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Billy Gibbons and the rest of ZZ Top will celebrate 50 years of playing together next week. (PHOTO: ZZ Top)

Billy Gibbons talks 50 years of ZZ Top

Do you remember, back in nineteen sixty-six?
Country Jesus, hillbilly blues, that's where I learned my licks.
Oh, from coast to coast and line to line, in every county there,
I'm talkin' 'bout that outlaw X cuttin' through the air.

– "Heard it on the X" (Billy Gibbons, Joe Hill and Frank Beard)

Autobiographical? You better believe it.

In 1963, ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons received an electric guitar for his 13th birthday. At the time, most American pop radio stations were playing a tepid mix of songs by Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and a toned-down Elvis in the post-Army phase of his career. Nothing too daring, and certainly very few black artists.

Growing up in Houston, Texas, Gibbons had the advantage of being able to listen to the unregulated, or "outlaw," radio stations that operated just over the border in Mexico. These stations were free to play whatever they wanted, and their broadcasts were easily picked up on countless transistor radios all across the southwest. Recording artists from Texas like Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughn all benefited from the outlaws' eclectic playlists that streamed across Texas, sometimes with a signal that reached 50,000 watts.

By the time Gibbons was 16, he'd already played in a bands and was looking for the next step on the ladder. He formed a band called Moving Sidewalks and played every teen dance club, high school prom and church festival that would have him. In 1967, Gibbons' band was the opening act for Texas shows by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, and Eric Burdon and the Animals. The following year, Moving Sidewalks opened for Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Doors, Frank Zappa and The Jeff Beck Group.

After a 20-city tour of the southwest opening for Janis Joplin, Gibbons left Moving Sidewalks and formed ZZ Top with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard. The group opened for Grand Funk, Chuck Berry, the Grateful Dead, Leon Russell and pretty much any headliner band of the early 1970s.

ZZ Top gained a little traction with the release of two albums, but it wasn't until 1973 that the self-proclaimed "Li'l Ol' Band from Texas" moved closer to becoming headliners. To promote their new album, "Tres Hombres," the band hit the road on a nationwide tour opening for Deep Purple. But a single emerged from the album that put ZZ Top on top once and for all. The toe-tapping "La Grange" blasted from car radios everywhere that summer. Suddenly bands they opened shows for a year or two earlier were now opening for them. ZZ Top headlined concert bills with Blue Oyster Cult, Mott the Hoople, Peter Frampton, Bad Company and Golden Earring in the opening slot.

The band's Milwaukee stops included summer shows in 1974, '75, '76, '80 and '81, followed by autumn shows in '82, '83 and – after a break from the grind of nonstop tours – 1990, '93, '94 and '96. The most significant of those dates was the 1993 stop – June 12 to be exact. It was the band's 25th anniversary, and Harley-Davidson hired them to headline the company's 90th birthday party weekend at the Summerfest grounds.

And now, after many more concerts in Milwaukee, ZZ Top returns on Wednesday, Sept. 4 to perform in celebration of a half century of making music together. The Texas Bash 50th anniversary show will be held at the BMO Harris Pavilion beginning at 7:30 p.m. Prior to the Milwaukee show, singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons talked with OnMilwaukee about some of his favorite ZZ Top moments from the last 50 years.

OnMilwaukee: The Milwaukee Sentinel reviewer didn't think much of the 1976 show with J. Geils:

"Almost 13,000 young persons stomped their feet and clapped their hands for three hours Friday night at the ZZ Top concert at the Arena. Outfitted in cowboy hats that looked as if they would fade and fall apart long before the 10th gallon of trail water could be poured in, the trio did their best to give the youthful audience a good show. Most everyone at the concert got what he came for – even if what he came for didn't amount to much."

Were reviews like this one typical of what people said about the band as they ascended to the top?

Billy Gibbons: The band's incessant touring schedule spared scant little time to check reviews back then. We'd play a town, split right after the show. We were long gone by the time we might have seen the light of print. As the song says, "We've been up, we've been down," and yet, we still keep on keepin' on and that's really what counts.

What's harder, making it to the top or staying there?

That's kind of a loaded question since we started out as "The Top" and, over the course of the past five decades, are still just that. Seriously, we just did what we did because we liked doing it, and when we broke through, we just kept doing it. It wasn't hard; it was a good time.

This is your 50th year with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. By this time, most bands have collapsed from infighting or members leaving. How do three guys get along for a half century without killing each other?

Quite simply, we still believe in the famed two words: separate coaches! We get a kick out of playing as a band, and when we do get together, if our bus drivers don't get lost, it's kind of a mini reunion and a source of joy. Did I mention we like doing this?

Your first gig was in Beaumont, Texas, the home of Johnny and Edgar Winter. I can only assume the irony of that wasn't lost on you.

We dig Johnny and Edgar, no doubt. Beaumont was also the home of the legendary Boogie Kings, who were responsible for that Gulf Coast "party down" sound. And let's keep in mind the wonderful Miss Barbara Lynn, a left-handed guitar player like Jimi Hendrix, who also hails from Beaumont. She hit it big with "You'll Lose A Good Thing" and had the honor of being covered by the Rolling Stones on "Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin')." Miss Barbara still does it like she means it!

Early in your career, the band got to play on bills with Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Albert King. These iconic musicians must have been heroes of yours. Did they get that your band was carrying the torch to a new generation?

Most definitely. Those first generation blues cats – and both B.B. King and Freddie King can be added to the list – have always been most supportive. They instinctually knew where we were coming from and enjoyed the fact they had such impact. In deference to their huge contribution, we were honored to induct both Howlin' Wolf and the aforementioned Freddie King into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

What was it like opening for the Rolling Stones in 1973 in Hawaii?

Fantastic! It was three nights together very early in our career. We hit the stage in boots and cowboy hats, and the audience initially thought we were, well, a country band. About 10 seconds into our set, we knew we had to hit it and hit it hard. The Stones followed with a killer set, and all in all, our weekend shenanigans were memorably epic.

The odds are stacked against anyone making it big in the music business. What might you be doing for a living if ZZ Top hadn't taken off like it did?

Probably playing in a band with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard that you might not have heard of. This is what we do. A juke joint or a stadium are just places where can plug in, turn it up and get down.

When you're composing a song, do you start with an idea, or the melody, or the lyrics? What is your construction process like?

It's often a spark of cognition. You experience something and a phrase springs to mind and a nanosecond thereafter you think, "Maybe there's a something to that." That certainly was the case with "Legs" when we saw a young woman getting drenched on a street corner. We thought offering her a ride might be the gallant thing to do so we doubled back. She was invisible by the time we made that corner. Obviously she had legs and knew how to use them.

Other times it's a riff that sticks in your mind and then the lyrical narrative presents itself to put the elements together. Really, there's no set way songs come about. If you try too hard, it becomes "work." Who really wants to do that?

After you've recorded an album, how much time do you guys spend learning to play the songs live?

There's not a whole lot of difference between what we record and what we play live, but it's helpful to rehearse so everybody knows what's what. Before tour time, we usually seek out a vacant arena and woodshed for a few days. We enjoyed that exact approach in a dirt-floored rodeo arena in Alabama when we came up with "Tush" in about 10 minutes time. Hit it and quit it!

There's no reason to think you guys are going to retire anytime soon, right? ZZ Top could go on for another 10 or 15 years.



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