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The Anti-Clapton

Rocky Hill hopes to find a smooth patch on his rocky road

The last thing I want is another story where it's 'Rocky's checked out of secret Cirrhosis-By-The-Sea and he's doing well,' " says a gruff, deeply Texan voice over the phone. It's Rocky Hill, perhaps the wildest and scariest -- both on stage and off -- of all the white-boy Texas blues guitarists.

In a career that has seen more fits and starts than a stick-shift car driven by a 15-year-old, Hill is hoping to finally get into gear at the age of 46. His show at the Continental Club on July 18, backed by drummer Eric Reininger and bassist Rock Romano, is his fifth since he launched his comeback this spring.

"You want me to say something controversial?" Hill asks in a brief lull in the conversation. No, Rocky, you don't really have to, not when you've written songs like "Sweet Blood Call," on which you roar, Gonna be hard to miss you, baby, with my pistol in your mouth / You might think you're heading north, but your brains are heading south.

Typically for the star-crossed Hill, "Sweet Blood Call" took nine years to go from the studio to the record rack. It finally came out in 1994 on Midnight Creepers, which, with Texas Shuffle on Tomato and an overproduced, self-titled 1988 disc on Virgin, completes the triumvirate of Hill's releases. None of the discs comes close to capturing Hill's mid-'70s and early-'80s ferocity; none of them gives his metal-melting tone and whistling, artillery-shell harmonics the necessary room to roam.

Today the younger set knows of him only as Dusty Hill's big brother, but older heads still talk about Hill in awed tones. As well they should -- only Albert King could make a blues guitar shriek the way Rocky could.

Hill confesses he's more than a little paranoid in the post-9/11 world. In contrast to the Hill of "Sweet Blood Call," who also urged listeners to "Kiss My Ass," the 21st-century Rocky is not so blunt. Yet in keeping with his wild guitar style, Hill is not one to let a tangent pass by without launching in on it. "Everybody thinks they're in the army these days," he says. "People are afraid to have regular expression. I don't get it. I speak musician. If I say to you, 'I need a hit, man,' you know what I mean -- I'm a musician. Anybody else would think I was trying to hire an assassin. Right? And there's millions of those things linguistically. I have to say to people, 'Do you speak musician?' "

Even through the long years of sporadic activity, Hill always spoke musician. For a long time he did pretty good musician, too. He was born to it. Rocky's mother, Myrl, was a blues singer in Dallas. "She sang 'St. Louis Blues' and those kinda ditties," he says. "Mostly just a club singer, but we were exposed pretty early to that sound."

In the mid-'60s the Hill brothers and Frank Beard started American Blues, an acid rock/blues outfit noteworthy in part because all the band members dyed their hair metallic blue. "There was a band back then called the Green Men with green hair, so we thought, 'Well, we play the blues. We'll dye our hair blue.' So we did, and immediately we got twice as much money a gig."

Innkeepers didn't like the band's proto-punk hairstyles, though. "We used to have to put deposits down to cover the sheets because the dye would rub off." Hill also remembers that the gimmick attracted unwanted attention from a different band of boys in blue. "I got pulled over by the cops one time and the cop said, 'I just wanted to see what you was,' " he recalls.

American Blues also served for a time as the backup group for Jimmy Reed and Freddie King, who took them to all the hippie pleasure palaces from Houston to San Francisco. Hill eventually learned then that his true inspiration was right before his eyes. "We wanted to be like Clapton, and then we read in the paper that Clapton wanted to be like Freddie King," he recalls. "We were like, 'You mean that guy we're backing up…' We didn't think he could be anything because he was from where we were from: Dallas. When you're that young, you can't imagine anything international comin' out of where you live."

Soon American Blues changed where they lived, moving to Houston in 1968. "Dallas was too trendy," he says. "All they wanted from a band was to be a jukebox. We wanted to play original music."

And once on Houston's scene, Rocky made the first of many career-damning choices. He left American Blues. Dusty and Frank recruited the Moving Sidewalks' Billy Gibbons as their new front man and renamed the band ZZ Top.

"I wanted to play the blues," Rocky says. "Dusty wanted to play rock and roll. I was like a kid, a student, hanging out over at Lightnin's house a lot. Mance Lipscomb and all that. Dusty was always more commercially oriented and professional, and I was a stupid hippie musicologist hanging around these old dyin' guys. But I learned a lot."

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