Gary James' Interview With ZZ Top's stage manager
They're known as that "little ole band from Texas." Of course we're referring to ZZ Top. For over twenty years now, ZZ Top has made their presence known in the music business. Just consider that ZZ Top is number 25 among the top entertainment earners (according to Forbes Magazine) even in a non-touring year! Their last two tours in 1986 and 1991 was the number one and number two (behind The Grateful Dead) tours of those years. Their 1991 tour of North America saw them perform before 2.1 million people. ZZ Top recently closed a five album, $40 million deal with RCA.
Surprisingly, there has never been an inside account of what it took to get ZZ Top to the top...until now.
David Blayney has written the inside story on ZZ Top. He went to high school with Billy Gibbons and met Dusty Hill and Frank Beard shortly thereafter. Between 1969 and 1984, David Blayney served as the group's lighting director and designer, production manager, stage manager and general galley slave, or in David's words, "I did everything there was to do except book the shows, play the music and collect the money."
David's book is titled Sharp Dressed Men, ZZ Top Behind the Scenes, From Blues to Boogie to Beards. (Hyperion Books)
Q - David, why has it taken this long for the inside story of ZZ Top to be written?
A - Well, I suppose the only people who were insiders to do it, namely the band management, probably were too busy to get around to it, putting their history down in words or else they're still writing them, so to speak. I'd guess that the band is too busy writing songs and taking care of their material to write their autobiographies. Same with Bill Ham (ZZ Top's manager) he's too busy managing. J.W. Williams would be a natural candidate because he's been with 'em for twenty years. But there again, he's busy. I guess because I managed to retire and walk away from it and had fifteen years of memories intact, I guess I had the time to do it.
Q - Did anyone in ZZ Top's management try to stop you from writing this book?
A - I presented the book personally to Frank Beard (ZZ Top's drummer). I also gave the assistant manager of the band a copy for himself and a copy for Bill Ham, Dusty and Billy. So everybody, band and management, got covered with books. I haven't gotten any word from them. What I've heard from the assistant manager, J.W. Williams, who was also with the crew way back when, was "From what I can see, you've been very kind." I'm sure all of 'em were expecting a trash talk, tell all. This is a humorous story about the evolvement of several individuals who made up one particular group and how they evolved and matured along with the industry, from the stone age days to the super technological eye-popping, ear-splitting rock 'n roll of the present.
Q - Since there's really no scandals contained in your book, I'm just wondering, did you leave anything out on the advice of your attorney or publisher?
A - Absolutely not. I wanted a humorous accounting because every time I recount the stories to friends, there's not one that's not funny. It might've been painful at the time, but now the wounds have healed, it's funny. I wanted someone who was not necessarily a ZZ Top or rock 'n roll fan to pick it up and enjoy it. I've accomplished that to a certain extent. It's spanned all age groups. I could've written a more black chronicle and gotten into other things, but I didn't think it was necessary. It would've take away from the tone I was trying to set. But, no one advised me to leave anything out.
Q - I heard that Billy Gibbons had a problem with the white stuff in the mid-1980s. Any truth to that or is that just a rumor?
A - Hmm. I would say that it's just a rumor. Billy, to my knowledge, has always had his head screwed on pretty straight as far as drugs. He's zany in other ways. He gets his kicks building weird guitars and creating strange cars. I left in 1983 and to that point, I wasn't aware of any problem of his. He was into TM - Transcendental Meditation - for a while. He was meatless for a while. He kind of moved in and out of, let's say different trendy fad type diets and ways of living. Usually it was pretty tame stuff. Billy's drug was tequila shots every now and then. But as far as I know, he never was having a problem with anything. There again, I was gone October 7, 1983 to be exact. That was the last show I worked.
Q - Why do you say in the book that Billy Gibbons will probably never get married?
A - He's such a free spirit that I don't think he'd ever want to be tied down with responsibilities for other people besides himself. Not that he's selfish, it's just his lifestyle. He moves around a lot. When he goes to his condominium in Houston, at least the last time I was aware of, he very rarely slept in his bed 'cause he very rarely was at home. He was always out of the city whenever they were off the road. He's always touring around, doing car shows or just going places. He says he doesn't go to bed when he's in town, he goes to couch 'cause he sleeps on his couch. He's not going to be tied down. In my opinion, if he ever is, it probably will be later on in his life. I can't see him getting married early on and raising a family. He's just not that kind of guy.
