According to Gibbons, their odd name came from one or more of the following - the two brands of rolling-paper, Zig-Zag and Top - a tribute to blues legend Z.Z. Hill - or Gibbons seeing the two words running together on a dilapidated bill board. Even more bizarre, Gibbons and Hill sport two of the longest beards in all of show business, while Frank Beard is clean shaven.
The trio spent its first few years playing mostly regional concerts until Houston record producer Pappy Daily cut a deal to finance "ZZ Top's First Album" (1970). Five other records followed on the London Records label. The third LP, "Tres Hombres" (1973), brought them national attention and a platinum album. Its hit song "La Grange," about a whorehouse, was allegedly based on John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen." It is still the band's signature riff tune. Also included was "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers", the would-be anthem.
Although their concert earnings were now in the tens of millions, by the end of the tour the group was exhausted. They took a break that ended up lasting three years. Manager Bill Ham stayed busy, however, shrewdly negotiating a lucrative recording contract with Warner Brothers that is still talked about in the music business. They resumed their career in 1979 with the superb "Deguello", by which time both Gibbons and Hill had grown lengthy beards (without each other knowing!). Revitalized by their break, the trio offered a series of pulsating original songs on Deguello as well as inspired recreations of Sam And Dave 's 'I Thank You' and Elmore James' 'Dust My Broom'.
The next album, "Eliminator," became ZZ Top's best-selling album (10 million copies in the USA) and featured musically controversial electronic instruments. The synthesizers and drum machines caused controversy in other ways as well. According to former roadie David Blayney in his book, 'Sharp Dressed Men', sound engineer Linden Hudson co-wrote much of the material on the album as a live-in high-tech music teacher to Beard and Gibbons. Hudson claims that in addition to not getting songwriting credit, Bill Ham worked to cover up his contributions to the album. Despite continued denials by the band, it settled a five-year legal battle with Hudson, paying him $600,000 after he allegedly proved he held the copyright on the song "Thug". Another copyright suit was brought by a co-writer of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen", the alleged basis of "La Grange". That case was settled and sealed.
The transitional "El Loco" followed in 1981 and although it lacked the punch of its predecessor, preferring the surreal to the celebratory, the set introduced the growing love of technology that marked the group's subsequent releases.
The follow-up, "Afterburner", was another strong album, although it could not match earlier sales. It did feature some excellent individual moments in 'Sleeping Bag' and 'Rough Boy', and the cleverly titled 'Velcro Fly'. ZZ Top undertook another lengthy break before returning with the impressive "Recycler".
Appearances in 1990 included a movie cameo, playing themselves in Michael J. Fox's "Back To The Future 3", in the town dance scene. Tragedy struck in 1991 when manager Bill Ham's wife, Cecile, was murdered. A 23-year-old man on parole with three prior convictions, strangled her for her car so he wouldn't have to walk to his halfway house. Spencer Goodman, was later convicted and was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, in January, 2000. Ham was present for the execution.
In spite of hard times personally, ZZ Top's 1996 album, "Rythmeen" was considered one of their best. Gibbons called it the "first pure trio record of our career," because only the three of them played on it. That return to an earlier sound, made more pure and raw, continued on their 1999 album, "XXX", which celebrated the band's thirtieth anniversary.
Over 100 concert dates took place on the "XXX Tour" with special guest Lynyrd Skynyrd. The tour was scheduled to continue through July 2000, however, due to Dusty Hill's serious illness, June and July dates were postponed indefinitely.
In 2001, ZZ Top were booked to perform a one-hour show for the inauguration party of President George W. Bush, and also began work in the studio on a new album, which was scheduled for release in 2001.
At the turn of the century, ZZ Top was the only major Rock group with its original members still intact after three decades. On March 16th, 2004, the three of them were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008, ZZ Top performed "Sharp Dressed Man" with David Cook at the season 7 finale of American Idol. Although their tour with Aerosmith was scrubbed following Steven Tyler's stage fall on August 6th, 2009, a new two disc album, which features 'live' performances from 1980 and 2008, was in the works.
The band continued to tour in 2009 and appeared on VH1's Storytellers that July, in celebration of their four decades as recording artists. On January 22nd, 2010, Billy Gibbons accompanied Will Ferrell and others playing "Free Bird" on Conan O'Brien's final show. O'Brien joined them on guitar.
On June 8th, 2011, a press release announced that a new ZZ Top song called "Flyin' High" would debut in space, as astronaut Michael Fossum was given the tune to listen to on his trip to the International Space Station. Billy Gibbons revealed in an interview in August, 2011 that a new album was in the works with a release date set for September, 2012.
In June, 2013, the band released a ten disc boxed set of their first ten albums entitled "Tejas". The following Spring they announced plans for a five week, 2014 Summer tour with guitar legend, Jeff Beck. Two weeks of that tour had to be canceled after bassist Dusty Hill fell on the band's bus and injured his hip. 2015 saw the band back on the road with dates scattered throughout the United States and Canada, as well as the announcement of Billy Gibbons' first solo album, "Perfectamundo", slated for an October release and supported by Gibbons' solo tour. In mid-December, ZZ Top announced a list of more than two dozen Spring dates dubbed the Hell Raisers tour, beginning March 18 in Oklahoma and continuing through May 6 in North Carolina. For 2017, the trio had a series of ten shows they called the Tonnage Tour planned across the United States.
Whether it was by design or chance, they are doomed to be the last entry of every music encyclopedia.