Sometimes events line up in a way that makes you wonder if there isn’t some larger plan.
Two weeks ago had that feel, when, within days of one another, we saw the death of Dusty Hill and the 40thanniversary of the debut of MTV. MTV probably would have succeeded without Hill and his bandmates, but the latter were prominent in the former’s skyrocketing popularity in the early 1980s.
Joseph Michael “Dusty” Hill died July 28, of causes unknown. He, besides Billy Gibbons, was the other Smith Bros.-bearded guy in that that Lil’ Ol’ Band from Texas, ZZ Top. As Gibbons noted humorously, the third member, drummer Frank Beard, was the only one who didn’t have one.
Hill was born in May 1949 in Dallas, Texas, and began singing for money at age eight, with his older brother, Rocky. Joined by Beard, they played under a number of different band names on the Dalllas-Fort Worth-Houston circuit — at one point, impersonating the British Invasion group the Zombies.
After a couple years of that, in 1968, Dusty and Rocky parted company over the bands’ musical direction, the former wanting to play more rock, the latter desiring a more straight-blues approach. Beard and Dusty Hill then joined with Gibbons, guitarist for the Houston psychedelic band Moving Sidewalks, to form ZZ Top. From the get-go, Gibbons was lead guitarist and vocalist, and principal songwriter, but Hill played keyboards in addition to the bass, and sang lead occasionally.
What followed was 15 albums and nearly four dozen singles, the most recent in both categories coming out in 2012. Five of their LPs sold in the Top 10; 20 of their singles charted, seven in the Top 40, their highest chart position being a pair of No. 8s. (The band did have several No. 1s on Billboard’s separate, Mainstream Rock chart.) Their albums have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and include several gold and multiple-platinum records.
Most of ZZ Top’s more-successful recordings came out in 1981 and afterwards. Their No. 17 LP El Loco was released July 20 of that year, and their next three albums, put out over the next nine years, were Top 10s.
Part of the credit for that success had to go to MTV, which debuted on Aug. 1, 1981. Following an intro by John Lack , the executive VP of its corporate parent, Warner Cable — “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” — the music and video began, appropriately and prophetically, with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
The new channel/concept was initially only available to New Jersey viewers, but spread quickly throughout the U.S. and across the world. Its impact was early and obvious: it played up-and-coming and unknown acts that weren’t getting radio airplay, and introduced many new groups, particularly those from the U.K. But over the past two decades, reality shows have taken over the channel’s programming, and music videos are pretty much a thing of the past, not the future.
MTV held its first music video awards program in 1984, and ZZ Top quickly made its mark in those ceremonies. The band won MTV’s top awards (in different categories) for “Legs,” “Sharp-Dressed Man” and “Rough Boy”; the first of those was among their most successful singles.
Top’s music videos were indeed entertaining. They featured polished production, a wry sense of humor that included a bit of sexual entendre and innuendo — and often, of course, their signature hot-rodded 1933 Ford, the Eliminator Coupe.
ZZ Top had not done any new music recently, since the 2012 album and single, but did continue to tour, Hill having to leave their latest campaign a few weeks before his death. Two years ago, though, they intimated that a new album was coming.
Don’t know how Hill’s death will affect that, but he said then that the band had plenty of new stuff “in the can,” and Gibbons teased that they were working on new music. Hill has been replaced, per his wishes, by his long-time guitar tech Elwood Francis.
I hope they do put out some new music; their big, blues-influenced rock sound has held up well. Just don’t expect to see it on MTV.