Q - Is it true that Bill Ham (ZZ Top's manager) doesn't like to have his picture taken and there is only one known photo of Bill Ham in existence?
A - There's no truth to that at all. He might prefer not to have his picture taken, but that's simply because he doesn't want to steal any limelight from whomever he might be with at the time, like when he was with Clint Black. I'm sure he felt "let him stand here and take his picture, don't take mine. He's the star. I'm just the manager." It wasn't any secret or something he didn't want to be identified for. The limelight isn't him. It's whoever he's managing. Shoot, I got plenty of pictures of Bill and I'm sure other people do to. He's never sent the knee breakers after me to get the film.
Q - Have you any idea how much money it took Bill Ham to get ZZ Top off the ground?
A - That would be a tough one to figure up.
Q - Anybody in the band ever talk to you about it?
A - Not really. How much money it took to get them launched...I couldn't even begin to estimate. One Marshall (amplifier) stack back then cost about $1,000. Billy went from two to three on his side and Dusty went from one to two to three. That was an exciting part of the early days too...the guitar wars. Billy was always wanting us to turn Dusty down and Dusty never felt like he was loud enough. Gibbons always had to have one more stack than the bass player. Finally, they balanced it out and everybody learned more or less, how to blend together as they matured and the music evolved. The guitar wars ceased or at least they were less prevalent.
Q - You say that in the early days of ZZ Top's career, they were part of many unusual marquee match ups. You bring up the northeast tour with ZZ Top as openers for Earth, Wind and Fire and head-liners Uriah Heep. I saw that show in Syracuse. It was a great show and a great line-up of talent.
A - It was a weird crowd wasn't it? (laughs)
Q - No, I don't think so.
A - You don't thinks so, huh?
Q - That was a unique opportunity for people to be exposed to some fantastic music. If you thought that match up was strange, who do you think ZZ Top should have been opening for?
A - You're right. At that time, anybody who drew beating pulses got in front of as many people as possible. The heck with demographics. So at the time it didn't matter. Just play. Play in front of anyone that came to see you. As things evolved, I would think that a psychedelic band and a blues boogie band wouldn't exactly be a balanced marquee. Maybe at the time it was desirable because there wasn't enough of any one group to pull from. So you'd have to put together shows that reached across the musical lines and would gather enough people to produce a sell-out and therefore make it economically feasible. I'm guessing that's why the promoters did that kind of thing back then.
Q - You write about how an act gets a tour: "It is based on an act's current album sales, it's status in certain regions of the country, drawing power in certain cities, how much an act can bleed off a more popular name, what favors an act owes, how much money under the table has been generated, what future kickbacks are promised." Were you ever witness to bribes or kickbacks being paid to get ZZ Top on tour in the '70s?
A - No, not exactly.
Q - Then how did you come up with all of that?
A - I heard conversations, not necessarily bribes to get on tour, but there were manipulations out during a tour. For instance, the Bob Welch version of Fleetwood Mac was headlining one night and we were opening up for 'em. But then we moved to a different part of the country, a few hundred miles south probably and we headlined over them. It was very unusual back then for an opening act to be the headliner the next night and not have it be like a friendly deal like when the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and The Band rotated on a short tour. They'd each be the headliner from night to night. But this wasn't the case. Bill Ham did some serious negotiation and made some people see the light...that this is our territory here, you guys open. That's mainly what I'm alluding to. I was aware of hearing promoters being given certain tangible items to maybe put an act on as an opener, just to give 'em some exposure. Just stick 'em on for the first thirty minutes.
Q - ZZ Top opened three shows for the Rolling Stones in Hawaii in 1973.
A - Right. January 21, January 22, 1973.
Q - And they got encores.
A - Yeah. Definitely.
Q - And they blew the Stones off the stage?
A - Now who said that? I wouldn't have said that. (laughs)
Q - I believe Circus Magazine made that observation.
