty and Billy trade off lines on "Pan Am Highway Blues", "Avalon Highway" or "It's Only Love", Billy staying lower in the gutter while Dusty's angelic Beatle high end soars above. The studio records are amazing, but if you really want to hear ZZ Top at its apex, find the best sounding live bootlegs from the World Wide Texas Tour of 1976-1977 for the greatest version of the Top, leaning on songs from their greatest records Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango! and Tejas....all played hot, blue and righteous, rivaling their studio origins.

Thanks to Dusty's range, whenever the Top needed to cover anyone from Johnny Cash, Sam & Dave or even Elvis, Hill was the man:

Dusty always laid waste to the Sam & Dave cover "I Thank You", a routine show opener in 1977 and during ZZ Top's return to the stage in 1979-80; "Folsom Prison Blues" was a favorite in the mid 70s for Dusty to bust out, but perhaps the most celebrated cover for Hill is another track off Fandango!, another song about prison life....Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock".


The vocal telekinesis decorated the brilliant live workout "Backdoor Medley", a riotous 10 minute "Top Salvation" where Dusty's steady backing allowed Billy to really go nuts and get outta control, throwing in his "mellatamellatamellatamelladoyouwannablowyertop?!" The two riffed off each other, bouncing a vocal line to one side while the other finishes the sentence or answers the initial call....it became thrilling theater that made the band's sound bigger than the arena itself....

That "call and response" vocal trade-off can be heard at its most savagely intricate on the 1973 thunderdome track "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers"; Dusty & Billy's duet became the stuff of legend, creating Van Halen's trademark harmonies overnight in the process. Just check out the way he shatters windows with the war cry answer of "helllll-ellll raaaaaisssserrrrrs!" after Billy's "beer drinkers".

Then there's that dirty molten bass tone....thick, barreling, coursing through veins with a pulsating attack.....not quite fuzz box, not quite boost pedal, not really the sound of added distortion, just a Fender Precision Bass pumped through beastly amps and slapping you in the face.....this was the violent sound of Dusty's tumbling right fingers.


When those three jammed and grooved, specifically from 1973-1980, Dusty's "John Deere rubber band" bass freed up Billy Gibbons to shred bluesy bends all up and down the neck, exploring the outer limits of the guitar; sounding like a plundering rhythm guitar and bass combination shoved through a cement mixer, you heard every note as clear as day....but felt the most important ones.

Later, on 1983's Eliminator, Dusty's bass sounds like a melodic, synthesized jack hammer on "Sharp Dressed Man", "Got Me Under Pressure" and definitely on "Legs", playing right alongside the rhythm of the sequencers, drum machines & Frank's bristling beats. His job was impossibly tough on that record, fortifying an expansive modern sonic breadth which allowed Billy to color in the rest. You can hear the beginning of this experimentation on the bass solo breaks during "Cheap Sunglasses" (Dusty's using a Maestro ring modulator).

That buoyant sound will never return to a concert stage again....and the thought is depressing as hell.....although it appears ZZ Top have no intentions of closing down the shop whatsoever:

"As Dusty said upon his departure, 'Let the show go on!' And ... with respect, we'll do well to get beyond this and honor his wishes," Gibbons told SiriusXM radio host Eddie Trunk in a message confirmed by ZZ Top publicist Bob Merlis.

Since Dusty's passing, the band have actually already played 3 shows, Billy taking over the lead vocals on "Tush", Elwood Francis on bass and Dusty's hat hanging on his microphone stand....they have no intentions of stopping....in true ZZ Top fashion, they're going to play themselves through the pain.

It's what Dusty wanted....the man was a performer, an entertainer, a showman.....but most of all, he was a true friend. He also understood that great Vaudeville tradition of stagecraft; While his passing denies Billy & Frank one of the most trusted presences in music, Dusty was never going to leave without giving his blessing for the future...


While Billy, Frank and Elwood are desperate to forge ahead, I have no problem looking back & celebrating the rock and roll totem ZZ's first three constituted....one of the most original sounds in rock and roll, patented and sealed by the furious vocals and bass playing of Dusty Hill.

RIP Dusty Hill: ZZ Top may continue, but they'll never be the same.

Will I still see them in Nevada this fall, without Dusty Hill, without the original three, with all this change....despite the fact it'll never be the same without their legendary bassist???

Of course...

'Cause like Billy and Frank, what the hell else am I gonna do?


RIP DUSTY HILL

5/19/49 - 7/27/21


by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN

@LonnPhillips

Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc

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