At the wheel of his V8 Ford, the bluesman screamed about gold tooth displays and beauticians as I unloaded lumber from a boxcar, the backbeat matching the loping cadence of our sawmill’s conveyor chain. As enlightenment struck from the percolating bass, heat waves shimmied on the recordings, laying a muddy groove as wide as the West Texas plains, with a mind-blowing breakdown at the finale that was both terrible and great.
Of course, the band was ZZ Top – but copping bassist Dusty Hill’s parts proved to be a different type of challenge. I searched through their back repertory and discovered that his approach was more about attitude than technique.
He owned the pocket and dug a deep hole, laying a foundation with vigour and restraint, stuttering licks in empty spaces, and a quirky syncopation designed to get backsides moving. ZZ’s outfits and stage presentations were plenty of sparkle and wit, but the Top’s bottom end was all business.
Joseph Michael Dusty Hill was born on May 19, 1949, and began playing cello in school band and bass guitar at the age of 13 when his older brother Rocky formed The Warlocks.
In 2016, Dusty Hill told For Bass Players Only, “I kind of learnt how to play on stage.” “Embarrassment is an excellent motivator.” If you don’t play well, standing up there with the lights on actually draws attention to you, so get your stuff up soon.”
Dusty Hill sharpened his chops with Dallas garage rockers American Blues and the Cellar Dwellers alongside drummer Frank Beard before joining up with a 20-year-old Houston guitar prodigy called Billy F. Gibbons to form ZZ Top.
Before the bassist cut his lines down to their essence, and the “little ol’ band from Texas” became big in 1975 with Dusty Hill’s loud vocal on their first Top 40 song, Tush, a 12-bar howling blues with Dusty fixed on Beard’s snare and providing nothing more flamboyant than the odd stroll,
Under the direction of manager Bill Ham, ZZ Top embarked on a globe tour that featured ‘The Dust’ dressed in Nudie outfits and 10-gallon hats, throttling his Tele bass on a tilted stage shaped like Texas. Vultures, rattlesnakes, and longhorn cows roamed the stage as the band played electrifying, Southern-fried hits like Jesus Just Left Chicago and Blue Jean Blues.
The band went on sabbatical after the Worldwide Texas Tour because it was so wild. Beard went to rehab before going to Jamaica; Gibbons went to London; and Dusty Hill got a work shirt with the word “Joe” on the pocket and obtained a job at the Fort Worth airport.
“I didn’t want people to think I was arrogant,” he explained to Ultimate Classic Rock in 2019. “But, more importantly, I didn’t want to start feeling full of myself.” ZZ Top made a comeback in the early 1980s, trading their rhinestone jackets for scruffy suits, leggy blondes in hot automobiles, and… synthesisers?
Dusty Hill’s outstanding craftsmanship, whether rocking synth-bass and sequencers or spinning his fur-covered Dean ML Explorer while wearing a nasty hat and cheap sunglasses, helped the bearded blues fans go techno without losing their spirit.
The weathered trio rose to prominence on an upstart video music channel called MTV, and ZZ Top became the coolest band on the earth. Despite the fact that their 1983 album Eliminator went 15 times platinum, the band escaped accusations of selling out.
At its core, Legs was just as greasy as 1973’s La Grange, and the Top could back it up live, gliding around stage on gigantic conveyor belts and discarding the vultures in favour of a tarpsnorting cosmic Sphinx. ZZ Top’s identities grew so enormous that Texans petitioned to have their likenesses carved into the side of the Lone Star State’s tallest peak.
Dusty Hill was the master of bone-rattling swagger, consistently epitomising the brilliance of economic cool, essential to the band’s swampy mash of surf-metal boogie, Texas swing, and proto-industrial blue-collar rhythm and blues, from the nimble funk of 1970’s Squank to the 21st-century gristle of Gotsta Get Paid.
Manic Mechanic knew exactly when to step up and when to lay back, holding the low end so Reverend Billy G could hurl sparks, whether handing out filthy slap on Thug or discordant clank for the Talking Heads-meets-Steely Dan jam.
In FBPO, Dusty Hill stated, “Sometimes you don’t even notice the bass.” “I hate that in some ways, but I adore it in others.” That’s quite a compliment. That signifies you’ve finished everything, and it’s appropriate for the music. You’re not standing out where you shouldn’t.”
Dusty stated his only addiction was collecting basses, preferring axes by legendary luthier John Bolin and collaborating with Fender to produce a signature model based on the Tele he got for $700 from a Dallas pawn shop.
Those seeking to replicate his crunch can look to single-coil Seymour Duncans, Marshall Valvestate 8008, SFX Thumpinator, and Electro-Harmonix Micro POG – but insiders claim the ultimate secret is in the way Dusty Hill’s stubby fingers assaulted his instrument.
In 2012, he stated, “My sound is large, hefty, and a little distorted since it has to overlap the guitar.” “When someone asked me to describe my tone, I responded it sounded like a rhino farting in a trash can.”
After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards in 2004, Dusty Hill faced a slew of health issues in the years that followed, including surgeries on his ear, hip, and shoulder, contracting Hepatitis C, and accidentally shooting himself in the gut when a.38 derringer fell from his boot.
Nonetheless, he never missed a gig in five decades, becoming a bass legend mostly for what he didn’t do: get in the way of a bad-ass song. “I like to think I play bass like Dusty Hill,” he wrote in Classic Rock, “and nobody else can do it as good as me.” “I’m the best Dusty Hill I’ve ever met.”
Life comes full circle every now and again. Dusty and I arrived in Tennessee. He lived south of Nashville on a 50-acre solar-powered farm between Moody Bros. Auto Body Shop and Crossroads Baptist Church. His influence was beneficial to me in Music City. Show up, perform what the song requires, and never take yourself too seriously. Do that one thing that no one else can.
I exchanged in my SG for a 1973 Precision and concentrated on attitude and feel. On a packed dance floor one night, I was laying a nasty groove on Gimme All Your Lovin’, hammering accents on the two and four, playing the sidestep ZZ shuffle, heat waves rising as backsides were shaking.
A vision emerged at the back wall, wearing a ball cap and wraparound shades, bobbing his head and flowing his beard like Moses on the mount. His whiskers parted in a grin. He went into the mob as I returned his nod. But it could have been a mirage. The original lineup of ZZ Top lasted 51 years. The three hombres from Texas enjoyed making music together and having a good time.
End Of Dusty Hill’s Era
They are still the most cool band in the earth. Dusty Hill passed away quietly at home, nine days after performing one final gig and a blazing encore of Tush. He insisted on the boys continuing.