The news of Dusty Hill’s death, announced Wednesday by his bandmates in ZZ Top, deeply impacted everyone from fans to fellow musicians. Not surprisingly, that list includes Dan Auerbach. It’s easy to draw a straight line from ZZ Top to the Black Keys, especially from the rawness of the group’s first few albums to the Keys’ earliest, equally stripped-down takes on the blues. “They were a blues band with their own sound,” Auerbach says, “and that’s hard to do.”
But the connection between the two bands ran deep. Auerbach grew up on their iconic MTV videos, and Billy Gibbons was an outfront champion of the Black Keys from the start. Fellow obsessives of vintage blues and guitars, Auerbach and Gibbons became friends about 20 years ago and remain in touch; Gibbons even stopped by Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville earlier this month to hang out, just weeks before Hill’s death at the age of 72. Auerbach spoke with RS about his memories of Hill, Gibbons, and ZZ Top’s role in his life and work.
I was hanging out with Pat [Carney] when I heard [the news of Hill’s death]. It was sad to hear. We’ve been talking about Dusty so much in the last few months at the studio. One of my favorite bass players is Nick Movshon, who’s played on my records and Yola’s. Just last week, he texted me a picture of Dusty, which shows you how much he was in our universe. And Billy stopped by the studio a few weeks ago saying he just wanted to play guitar.
I heard all of ZZ Top’s MTV stuff first. I was a little kid, so those guys with the beards were in my periphery. They were huge. If you were watching MTV at the time, they were as big as everything else. It was pop and so catchy. You’d hear those songs one time and never stop singing them. And they always had babes — male and female — in their videos. ZZ Top would always be in the background, observing what the babes were doing! I loved that.
Once I started playing out more, getting into clubs and going into record shops, I got the first and second ZZ Top Records [ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud]. They just blew me away. I love “Brown Sugar” [from First Album] when the drums come in — a magical moment, and I love the feel of “Neighbor, Neighbor” from that album. Those albums had no reverb; they were just driving and in your face. The Mount Olympus of tones, played by these masters. They were able to make the blues something totally different. It was real heavy without having to talk about sorcery and wizards and shit. [Laughs]
When we started, we listened to a lot of stuff that didn’t have bass; just guitar and drums. We didn’t know anybody like Dusty. I couldn’t find my Dusty. If we had a Dusty in Akron, he would have been in the Black Keys.
If I had to pick one album for a newcomer, it would probably be Tejas. So many catchy songs. I can listen to that from top to bottom and then do it again. “Ten Dollar Man,” that’s my jam. Dusty sings the shit out of that one.
I never met Dusty, unfortunately. But Billy was a supporter from the very beginning. We were in New Mexico on a van tour for our first record and Billy came to see us at some hole in the wall. It was the sort of place that didn’t even have a backstage. The backstage was your van. So I think we just said hello afterwards. We didn’t know he was going to be there. It was amazing — one of the really good stories from our first tour.
I reached out to Billy yesterday and sent him a little message. I can’t even imagine [how he’s feeling]. Those guys had a once-in-a-lifetime relationship that’s beyond rare. They had more than 50 years of supporting each other and each other’s families.
The greatest bands in the world are usually made up of people who are real team players and who don’t show off too much — the ones who are willing to ratchet down their own genius to make the music better. Dusty had that. He was such a foundational part of that group. Frank Beard was lively and played like [Motown bassist] James Jamerson. Dusty was like an immovable object. He knew what the songs needed. It would have all crumbled without him.