Gary James' Interview With Scott Willis
Of The ZZ Top Tribute Band
Sharp Dressed Man
They are known nationally and internationally as the best and most authentic tribute band to that 'Li'l Ole Band From Texas, ZZ Top! We spoke with Scott Willis, the Billy Gibbons of the group, Sharp Dressed Man.
Q - Scott, you are the number one ZZ Top tribute show. How'd you get that title?
A - I say that myself, but I do have to say there was a VH1 Rock Honor Show where they honored ZZ Top. They had an online, "Who has the best fan page?" And quite frankly there were some other websites on there that were better than my website as far as information actually about ZZ Top, discographies, photos, but amazingly my band just completely blew everything else away (laughs). Everybody loved our band and our website. So we won the Best ZZ Top fan page on VH1. But the main reason I say that is, I've seen what everybody else out there has done, even internationally. Our show is the most authentic replication of a ZZ Top concert. In fact, they were here last year (2013) and they played in a smaller venue called The Midland Theater in Kansas City. It seats about 5000 people. My bass player went down there and watched it. It was very intimate. They kind of acted like they were sitting in the living room with everybody. And we were watching the show... We've seen 'em so many times, we've watched all the videos from decades of performances and the "Live From Texas" DVD being one of the more recent ones. What we've done is, we've incorporated their entire shtick really, the choreography, the goofy banter. Just all the little ins-and-outs they do in concert. As we were sitting in the Midland Theater watching the show, we were telling each other, "Okay, here's where they do this," and they would do it. My bass player, Don Lybarger, he said, "Man, this is like watching ourselves." So that's the kind of show we do. The other part of it is, we try to keep as close to the record as we can because people who are so familiar with ZZ Top, if you start improvising or going off on something on a tangent, everybody is going to know. One of the things I think everybody likes best about the way we do it is, they hear every note. People know every note, like the solo from "La Grange". People know exactly how that goes. I mean, you can just sing it in your head. So, they like the fact that I do it note for note. Singing wise, I suppose you could find other people that sound like Billy Gibbons, but rarely do you find the combination where the guy can sing like that and play the licks.
Q - I first saw ZZ Top in 1973 and they didn't have the beards then. Later of course, Billy and Dusty grew the beards and strangely enough, Frank Beard has no beard.
A - I know, we always joke about that. In fact, my drummer calls himself Not Frank. (Laughs).
Q - When you guys do your tribute, you wear the beards.
A - Right.
Q - What year did you first see ZZ Top?
A - Oh Lord. You mean as far as in concert?
Q - Yes.
A - I did not see the worldwide Texas tour and I really think the first time I went to their concert was on the Eliminator tour. So that was in the '80s.
Q - To see ZZ Top, out in cowboy hats and jeans, that's a different kind of experience.
A - I know. Absolutely, and their first tour was The Rolling Stones back in '71 or '72. They ran around a whole year opening for The Stones. I want to say it was '71, but I'm not positive. So I kind of knew them more from the '80s, but I had already been playing guitar and I knew the songs. "Tres Hombres" was a favorite of mine. That was just their second album. There's so many great songs on that, "Waiting On The Bus", "Jesus Just Left Chicago". That was the one that really got my attention from a guitar playing standpoint, and of course the MTV years, that's what made ZZ Top blowup worldwide popularity, although they were already pretty popular. But MTV kind of really did it. By that time they had created their look with the beards. They actually still hadn't got to the sunglasses part. (Laughs). I guess you can't replicate everything, but you want to do what people know the best. I think what people know the best are the fancy outfits, the beards, Billy's African hat. I have one of those I wear. Then of course you gotta have fuzzy guitars. If you have stage props, that's good. Recently they started using those semi-looking heat covers that have the lights inside of them that light up for microphone stands, those chrome looking ones. We fashioned some of those. Years ago they used to run around with some cactus that would light up in the background. I didn't replicate those exactly, but we had a cactus that had lights on 'em. Actually, when I stopped using 'em, people started saying "Where's the cactus?" (laughs). It was funny. We just try to re-create as much as we can. Really the main part of it is the swaying guitars left and right. It's just like seeing ZZ Top. We just think we do an authentic and real sounding replication of a ZZ Top concert.
Q - How many bands would you say there are doing a ZZ Top tribute?
A - In the United States, there's another one that just popped up in Salina, Kansas and they call themselves Fandango. To be honest with you, it's really sad what's going on 'cause a lot of musicians out there have discovered that tribute bands pay more or you get more jobs and so people have just started doing it to do it. See, my band started a little differently. There's a group called Cheap Sunglasses that's out in California where they've got three bearded guys. One's a standup singer. Again, that's not a realistic replication of a show. They (ZZ Top) don't have three bearded guys. There had been a group called Tres Hombres. They may or may not still do something. There was a band, El Loco, that played out of Seattle. There had been a real good group called Eliminator out of Chicago. I don't think they are playing too much anymore. They were kind of a popular group. Pretty good I thought, but they mostly hung out in the Chicago area. They traveled some, but it seemed like a few years back they really, really reeled it in. Of course there are a couple of others that are really not worth mentioning. So, I would say there's about a half a dozen that are actually working at it.
Q - You started what, eight years ago?
A - No, thirteen.
Q - You got the jump on everybody else.
