I grew up down Texas way, working summers at my father’s sawmill, and scraping together minimum wage to buy a beat-up SG bass. The fretboard pyrotechnics of Sheehan and Lee were beyond my reach, but inspiration came slithering across the yard one scorching afternoon through the screen door of a nearby rib shack.
As I unloaded lumber from a boxcar, the bluesman growled about gold tooth displays and beauticians at the wheel of his V8 Ford, the backbeat matching the loping rhythm of our sawmill’s conveyor chain. Heat waves shimmied on the tracks as epiphany struck from the percolating bass, laying a muddy groove wide as the West Texas plains, with a mind-blowing breakdown at the end that was both bad and nationwide.
The band, of course, was ZZ Top—but copping bassist Dusty Hill’s parts proved to be a different kind of tricky. I dug into their back catalog, discovering that his approach wasn’t so much a matter of technique as attitude. He owned the pocket and dug that trench deep, paving a foundation with gusto and restraint, stuttering licks in empty spaces and a funky syncopation engineered to make backsides move. There was plenty of flash and wit in ZZ’s clothes and stage shows, but the Top’s bottom end was all business.
Joseph Michael ‘Dusty’ Hill was born on May 19, 1949, playing the cello in school band and picking up bass at the age of 13, when his older brother Rocky started a combo called The Warlocks.
“I kind of learned how to play on stage,” Hill told For Bass Players Only in 2016. “Embarrassment is a great motivator. If you don’t play well, standing up there with the lights on, it really stands out, so it behooves you to get your shit up pretty quick.”
Alongside drummer Frank Beard, Hill honed his chops with Dallas garage rockers American Blues and the Cellar Dwellers before teaming up with a 20-year-old Houston guitar wizard named Billy F. Gibbons to form ZZ Top.
Early inspiration came from Charles Mingus and Jack Bruce, before the bassist stripped his lines to the purest essence and the “little ol’ band from Texas” hit big in 1975 with Hill’s raucous vocal on their first Top 40 hit, ‘Tush’, a 12-bar howling blues with Dusty locked on Beard’s snare and offering nothing more extravagant than the occasional walk.
Under the guidance of manager Bill Ham, ZZ Top engaged on a world tour that featured ‘The Dust’ decked out in Nudie suits and 10-gallon hats while throttling his Tele bass on a tilted stage the shape of Texas. Vultures, rattlesnakes, and longhorn steers roamed the platform as the band performed electrified, Southern-fried favorites like ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ and ‘Blue Jean Blues’.
The Worldwide Texas Tour was so insane that the band went on hiatus after coming off the road. Beard hit rehab before heading to Jamaica; Gibbons left for London; and Hill got a work shirt with ‘Joe’ on the pocket and took a job at the Fort Worth airport.
“I didn’t want people to think I was full of myself,” he told Ultimate Classic Rock in 2019. “But the main thing is that I didn’t want to start feeling full of myself.”
ZZ Top returned in the early Eighties, trading their rhinestone jackets for scruffy suits, leggy blondes in hot cars, and... synthesizers? Somehow, the bearded blues lovers went techno without losing their soul, thanks in no small part to the solid workmanship of Hill, whether rocking synth-bass and sequencers or spinning his fur-covered Dean ML Explorer while sporting a dirty fedora and cheap sunglasses.
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