Known among legions of fans as “the bottom to the top,” ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill died at his Houston home Thursday at the age of 72. Hill was a Dallas native, and played cello in high school before relocating to Houston in 1968 with fellow musician Frank Beard. It was there they teamed up with guitarist and singer Billy Gibbons to form ZZ Top.
Chris Vognar is a culture writer at Texas Monthly. He told Texas Standard that in the raucous world of ZZ Top, Hill was the “strong, silent one.”
Hill provided the baseline on top of which Gibbons laid out his virtuosic guitar riffs and vocal lines.
“His sound was the core – that kind of low rumble that wasn’t really showing off a whole lot. But it’s still hard to think of their sound without it,” Vognar said.
When the members of ZZ Top connected in Houston, they had been playing other styles of music but quickly decided they wanted to focus on blues rock. Later, the members of the band became pop stars, Vognar says, capitalizing on their personalities and eventually making music that appealed to a broadening audience around the time MTV began playing music videos that turned their performers into stars.
“They always had a sense of humor, they always had a healthy libido,” Vognar said.
Vognar says songs like “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man” brought ZZ Top into focus for even casual observers.
“They sold out very skillfully,” Vognar said. “Those aren’t bad songs at all – well, most of them aren’t – but they’re different from what they were doing before.”
Gaining a wider audience meant less of an obvious “Texanness” about the band, too. In the early days, Vognar says, you could imagine guitar-heavy, blues-infused ZZ Top songs being played at a Texas roadhouse.
“The synthesizer made all the difference,” he said.
ZZ Top has continued to play gigs, recently without Dusty Hill. Vognar says Hill was a crucial part of the group, both in terms of its image and its sound.