ZZ Top defined the MTV era when MTV actually played music. With good timing and great guitar riffs, the trio capitalized on newly-discovered synthesizer sounds, sexy cars, sexier women and their own roadhouse look (cheap sunglasses, outlandish twirling guitars and two of the 20th century’s most famous beards) to pioneer merging music and video.
Billy Gibbons was born December 16, 1949, in Houston, Texas. He grew up listening to country music, but after catching Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show, knew that his future was in rock ‘n’ roll. Inspired by early rockers as well as psychedelic groups like Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators, Gibbons formed the Moving Sidewalks, which released one album, Flash, in 1968.
A year after Flash, Gibbons teamed up with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Lee Beard to play straight ahead boogie-blues. Gibbons first told Elmore the name referred to the King in playing cards, but then confessed that on alternate days he’d say the band’s name derived from rolling paper brand names. Regardless, the newly christened ZZ Top started strong, and broke through with their third album, Tres Hombres, which included “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and “La Grange,” which became bluesrock staples. Rolling Stone named Tres Hombres one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
They had another hit two years later, in 1975, with Fandango! and its classic song, “Tush.” In 1983, two years after the launch of MTV, Gibbons and company released Eliminator, which achieved Diamond Record status, with over 10 million albums sold. Eliminator marked the band’s first full use of synthesizers, crafting a sound that translated perfectly to television.
The new sound fit well with Gibbons and Hill’s chest-length beards (“Frankly, Beard is the only cleanshaven member,” Gibbons said.) and their willingness to play to the camera. Gibbons’ collection of classic guitars and classic cars (driven by women with legs so long they make the guys’ beards look short), transformed songs like, “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” into video classics.
In addition to pumping out driving, grungy guitar licks and collecting, Gibbons has contributed to albums by Jeff Healy, Gov’t Mule and John Mayall; appeared on the TV show Bones and become known around Hollywood for his guacamole. ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
In 2009, the band toured with Aerosmith until Steven Tyler’s shoulder injury forced the tour’s cancellation. In 2008 they started working on a new album with producer Rick Rubin, returning to their pre-Eliminator “La Grange” sound. Gibbons noted that the band wanted only one of two producers: “Rick,” he said, “or Rubin.”
Snowy White was born Terence Charles White on March 3, 1948 in Devon, England. Sixteen years later, Eric Clapton’s performance with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers inspired him to investigate urban blues performances by Americans like B.B. King, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. White decided to create his own brand of English blues guitar by combining clean blues phrasing with dirtier, hard-edged riffs.
In an odd fashion, the 17-year-old White moved to Sweden for a year: My mate was moving to Sweden and we carried his drum kit over to Sweden, without any cases. The two of us couldn’t both carry it in one go, so everywhere we went we carried a bit of it, and then the other person had to go back and get the rest. On the boat from the Isle of Wight, then the train up to London, then the underground across London, then the train to Tilbury docks, then the boat across the North Sea, then the train from Gothenburg to Stockholm and then the underground to the suburb where he wanted to be, with the drum kit. In Stockholm, where it was rush hour in the underground, we were packed in like sardines and we’d work our way across to the door with the kit. It was like “Excuse me!”
After Sweden, White moved to London with not much more than the guitar on his back and made a name among local musicians, who respected him as a tasteful musician and an easygoing guy.
In 1974 he toured the US East Coast and developed a love for the road while jamming with his friend, the English blues guitar player, and now legendary, Peter Green.
After honing his studio skills and writing his first material in the mid ’70s, White toured with Pink Floyd from 1976—1977 and then again in 1979, before he became a fulltime member of Thin Lizzy. With Thin Lizzy, White wrote songs on two albums including the title tracks “Chinatown” and “Renegade.” He left the group in 1982 to record his first solo album, White Flames, which boasted, “Bird of Paradise,” which hit Number Three on the UK charts.
White has since played “The Wall” with Roger Waters in an epic concert atop the Berlin Wall before 350,000 people in 1990 and for the last ten years has accompanied Waters on the road. He formed the Blues Agency in the mid ’80s, and continues to tour and record with his other bands, the White Flames and the Snowy White Blues Project, which in 2009 released their first album, In Our Time of Living. The ever-busy White continues to shape his brand of classic blues-based electric rock guitar with a contemporary vibe, but now all his drummers have cases.
Elmore: What are you listening to right now?
Billy Gibbons: “Sexy Chick,” by Guetta, a European DJ and Akon, a US-based rapper.
Snowy White: Santana, Caravanserai, which came out in about ’74 (1972), and is one of my favorite albums of all time. Call me oldfashioned, I actually listen mostly to the stuff I listened to 30 years ago, the old early Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, B.B. King Live at the Regal, Otis Rush and Albert King, all those albums. There are a lot of great guitarists around these days, but I just gravitate to the originals.
