Music

"Uh Haw Haw": New ZZ Top Biography Separates Myth from Reality

Christopher McKittrick takes a close look at the history of ZZ Top in the new biography Gimme All Your Lovin’:  The Blues, Boogie, and Beard of ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons
Christopher McKittrick takes a close look at the history of ZZ Top in the new biography Gimme All Your Lovin’: The Blues, Boogie, and Beard of ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons Photo by Brian Marks. Creative Commons.
PBS aired a television series in 1988 called Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth which illuminated the influence of myth in society and culture. Many viewers considered the concepts presented on the show a revelation. But Billy Gibbons understood the power of myth long before that.

In the new biography Gimme All Your Lovin’: The Blues, Boogie, and Beard of ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons (Backbeat Books, 270 pp, $29.95), Christopher McKittrick traces the history of “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas” from before its formation through the present day. The author faces a bit of a challenge, though, as The Rev. Willie G. is not above telling a tall tale, engaging in creative recollections, or just plain bullshitting his listener. With regard to the unwavering endurance of the ZZ Top myth, it must be said that Gibbons is one charming son of a bitch and one hell of a storyteller. 

McKittrick holds Gibbons to a high standard, not accepting many of the details that comprise the ZZ Top legend and, in fact, digging to determine the veracity of stories that have been told ad infinitum by Gibbons and the writers who have interviewed him over the years.

Book cover
One could argue that Gibbons comes by it honestly. After all, ZZ Top’s music is rooted in the blues, and the blues has a long tradition of mythologizing the past. The most famous example is perhaps the durable story of guitarist Robert Johnson making a deal with the Devil at the crossroads near Clarksdale, Mississippi, a bargain in which Johnson traded his soul for instrumental prowess. McKittrick also cites the story of B.B. King naming his guitar Lucille after (allegedly) rescuing it from a dance hall fire and later learning that the blaze was caused by a fight between two men battling over the affections of a woman of the same name.

Though ZZ Top was always presented as a unit (“Same Three Guys, Same Three Chords”), Gibbons was the first among equals, always higher in the pecking order than bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard. It was Gibbons who, as a teenage guitar player in Houston, attracted the attention of the band’s longtime manager Bill Ham, who might be best characterized as a Texas version of Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker. It was Gibbons who took most of the lead vocals and wrote most of the songs (more about that later). And, most importantly, it was Gibbons who served as the Top’s guiding light, in terms of both aesthetics and commerce.

Starting early in the band’s career, the ZZ Top legend was built piece by piece, using myth as a way to control public perception, allowing Ham and Gibbons to construct whatever narrative best served their needs.

Ham even went so far as to prohibit the band members from appearing in public without one another, in the interest of maintaining an image. Along these lines, the trio was not allowed to jam with other musicians or appear on other bands’ recordings. If the story can be believed (yes, there is a theme at work here), Gibbons got around this restriction by sitting in as a harmonica player at the Gallant Knight club on Holcombe, operating under the moniker of “Mellow Larry,” with the bogus name embroidered on the back of his jacket.
From the beginning of their partnership, Gibbons and Ham capitalized on assertations that could not be readily verified. Most notably, it was claimed in early ZZ Top press releases that Jimi Hendrix named Gibbons as his favorite guitarist. This statement, while never verified, has, through years of repetition, become accepted as fact in most quarters.

Another long-standing ZZ Top legend which receives attention involves the story that the release of “La Grange” caused the shuttering of the Chicken Ranch. Members of the media were led to believe that, all of a sudden, after 100 years or so, the locals got their panties in a twist over the fact that – clutch the pearls – a house of ill repute was operating in their fair city.   In point of fact, it was Channel 13’s Marvin Zindler who made the greatest contribution to getting the Chicken Ranch shut down, operating on a tip from law enforcement that the business was under official surveillance. Zindler earned a smack down (which included the removal of his toupée) from the town’s sheriff for his troubles. Check out the video here. The good part occurs around the 6:15 mark.
click to enlarge
Houston favorite Leo's Mexican Restaurant provided the Tex-Mex feast pictured on ZZ Top's album Tres Hombres.
Album gatefold
Some might say, what’s the harm? It’s all about show biz. It’s all about entertainment. No one thinks that these stories are 100 percent true. And besides, the fans want to believe.

Well, that’s one way to view it.

But things get a bit more serious when it comes to matters like songwriting credits. McKittrick remains objective in his account, but, for example, he makes the case that Linden Hudson, a former KLOL disc jockey / audio engineer / producer, deserves credit and compensation for his work on many songs contained on the ‘80s monster album Eliminator. Following a bit of litigation, Hudson received a $600,000 settlement in recognition of his work on one song, “Thug,” but McKittrick reports that, after lawyers’ fees and associated costs, Hudson ended up with only one third of that amount.
As the reader might imagine, Houston references are scattered throughout the book. Venues such as the Catacombs, Love Street Light Circus and Feelgood Machine, Numbers, the Sam Houston Coliseum and the Summit are mentioned, along with Leo’s Mexican Restaurant (which created the feast pictured on the gatefold of Tres Hombres, described by Texas Monthly as “Tex-Mex food porn”), the River Oaks Country Club and Gold Star Studios (now known as Sugar Hill Recording Studios).

With Gimme All Your Lovin’: The Blues, Boogie, and Beard of ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons, McKittrick has provided the most factual volume on Gibbons and the band to date, a worthy successor to the 1994 book, Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top Behind the Scenes from Blues to Boogie to Beards, written by David Blayney, a longtime ZZ Top crew member. Hmm. Curious to note that the titles are so similar. But I won’t get into that. The myth will live on, but McKittrick has tempered it with a healthy dose of realism.
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Contributor Tom Richards is a broadcaster, writer, and musician. He has an unseemly fondness for the Rolling Stones and bands of their ilk.
Contact: Tom Richards