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.'"