Billy Gibbons surprised music buffs and ZZ Top fans in November when he released his first solo album, Perfectamundo, steeped in Cuban rhythms. The departure from ZZ Top’s powerful blues rock, though, made perfect sense to Gibbons.
“Like the old blues cats say, ‘It’s in him and it got to come out,’” Gibbons explains. “As a kid, I learned Latin rhythm at the behest of the real mambo king, Tito Puente. My bandleader dad, amused with my banging on trash cans, pots, and pans, sent me into Manhattan to focus the racket under the watchful eye of the greatest Latin percussionist of the time. It took a while for it to manifest for consumption by the public at large, but for me, at least, it's been well worth the wait."
So why a debut solo album -- with a new backing band, the BFGs -- so late in an incredible career? “Well, it feels like we’re really just getting started,” Gibbons says. “We didn’t have a project in mind that mandated a sound other than ZZ Top's sonics until now. An invitation to participate in the Havana Jazz Festival was the catalyst to get something going Cuban style, so we focused on how to do it, and Perfectamundo took shape thereafter.”
The BFGs are not the only band other than ZZ Top that Gibbons has played in. He played in a handful of Texas bands many moons ago. At age 14, he formed a band called the Saints and then played in a mid-1960s band, the Coachmen. The Coachmen changed their name to the Moving Sidewalks, and they released an album in 1968 and opened for Jimi Hendrix and other big names. Gibbons was an early proponent of Hendrix’s talents, and Hendrix mentioned Gibbons as a top guitarist on the Dick Cavett television show.
“The Moving Sidewalks was the startup to get something pro going and appreciated.” Gibbons says. “The Sidewalks got released nationally on the radio and took off touring with names we still recognize, including Jimi Hendrix, our pal Jeff Beck [with whom ZZ recently toured], the Doors and Eric Burdon and the Animals. Jimi was kind, shy, and sympathetic. That doesn’t sound like the firebrand we saw onstage, but that’s the way he was. One night after a show, we got together and banded some sponges dipped in Day-Glo paint to the headstocks of the guitars. We cranked up the amps, turned up the black lights and painted with sound — unforgettable.”
ZZ Top formed in 1970, and Gibbons and bandmates Frank Beard and Dusty Hill quickly became world-renowned for their grungy blues rock and Texas humor. There have been so many incredible achievements since then, in ZZ Top’s hugely successful career, and Gibbons points out the most satisfying moment: “When Keith Richards inducted the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 2004], it felt as if we had reached a pinnacle on every measurable level,” he says. “It simply doesn't get more fulfilling than that.”
Looking back through the years and the many albums ZZ Top has recorded, Gibbons doesn’t waver when asked which songs he considers the best.
“We have lots to consider, of course, but we always think of ‘Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago’ as a good sample of what we do. They’ve been juxtaposed together since the Tres Hombres album came out [in 1973]. That unusual combo was an editing error that eliminated the silent band between the two, so we’ve been destined to perform them as a duo ever since. [They've got] blues, rock, gospel — everything we like in a mashup that audiences seem to dig, too.”
I mention to Gibbons that I first saw ZZ Top in the early 1970s at the Niagara Falls Convention Center in New York, and Aerosmith was the warmup act. “Those guys were good back then,” he says, “and, over the years, we’ve stayed in touch. We’ve shared bills with them quite a few times, so concert promoters could say they were putting on a show that included everything from A to ZZ. Steven Tyler did not go over the falls in a barrel as far as we know, but I wouldn’t put it past him.”
But what were the best concerts Gibbons has attended? “Taking in the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Austin's Rome Inn on Blue Mondays way back still shakes the rafters," he says. "I caught Rodney Crowell fronting the Cherry Bombs on the West Coast in Redondo Beach with Frank Rekard's B-Bender guitar work standing stellar to this day. There's still a mean scene to behold in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at El Farol up Canyon Road, with Freddie Lopez holding things tight and together. Sizzling.”
Still the performance that influenced Gibbons the most as a musician was down in Texas. “It was actually a recording session that my dad brought me to when I was about six or seven," he says. "It was B.B. King at Bill Holford's ACA Studio in Houston, Texas. My bandleader dad had entrée with Bill and took me along where I became totally transfixed with everything I saw and heard. I knew that whatever I did in life had to have some bluesy electric guitar as part of it. The die was cast!”