EM: What was the first record you ever bought?
BG: Get Rhythm, by Johnny Cash, when I was five.
SW:John Mayall with Eric Clapton and the Bluesbreakers (Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton), the one where he’s reading the Beano cover. I was 15 or 16.
EM: Where do you buy your music?
BG: iTunes and other downloads, or in stores, when I can find them. There was a great one in Seattle called Sonic Boom. And of course, Waterloo, in Austin. We’re stuck on the Chess label releases from ’49 to ’59. Mostly blues, and that would include the Jimmy Reed DJ years. My favorite in New York was Jammyland, a reggae specialist.
SW: I can’t remember the last time I bought an album, to be honest. My son is always buying stuff for me and I would probably ask him to get it for me.
EM: What was the first instrument you played?
BG: When I was 12, I started the attack on my parents to get an electric guitar instead of drums and sure enough, Christmas Day—I’d turned 13 on December 16th, and nine days later—lo and behold there was a guitar and a Fender amp.
SW:My parents tried to make me learn the piano, and I had the most boring piano teacher in the world, and it put me off, which is a shame, really. My father was a drummer and
had his own dance band.
EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?
BG: That goes back as far as probably when I was two or three. We had a housekeeper that kept the radio cranked loudly on the black blues station. And there was something in the sound of the guitar…that’s the same old story.
SW: My first stringed instrument was a ukulele my dad bought me. He said if I could play on that, he’d get me a proper guitar. It was the time of Elvis and Cliff Richard and Lonnie Donegan, and they were all playing guitars. In school there’s always one kid in the class who’s always the handsome, popular boy—it wasn’t me—but I saw him once, and he was strumming this guitar, and he was surrounded by girls. I thought, That’s for me, but the ukulele wasn’t quite the same. When I was 12 my parents bought me an acoustic. I struggled with that one and bought myself an electric. By that time I had heard Eric Clapton and heard him talking about people like B.B. King and people like that, and that whole world was exciting at the time, and it opened up to me.
EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?
BG: The Black Keys, the famous blues duet out of Ohio, a recommendation from none other than Rick Rubin.
SW: I don’t particularly want to write with anybody, to be honest. I’m quite happy to be pottering around and coming out with my ideas and taking my time to refine them and see if they work, and then throw them away. I bounce ideas off the musicians I’m working with at the time. I’d come up with a skeleton and we’d kick it around so it ended up a band song.
EM: What musician influenced you most?
BG: Jimmy Reed. Upon listen after listen after listen, one may come across the realization that, though the forms seem simplistic, Jimmy Reed recordings are very complex.
SW: I can think of three guitar players. Eric Clapton when he was young and hot, Peter Green when he was young and hot and Carlos Santana when he was young and hot. In their twenties they were steaming; fantastic. And B.B. King, maybe. He was fully middle-aged and hot, and cool.
EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
BG: My mom took my younger sister and I to see Elvis Presley live. Elvis, a good looking guy, could shake and bake. At six, I couldn’t exactly ID it; I just saw a bunch of commotion. It was raucous. It was exciting.
SW: With the Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton played quite a clean sound, really interesting for me. From that day on, I wanted to know what it felt like to play that, and be able to play it.
The guitar playing was an avenue of escape from the mundane existence that was beckoning to me where I used to live, on the Isle of Wight. Good when they have the festival, but a bit like Alcatraz the rest of the time, for a youngster. When I look back now, I realize the guitar gave me a strong path; it eclipsed everything else. I knew what I wanted to do. It didn’t really occur to me I could make a living out of it, but I didn’t want to do anything else.
EM: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?
BG: In addition to my two partners, Doyle Bramhall on drums, maybe singing a bit; he’s underrated, but he can sing Ray Charles like Ray. An organist would be Jimmy Smith or Jimmy McGriff, or John Patton. I would clump those guys. We’d need the Jimmys on guitar: that would be Jimmy Reed, Jimmie Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Dusty might want to take a smoking break, but I’d get Eddie Taylor, who played with Jimmy Reed’s trio—two guitars and drums. You listen to those records and you don’t realize that there is no bass; Eddie played the bottom-end sides, the bass lines. Me, Jagger and Keith Richards as singers, and—this will make a rather amusing addition—Jeff Beck as a singer.
SW: I would love to have been in a band with Peter Green, when he was in Fleetwood Mac, on guitar and vocals. John McVie on bass, I love his blues bass playing. On drums, I love Michael Shrieve, from Santana, but I don’t know how that would jell. John Rabbit Bundrick on keys. There are many guys I admire and love to listen to, but I’d rather be in the audience. I love Jeff Beck; I’d like to sit in the audience and watch him, but I wouldn’t want him in the band with me, because it wouldn’t fit.
EM: What’s your desert island CD?
BG: Exile on Main St.