During a career of 40 years and counting, ZZ Top have toured with some of the rock’n’roll’s finest, and were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004 by Keith Richards – ZZ Top themselves having performed the honour for Cream in 1993. Here, the gentlemanly Billy F. Gibbons lifted the veil on a few of the famous friends he’s made while travelling the rock’n’roll highway.
We toured with him in 1968. It was a real mind-bender and eye-opener to say the least. As most now know, Hendrix, either consciously or subconsciously, made a decision to invent things to do with a Fender Stratocaster that it had not necessarily been intended for. He did it very well, too. I was 18 at the time, and somehow the organisers saw fit to book us in the hotel room across the hall to his room. That was convenient to allow me to ask him the obvious question: “How do you do that?”
I remember that this was a long time before hotels had stereos in their rooms, and each day there would be the delivery of a rather heavy and cumbersome hi-fi console player that was the size of a small Buick. It was dutifully installed for Hendrix to be able to listen to his favourite discs. The one I really remember him playing the ass off was the first Jeff Beck Group album, Truth. Hendrix was mad about it, totally OTT about Jeff’s playing. Oddly enough, Hendrix was all too willing and ready to include blues licks in his arsenal of guitar offerings, which had fallen out of favour in the States with most black entertainers.
I got to play on stage with him at the time, which is quite well documented, but it was what went on behind the scenes that really captured the magic of the moment.
THE ROLLING STONES
The Stones had accepted an offer to make an appearance in Hawaii in 1972. It was three shows: a Friday night, a Saturday afternoon matinee and a Saturday evening. When the announcement was made it seemed that every band on the planet was vying to land the opening slot. Even today The Rolling Stones are ‘it’ as far as most bands are concerned. Somehow we got the call to take those three dates in Hawaii.
I remember walking out on stage in our standard attire of cowboy boots and a cowboy hat – which was something of a mystery to people back then – and someone in the front row shouted out: “Oh my God, they’re a country band!” Obviously that wasn’t particularly fashionable at the time. So we realised we had to get stuck in straight from the get-go to shake off this misleading image.
But we got along famously with the Stones and managed to hang out with them for a few extra days. We were just hanging out on the beach and sipping cool libations; Keith was totally living the rock’n’roll lifestyle at the time. But what a lot of people don’t know or realise is Keith’s unending devotion and calling to being what is true as a musician. That was very apparent then, although I have to say he was certainly a lot more colourful when it came to the extracurricular stuff.
Make no mistake, ZZ Top didn’t just happen upon becoming a trio because it was easier; it’s a lot more challenging. But Hendrix and Cream were at the top of the chart as far as ZZ Top’s book was concerned, and it was through those early influential days of attempting to emulate those sounds and styles that brought us together. It was a real honour to be associated with Cream and bring them into the spotlight at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
I met Clapton in Houston, Texas. Cream had been booked to appear on an early US tour, and a local promoter who booked that tour also owned a venue where [Gibbons’s pre-ZZ band] The Moving Sidewalks used to rehearse. Clapton was curious to see what the local music scene was like and he dropped in to have a look at the venue. We were on a break, met him, and we got along quite well. Back then, talking about music was the order of the day, and we just got a lucky break meeting him.
We had Muddy on tour with us back in 1983, right before he passed on. It must have been the Eliminator tour, and we had him along and got to know him and his band. It was quite illuminating. I actually first met him back in 1976. Dusty Hill’s brother, Rocky, was a shining light in chasing down these blues masters and bringing a significant amount of attention to them, and he introduced us back then. We were interpreters, they were the inventors. But Muddy, well he was just something else, man.
People ask what I listen to, and there’s a certain sprinkling of contemporary sounds like Jack White and the Black Keys, but I have to say it’s a slim list from the modern side. But going way, way back, we’re still listening to stuff that came out between, say, 1949 to 1957, people like Muddy Waters. It’s the stuff that I keep on going back to. It’s very enduring.