It’s 1 a.m.
ZZ Top has just rocked the hell out of Potsdam, Germany and sent 30,000 screaming fans home with huge smiles on their faces. I’m waiting in front of Billy Gibbons’ dressing room — a simple trailer — as the door opens and a talking beard in pajamas appears.
There he is: the man, the legend, Reverend Billy G. himself.
“Boy, sit down. Want a glass of wine?”
Alcohol on the job? Well, if Billy Gibbons offers you a beverage, you can’t say no, can you? So let’s have a sip and start a conversation.
Billy, you're one of the world’s most legendary and influential guitarists, and — without a doubt — the coolest. Take us back to your childhood and your musical beginnings.
When I was five, my father Fred took me to a club called Shamrock. That was in Houston, Texas, and the Mary Kaye Trio was playing. At some point I just jumped onstage, sat down in the background and started drumming the beat on everything I could get my hands on. Afterwards the band said to my dad, “Man, that boy’s got some rhythm in his blood!”
But the real infection with the virus called rock and roll happened when I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show on TV. That must’ve been around 1956, and the king himself, Elvis Presley, appeared on the show. I believe the song was “Too Much,” but to honest, I can’t remember for sure. This is where my love for rock and roll started.
But I must not forget the daughter of my family’s maid. When Stella had to take care of me and my sister Pam, she took us out two or three times a week. It was breathtaking to experience the local live scene with my own eyes.
Your father Fred was a piano player. How did you end up playing the guitar?
Honestly? The guitar was easier to carry! [Laughs.] You could just grab it and do it.
Can you remember your first guitar?
Boy, that was a long, long time ago. On Christmas Eve in ’63, when Santa was stopping by with two amazing presents, that marked a turning point in my life. I got a Gibson Melody Maker and tiny Fender Champ amplifier. While the kids from my neighbourhood were into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I was trying to learn licks from Little Richard, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed records.
Do you still own that first setup?
[Laughs.] Well, I could never let go of guitars. This particular instrument and the amp are with a very good friend of mine, so I don’t have to worry about them.
What happened musically after that?
At 14 I started my first band The Saints. We were rehearsing in my father’s garage in Tanglewood. After that I played in bands like The Coachmen and The Blue Flames. Things didn’t get serious until I founded The Moving Sidewalks in 1966 with Don Summers on bass, Dan Mitchell on drums and Tom Moore on keyboards.
With The Moving Sidewalks you released an album and several singles, and achieved the status of local heroes in Texas. You also supported The Doors, and even Jimi Hendrix on his first US tour. Jimi once said on live television that you were America’s best guitar player. He even gave you his pink Strat as gift, since he considered it too good to be burned. Tell us about your time with Jimi.
When we were supporting Jimi, I was sitting in my hotel room one night and practiced a little. Then this dude stuck his head through the door — it was Jimi Hendrix! I felt paralyzed and speechless. He grabbed my guitar, laid down on the floor, looked at the ceiling and played some unbelievable licks, before asking whether I could do stuff like this, too — and then he even stepped it up a notch. Afterwards he showed me some tricks. I learned a lot from him.
There’s another night I will never forget. After a show somewhere we were so full of adrenalin still that no one could sleep. Back then, there was no curfew at the venues, which meant you could stay as long as you wanted. It must’ve been 3 a.m. Jimi’s Marshall stacks were still up on-stage, when one of his roadies brought huge sheets of paper, buckets of fluorescent color and two cleaning mops. The paper was hung as a backdrop, the cleaning mops were stuck onto two guitars. Jimi plugged in and went into a furious sound and feedback assault. Again and again he dipped his guitar in the fluorescent color and ecstatically smeared it on the paper. He told me to try it too, and that’s what I did. We played until we were dizzy. That was all so bizarre, and you could feel the energy. Needless to say we didn’t get anymore sleep that night.
How did you meet the guys in ZZ Top?
In Houston I met a concert promoter named Bill Ham. With him I broke into the club scene of Texas. At a Halloween party in ’69 I met Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, who were playing there. Someone suggested I should join them for a song or two during their next set. And the rest is history, I guess.
There's always been lots of rumors and anecdotes surrounding your band’s name. Some say it was derived from the names of two producers of smoking accessories, Zig Zag and Top. Some say it pays homage to blues legend ZZ Hill. What’s the true story?
Nothing like that. Back then we were — and we still are — huge fans of the King of Blues, B.B. King. So we started to call ourselves Z.Z. King, but realized pretty quickly that it sounded too much like our hero, so we changed it to ZZ Top.
The “Little ol’ band from Texas” is probably the only band that has kept its original lineup intact for four decades, and still rocks all over the world. What's your secret?
