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Dusty Hill: ZZ Top bassist who helped bring Texas rock to the charts

Dusty Hill, the bearded, understated bassist who helped create ZZ Top one of the most popular rock bands in the late 1970s and 1980s, anchoring songs like the shuffle boogie "La Grange" and displaying his singing on the sensuous Top 40 single "Tush," has died at the age of 72.

ZZ Top, founded in Houston in 1969, was one of rock's most enduring bands, with a lineup that lasted more than 50 years. Onstage with Hill were lead vocalist and guitarist Billy Gibbons, whose boogie-style blues riffs cemented his reputation as one of his generation's best rock guitarists, and drummer Frank Beard, who, despite his moniker, lacked Rip Van Winkle's foot-long beard.

Despite the fact that they were known as "that small ol' band from Texas," ZZ Top had grown into an international sensation by the early 1980s, thanks to lavish tours and MTV music videos featuring hot rods and strutting young women. Hill and Beard spun a pair of custom fur-covered guitars in the video for their 1984 single "Legs" — one of their two Top 10 singles, along with "Sleeping Bag" from 1985.

While the band responded to contemporary music trends, including the use of synthesisers and drum machines in reaction to the development of new wave, their sound remained mostly blues rock. Rio Grande Mud (1972), Tres Hombres (1973), Tejas (1976), and Deguello (1979) were all very Texan, with titles like Rio Grande Mud (1972), Tres Hombres (1973), Tejas (1976), and Deguello (1979) all referring to the bugle call used by the Mexican army during the siege of the Alamo.

The FM radio standard "La Grange," a 1973 tribute to a small-town brothel subsequently immortalized by author and playwright Larry L King as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, is one of their most enduring successes.

In a 2012 interview with music critic Michael Hann, King said, "A lot of people group us in with southern boogie, whatever that means." “It implied that it was extremely simplistic... Many people mistakenly believe that the blues is a basic form of music. However, playing well is not easy. Jazz is considered true music because of its complexity. But they're both quite complicated.”

Hill had already played bass with Freddie King and Lightnin' Hopkins before he joined ZZ Top, and he was a seasoned blues musician. But he was once a singer who occasionally performed for ZZ Top, displaying his upper-register ability on songs like "Tush," as he recalled it. His older brother, a guitarist, forced him to learn the bass at the age of 13 since they needed a bassist in their band.

In 2008, he told Guitar World that he and the band wrote "Tush" during a soundcheck in Alabama "in about six or eight minutes." “It was hot as hell, and the song you hear on the record is what we composed that day, with the exception of a few words,” he stated. “For that reason, we always tape our soundchecks. But it's usually just a lick or a vocal line or something, not an entire song!”

Joseph Michael Hill was born in Dallas on 19 May 1949. His mother introduced him to blues records, to the surprise of some of their white neighbours. As Hill told it, his friends’ parents were often shocked when he brought over albums by Muddy Waters or Son House.

He and his brother Rocky created the garage rock band American Blues with drummer Frank Beard, a fellow North Texas native, when they were in their late teens. They grew their hair long and colored it blue to match their name.

“Having long hair in Texas in the 1960s was like taking your life in your hands,” Hill told the Dallas Morning News in 2008. “However, because we had long hair and blue hair, folks assumed we were insane and left us alone.”

After a few years, Beard and Hill joined ZZ Top, which was formed after Gibbons' psychedelic band the Moving Sidewalks disbanded. They weren't original members — drummer Dan Mitchell and bassists Lanier Greig and Billy Ethridge had already been with the band – but they came on board just in time to record ZZ Top's debut album, ZZ Top's First Album (1971).

The band played some of its initial gigs in cafeterias, Knights of Columbus halls, lumber yards, and a National Guard armoury, and was named after Texas blues star ZZ Hill. Hill stated he was influenced by Jack Bruce, Cream's creative bassist, but that performing with a trio taught him to take a more minimalist approach to his instrument.

He told the website For Bass Players Only, "I realized that you have to do the song, not your personal performance."

ZZ Top's Worldwide Texas Tour took place in the mid-1970s, with the band performing on a Texas-shaped stage complete with wagon wheels, corral gates, cacti, and live animals such as rattlesnakes, vultures, a longhorn, and buffalo. Later albums, such as Eliminator (1983), which sold over 10 million copies and featured the songs "Gimme All Your Lovin'" and "Sharp Dressed Man," shifted them toward synth-pop.

ZZ Top were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. They continued to experiment in records such as La Futura (2012), their most recent studio album, which was co-produced by hip-hop veteran Rick Rubin and included “I Gotsta Get Paid,” a bluesy cover of DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters”.

Survivors include his wife, the former Charleen “Chuck” McCrory; and a daughter from a previous marriage, Charity.

Hill and Gibbons revealed in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post that they began growing their notoriously long beards during a three-year sabbatical from touring in the late 1970s, unaware that the other was doing the same. Gibbons remarked, "When we set eyes on one other, I thought, 'That'll work.'"

The beards had become an integral part of their stage presence by the time their music videos began running on MTV. Hill stated that he would never shave, even if he were to retire. With a giggle, he told The Post, "I'm a sex symbol." “Do you think that's crazy?” It astounds me. I mean, I've always been aware of it; I simply assumed no one else was.”

Dusty Hill, bassist, born 19 May 1949, died 27 July 2021


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