A - First off, something like that is all subjective. But, let's put it this way, back in those days when no one had a clue as to who or what ZZ Top was, when they would go out and appear to an audience that was totally cold to them and maybe they'd heard one or two songs on the radio...it blew their minds. It would catch them off guard. It was so strong coming from three pieces. It was like, how come I haven't heard of these guys? Where have they been? They would catch a lot of people by surprise. Therefore, people would go away remembering ZZ rather than The Stones. In that respect, you might say they blew The Stones off the stage. Their music is strong and full in that format, especially back then, without all the unnecessary augmentation that their music requires now for "live" presentation. You could safely make that statement and not feel like you were lying, although it's tough to blow an act like The Stones off the stage much less in 1973, which was one of their peak periods I'd have to say. But, we definitely held our own and definitely blew the audiences minds. So that's not far off at all.
Q - How did ZZ Top get to open for Janis Joplin in 1969?
A - I have no idea. I wasn't part of the group. I was just part of the audience. They were local and 'hot'. Billy (Gibbons) was known around the city. I think whoever was doing the Janis Joplin show might've liked Billy in his Moving Sidewalks band. It could've been a Bill Ham deal. I don't know. They opened up for Janis. They opened up for Grand Funk in the Coliseum. Moving Sidewalks opened for The Doors and John Mayall. If I'm not mistaken, The Doors concert was the first time Bill Ham saw Billy Gibbons play. Then Billy jammed with John Mayall and Ham saw him again. I think that's when he approached him. I'm a little hazy on the details. But, Ham went back when they were The Sidewalks and gave him his name.
Q - Where did Billy Gibbons come up with that funny way of singing?
A - Well, that's part of his humor. I saw this evolve for fifteen years. Billy is just so funny. If he was more physically animated as well as mentally animated, as he is, he'd be like Robin Williams. His mind is always going. He's just not as demonstrative as a Robin Williams type. He's super funny and he picks up those dialects and vocal styles. That's just his way of separating himself from everybody else. It's no secret, he's no crooner. He's like Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson and Billy Gibbons aren't singers, they're vocal stylists. Pavarotti is a singer, you know. (laughs) I'd say he's trying to sound more black than white. That's his style. There's humor there. It's funky to him. ZZ started off wanting to be a black, bluesy sounding band and that's one of the rumors of the name - B.B. King, Z.Z. Hill, ZZ Top. It just kind of evolved like that.
Q - Are those false beards that ZZ Top sport?
A - Absolutely not. My God, where would you go to buy something like that, that's false? (laughs) They're real.
Q - What keeps ZZ Top together? Is it the money?
A - I'd say that would be last. There's all kinds of driving forces. It's what they do. It's what they like to do. They've been doing it now for over a quarter of a century. They're like an old married couple. They have their fights, their arguments. They have their temporary separations if you will, but they like what they're doing. They blend together well musically, they're old friends. So it's just what they like to do and what they've been successful at.
Q - You prefer to be called "technician" rather than "roadie"?
A - (laughs) I really don't care That's kind of a running joke. Yesterday I couldn't spell technician and now I are one. (laughs) "Roadie" became kind of a derogatory term because of the stereotype, especially after the Meatloaf movie. If you talk to a front system engineer at Showco or anybody at Showco and you call 'em a roadie, it's kind of an insult, because they're much more than that now. Back then, yeah. I started off as a roadie and then I advanced and matured into a technician.
Q - At one point you figured out that with all the hours you were putting in, you were working for forty cents an hour.
A - That was high end too. (laughs)
Q - So why did you do it? What was the attraction?
A - I loved to hear the band play. It wasn't necessarily rock 'n roll per se. I don't know if I could've been in a different place and worked for somebody else that maybe I didn't like as much. The way these guys played, their music just grabbed me. This rock 'n roll circus man, it just gets in your blood.
Q - Were "groupies" a big attraction for you?
A - No. Not at all. We weren't even aware of that back then.
Q - I would've thought that would be the biggest incentive to get involved with a rock band.
A - Now see, that's the roadie stigma kind of thing. Rock 'n roll, there must be "groupies". I like listening to 'live' music. It was the love for the music. How could you see 3 to 4 thousand shows of the same band and not love them?