Dusty and Frank are my fearless compadres. They are great entertainers and amazing musicians. At a show we never know what the other guy will be coming up with next. That can be a challenge, but it’s pretty cool also. We just love to play and let our creativity flow. That’s the main thing. Music is our passion.
Is it true that Gilette offered you more than $1 million dollars to shave off your beards?
The beards are our trademark thing by now, and we have declined a lot of offers over the years. We just don’t know we look like underneath. We’d probably be way too ugly.
Apart from the facial hair, there’s also one guitar that could be called a ZZ Top trademark. Tell us about it.
Oh yes, my beloved Miss Pearly Gates. A 1959 Les Paul Standard. Bullshit. Not a but the ’59 Les Paul Standard!
What were you playing before?
Back then I was playing everything I could get my hands on. It was quite common to go to a pawnshop on Friday, buy a guitar, play it all weekend and bring it back on Monday. Good players can get great tone out of a cheap guitar from the mall. The first time I wanted a Burst was after seeing Eric Clapton with the famous combination of Les Paul and Marshall. I think that was during his tenure with the Bluesbreakers. I knew I had to have one of these.
How did you end up with Pearly Gates?
ZZ Top owned an old Packard, a car from the ’30s. It served us well, but it was really, really old. One of our girlfriends decided to head to California to try out for a part in a movie. We gave her the Packard as a way to get there. Not only did she arrive, but she got the part. We named the automobile “Pearly Gates” because we thought it must have had divine connections. Renee Thomas — that was her name — sold the car to a collector in California and sent the money to us. Her timing couldn't have been better. The very day that the money arrived a guy called me up wanting to sell an old guitar. It was a ’59 Sunburst Les Paul. It was found underneath a bed, by the way, in which her previous owner died. I had to buy the guitar, of course, and I called Renee on the same day to thank her for being so kind. She said that it looks like the Packard went for a good cause and we should name the guitar after the car, Pearly Gates. At the end she said, “Now you can go make divine music.”
How would you describe the tone of Miss Pearly Gates?
Divine, simply divine. Pearly was born on one of those fateful days when just everything was all right. The wood was well balanced, the glue was right, and the electronics were built in perfectly. She was waiting underneath a bed for years, just waiting to burst out of there. And I was the lucky one who was to be her conqueror.
The rest of your collection is impressive, too.
Pearly is the reason for my guitar mania. Since I have her I’m searching for one that is equally good. I own a lot of great and valuable instruments, but none of them could match the sound of Pearly Gates. You can hear Pearly on each and every ZZ Top album.
There are some rumors about a few special guitars in your collection, including the only prototype of a Gibson Moderne.
In 1957, Gibson president Ted McCarty had three designs patented for guitars that looked futuristic: The Flying V, the Explorer and the Moderne. The V and the Explorer went into production; only the Moderne disappeared from sight. But there were rumors all the time about one prototype, especially since the late McCarty could remember one. A couple of years ago I received a call from a friend who heard that a painter from San Antonio wanted to sell a funny-looking old guitar. No big surprise he thought about me immediately. [Laughs.] We drove there, checked out the guitar and bought it. It looked like an old Gibson Moderne, definitely not one of the reissues that Gibson sold in 1982. We showed it to some experts, but none of them could help. Even guitar guru George Gruhn got on the case. He disassembled the guitar and examined every screw, every cable, everything, but not even he could identify this instrument, because there was no information about the Moderne apart from the blueprints. But what he could tell for sure was that all parts of this guitar were from the ’50s. We’ll probably never know. What’s interesting is how this painter, who has nothing to do with guitars, got hold of it: He found it at a junk clearance somewhere.
ZZ Top just signed a new deal with American Recordings. Rick Rubin, the man in charge of the later works of Johnny Cash, will be your next producer. You also recorded a song call “I Witnessed A Crime” with Cash in 1993. Rumor has it that the new album will have a retro feel reminiscent of the “La Grange” era.
Boy, switch off your voice recorder for a second…
[I do as the master wishes and stop the voice recorder. Now Billy reaches for his white MacBook …]
I’ll play you a new song.
[Billy clicks around in his iTunes library and heavenly sounds arise from the tiny white device. What I hear next is pure ZZ Top. Classic Texas boogie blues rock for the new millennium. Drums, bass and guitar — no frills, just total listening pleasure, with a pedal steel crying somewhere in the intro and chorus.]
Does that answer your question? We will start another big world tour in 2009, by the way, carrying the Texas feeling out into the big wide world.
Next year the band celebrates 40 years onstage, and all of you will hit 60. Are you planning any special celebrations?
Not at all. We celebrate where we feel best — on the stages of the world.
Do you suffer from stagefright?
No, I’m hardly ever nervous — apart from shows where I knew my mother Lorraine was in the audience.