A - Well yeah, but I didn't do it because I wanted to be in a tribute band or I wanted to make money. That didn't have anything to do with it. I had not been performing for over twelve years prior to that, but I played at home. I kept working on my guitar playing skills. I just loved to play guitar. So I would always play at home. Heck, I'd drag an acoustic with me when we were having a cookout somewhere and play. I got to a point where my guys were trying to convince me to do something. So what I decided to do; because they said "You played that ZZ Top stuff perfect and you sound like that guy singing those songs," it was my friends kind of leading me on. I thought about putting together a little local act. I didn't even think about the beards or anything like that. Maybe just do an hour, covering ZZ Top hit songs and maybe open for somebody at a club here locally. Just kind of a novelty type thing. Then I went and actually saw a tribute band here locally and I didn't even know what it was. That's how far removed I was. There was a Pink Floyd tribute out of Lansing, Kansas that had the laser lights and the big, round projection screen. They played this stuff just like on the albums. I contacted the guy who booked that who was their keyboard player and I said, "What's this thing you are doing? I'm kind of fooling around with something here and I'm interested in doing what you guys do." He said, "Well, a tribute band. If you look like 'em, sound like 'em, and put on a realistic performance and have a really good act..." That's when I started thinking about where I could find some good, theatrical beards. I wonder if I could find some good outfits? Actually, I ended up just making outfits myself. I turned into a seamstress I guess.
Q - Another skill!
A - Well, how do you figure out how to make an African hat like Billy Gibbons wears? You don't go buy one of those!(laughs). Here I'm sewing a hat together. It just turned out to be a funny thing. Our very first show that we did was at this little Breeze Way Bar in Sedalia, Missouri at the State Fair. My buddy Don had been performing with his family there. He had kind of a Country Partridge Family that had been performing there for over twenty years. He said, "I think I can get us like an hour down there." So we went down and played for like an hour and dressed up. That was our first deal. I hadn't played for so long that people were pointing their phones at me and I didn't even know what they were doing. I was like, "They're taking pictures." (Laughs). It freaked me out. It didn't occur to me right away because like I said, I hadn't performed for a long time. Anyway, we drew a huge crowd. A fellow came up and asked me if I could do a charity event in Lawrence, Kansas, which is close to where I live. I said, "Why sure." I think they said they'd pay us like 100 bucks apiece. We went and played the show and there was like five bands in the venue at Liberty Hall, which is a really, really nice place to play in Lawrence, Kansas at the University of Kansas. What I didn't realize is that they had recorded the show and took a couple of the best songs from every band and put it on a VHS tape and started circulating 'em out to booking agents. I didn't even know that they had done that. That's when things kind of took off. My phone started ringing. People said, "Hey, can you come to Nebraska? Can you come to Texas? Can you come to Mexico?" It was great. All of a sudden we started going and then I started at some point running it like a business. (Laughs). Then we ended up getting real busy. Several years now, in the events season from May to September, early October, two, three weekends a month we are out of town playing motorcycle rallies or barbecue contests. That was kind of the progression.
Q - How many gigs would you say you do a year?
A - Oh, it's dropped off significantly here lately and I think the main reason is because a lot of these venues have tightened up their budgets over the last two to three years especially. We didn't notice it much until last year (2013). But I think I get the same amount of inquiries I always have. They want us to cover three to four hours sometimes and I just don't do that. It cheapens my show. I can play an hour and a half and everyone is going to want to hear and sing along and dance around to every song I play, but gosh, if you have to stretch it out much longer than that, it just kind of kills the show. For quite a while there, we were running, and this is a part-time weekend thing for me anyway and always has been, maybe 30 to 40 shows a year. Just events. We really don't do bars. If we did bars, we could play all the time.
Q - Have you ever me "Wild" Bill Gibbons?
A - (laughs). Yeah. It's kind of funny 'cause we bumped into those guys several times. The funny part was, the second time we played down at the Missouri State Fair, we were actually supposed to have backstage passes to hang out with those guys. That was actually considered our pay for playing down at the State Fair again. The Bud guy, I don't know, I guess had too many Buds and had a bunch of pretty girls around him. Anyway, he gave away our passes. We played a set at the Breeze Way Bar and then ZZ Top that night was in the Grandstand arena and afterwards we were going to play another set back down there again. Well, as we were trying to figure out how we were going to get backstage, meet and hang out, 'cause basically that was what our pay was going to be, it was kind of getting close to concert time and it just became apparent that we weren't really going to get to do that. We intended to take off the beards and outfits when we did that to hang out. So we decided we wanted to watch the show, so we went over to get tickets and all they had left was nosebleed grandstand type stuff. We're like, "We are not doing that!" They said, "Just buy a ticket and we'll get you down on the floor." So we did that and we were still just up in our stuff. (Laughs). We went walking down there towards the front and it was just funny. Everybody wanted to get a picture with us. Of course when those guys came out, we were standing out there trying to convince somebody we were supposed to be backstage. But, long story short, those guys saw us there and were kind of amused by the fact that we were all dressed up the way we were. Actually, Frank (Beard) came down and watched some of our set afterwards. The only time I got to meet those guys was they did a show here a couple of years ago. Quiet Riot opened up with Kevin Du Brow before he passed away. I'm not really the star struck type of person, but my wife saw all the buses out back. So we went down there and I got talking to the security guy and the bus driver and anyway we got a chance to meet 'em briefly. Got a chance to meet Dusty and shake his hand. It was really funny 'cause I gave those guys Sharp Dressed Man T-shirts.