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Billy Gibbons: My Life in 15 Songs

ZZ Top’s guitarist on how the Stones, Devo and a backwoods cathouse inspired some supercharged Texas-blues classics

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

Singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top can remember exactly when his life in music truly began: Christmas Day 1962. He was 13 and "the first guitar landed in my lap," Gibbons says, a fond smile breaking through his trademark beard. "It was a Gibson Melody Maker, single pickup. I took off to the bedroom and figured out the intro to 'What'd I Say,' by Ray Charles. Then I stumbled into a Jimmy Reed thing." He hums one of the legendary bluesman's signature licks. "He was the good-luck charm. I'd play Jimmy Reed going to sleep at night — and in the morning."

At 65, Gibbons — born in a Houston suburb, the son of a pianist-conductor — has played the blues for more than half a century, across 15 ZZ Top albums with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, including the 1983 10-million-selling smash Eliminator. That record, with its synthesized riffs and modernist grooves, reflected the long-standing adventure in Gibbons' devotion to the blues, from his teenage psychedelic band the Moving Sidewalks up to his new solo debut, Perfectamundo, a peppery Afro-Cuban twist on his roots. "We don't posture ourselves as anything other than interpreters," Gibbons says of ZZ Top. He also notes something the late producer Jim Dickinson told him after the band made Eliminator: "He said, 'You have taken blues to a very surreal plane. And it still holds the tradition.'"

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“Manic Mechanic” (1979)

As a kid, I'd stand on the front seat of my parents' car, watching cars coming in the opposite direction. And I could name 'em all. My dad bought a Dodge Dart — an entry-level, economy-priced car. It had no radio. The only amenity was a heater — talk about miserable, driving in that during those Texas summers. The sound you hear on the intro is that 1964 Dart.

I still have that car. It would not die. I do very little mechanic work, but I was at a speed shop in Pomona, California. The head honcho saw me with a wrench, going under a car, and said, "God, get out of there. That exhaust system is hot, and that beard is like a bale of hay." But I love those crazy automobiles.

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“Groovy Little Hippie Pad” (1981)

I saw Devo doing a soundcheck at a Houston club, a country & western bar, of all places. I had heard their first album and kind of dug it. One of the guys in the band was playing a Minimoog, and he did this figure on it [hums a bouncy robotlike riff]. He was just noodling around. But it was enough.

What came out of that was "Groovy Little Hippie Pad" — same figure. It was a direct derivative of punk. Devo was a big influence on that album — and the B-52s as well. They had that song "Party Out of Bounds." Our song "Party on the Patio" was an extension of that. [The critic] Lester Bangs played it for some punks in New York, and they dug it. It proved we weren't just a boogie band. We had this New Wave edge.

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“Gimme All Your Lovin” (1983)

We had dabbled with the synthesizer, and then all this gear was showing up from manufacturers. We threw caution to the winds. This was one of the first tracks that started unfolding.

That video was the big car connection. I started that project, building the Eliminator [ZZ Top's customized 1930s Ford Coupe], in 1976. We were shooting in California, but I still owed the builder $150,000. I went to the accountant: "It's on the album cover. Can I get a write-off?"

"Yeah, you're promoting your business."

I scared up the dough and paid it off.

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“Sharp Dressed Man” (1983)

I went to see a film. The credits were rolling, and one of the players was described as "Sharp Eyed Man." That started it. The track had this heavyweight bass line from a synthesizer. You know who was poppin' at this time? Depeche Mode. I went to see them one night, and it was a mind-bender. No guitars, no drums. It was all coming from the machines. But they had blues threads going through their stuff. I went backstage; I had to meet these guys. They were surprised — "What brings you here?" I said, "Man, the heaviness." We became friends. Martin Gore was a guitar player trapped behind the synthesizers. He was like, "Man, let's talk guitar."

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“My Head’s in Mississippi” (1990)

My buddy Walter Baldwin spoke in the most poetic way. Every sentence was a visual awakening. His dad was the editor of the Houston Post. We grew up in a neighborhood where the last thing you would say is, "These teenagers know what blues is." But our appreciation dragged us in.

Years later, we were sitting in a tavern in Memphis called Sleep Out Louie's — you could see the Mississippi River. Walter said, "We didn't grow up pickin' cotton. We weren't field hands in Mississippi. But my head's there." Our platform, in ZZ Top, was we'd be the Salvador Dalí of the Delta. It was a surrealist take. This song was not a big radio hit. But we still play it live, even if it's just the opening bit.

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“I Gotsta Get Paid” (2012)

I heard "25 Lighters" [a 1998 Houston rap single by DJ DMD, Lil' Keke and Fat Pat] when it came out. It was so peculiar I couldn't forget about it. We were in the studio and [co-producer] Rick Rubin called up: "We need one more song." Our engineer Gary Moon was in the other room, watching Lightnin' Hopkins on YouTube. An earful of that prompted me to blurt out "25 Lighters." Gary said, "I engineered that." Isn't that ironic?

We put the two [sounds] together for "I Gotsta Get Paid." It was legit ghetto. Hip-hop is the cry of angst that propelled the blues. If blues is the highest of highs, lowest of lows and all points in between, what comes out runs right through hip-hop.

Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen

“Treat Her Right” (2015)

The tune had a Texas legitimacy. The Roy Head single came out of Houston. And it was not about girls. It was about heroin. That a hit like that got through in 1965 — that's as blues as you can get, saying it without saying it.

The Afro-Cuban thing — it seemed to make sense there. The song goes so far back that most people like this because of the feel rather than "What an interesting twist on that old song." But there is that constant presence: Texas. It's this thing that helps make everything cool.

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