Dusty Hill Obituary | Top ZZ
The guitar, bass, and drums trio are pretty much the most stripped-down rock band there can be, and ZZ Top has taken full advantage of the format’s power and versatility. The band’s bassist Dusty Hill, who died at the age of 72, rose to fame for his inventive playing, teaming up economically and precisely with drummer Frank Beard and guitarist Billy Gibbons. They created a sound that seemed much greater than the sum of its parts.
ZZ Top has always been rooted in the blues, but combined it with a powerful rock punch. “ZZ Top started out as a blues-based rock’n’roll band, but we were never a Freddie King-style or Muddy Waters-style blues band or whatever,” Hill said. in 1983. “We had a lot of that feeling in the band, though, and it was our intention to bring that feeling to rock and roll.
It is their third album, Tres Hombres (1973), which brought the ZZ Top to a wide audience, boosted by the US single Top 50 Barn. The latter, based on a traditional blues-boogie beat used by John Lee Hooker and others, was the perfect showcase for ZZ Top’s skills, opening up to a simple, minimal beat before the trio exploded into life at full throttle. The fact that the song was about the Chicken Ranch brothel in Texas (also the subject of the 1978 Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) reflected the slightly dissolute aura that ZZ Top liked to project.
Their next album, Fandango! (1975), reached the U.S. Top 10 and gave them a Top 20 single with To push, but the follow-up, Tejas (1976), was less well received, despite ranking in the Top 20. It came after their world tour of Texas, an extraordinary multimedia event that featured a scene in the shape of Texas with Texan wildlife. including steers, buzzards and snakes. “It took a full day to set things up and a full day to take them apart, so we only played one day out of three,” Hill recalls. “We tried to bring it to Europe but we had a problem with the quarantine on the animals.”
After that, the band, who had performed and recorded solidly for seven years, took a two-year hiatus, during which Hill spent time working at the Dallas / Fort Worth airport. “I just wanted to feel normal,” he said. “I did it to take root.”
When they reunited in 1979, their manager Bill Ham got them a new recording deal with Warner Bros, which would result in new levels of success. Degüello (1979) entered the Top 30 and brought them two of their most famous hits with I thank you and Cheap sunglasses. El Loco (1981) reached the Top 20 in the United States, but they found real success with Eliminator (1983), which toured the world and sold 10 million copies in the United States. only. (When asked why he hadn’t followed the ZZ Top tradition of Spanish-language titles, Gibbons answered unmoved that his real name was El Iminator).
He also found that ZZ Top embraced the latest digital recording and video technology, generating a slew of stylish hits including Give me all your love ‘, Pointed dressed man and Legs, whose videos have become a staple of the MTV rotation. Gibbons’ 1933 Ford red hot-rod became a video star in its own right.
By now, Hill and Gibbons had adopted the beards, stetsons, and chest-length sunglasses that gave ZZ Top a new cartoon image, Beard being limited to a mustache. Afterburner (1985) was another multi-platinum hit and gave them one of their most successful singles with Sleeping bag, which reached number 8 in the United States.
Dusty was born Joseph Hill in Dallas, Texas, and raised in the Lakewood District. Her mother was a talented singer and avid blues artist such as Bessie Smith, while her older brother Rocky was a guitarist and blues fan. When Rocky formed a band called the Starliners, he needed a bass player and recruited Dusty, who had learned to play cello at local Woodrow Wilson High School. Dusty found himself onstage at a Dallas bar, trying to play bass as he went.
The Hill brothers then joined Beard in a succession of Dallas bands including the Warlocks, Cellar Dwellers and American Blues. In 1968, Dusty and Beard moved to Houston, where they joined Gibbons, who had been part of the Dallas-based psychedelic group the Moving Sidewalks, and replaced the existing members of his brand new ZZ Top. They signed with London Records in 1970, and released the first album of ZZ Top (1971) and Rio Grande Mud (1972), with great fanfare.
ZZ Top recorded other platinum albums with Recycler (1990) and Antenna (1994, the first under a new $ 35 million deal with RCA), although subsequent releases saw their sales plummet. In 2003, the Chrome, Smoke & BBQ four-CD set presented a comprehensive overview of the band’s history from its inception. In 2004, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards.
Hill had suffered from several health problems. In 1984, he was accidentally shot in the abdomen when his girlfriend removed her boot causing his Derringer pistol to fall and discharge. “My first reaction was ‘shit’ and then ‘ouch’,” Hill said. “I couldn’t believe I had done something so stupid.” In 2000, ZZ Top canceled a European tour when diagnosed with hepatitis C, and canceled a European tour in 2007 when Hill needed ear surgery for an acoustic neuroma. In 2014, they had to postpone dates after he injured his hip in a fall on their tour bus. Earlier this month, when he needed medical treatment for his hip, he was replaced on stage by their guitar technician, Elwood Francis.
Hill has had intermittent acting roles, including appearances in Back to the Future Part III (1990), which also featured ZZ Top’s Doubleback on the soundtrack, and the television series Deadwood.
He is survived by his wife, actress Charleen McCrory, whom he married in 2002, and one daughter, Charity.