Joseph “Dusty” Hill, ZZ Top’s bassist for more than 50 years, has died, the group’s longtime rep confirmed. No cause of death was cited.
The band’s Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard issued a statement:
“We are saddened by the news today that our Compadre, Dusty Hill, has passed away in his sleep at home in Houston, TX. We, along with legions of ZZ Top fans around the world, will miss your steadfast presence, your good nature, and enduring commitment to providing that monumental bottom to the ‘Top’. We will forever be connected to that ‘Blues Shuffle in C.’
“You will be missed greatly, amigo.”
Earlier this month, Gibbons and Beard played their first performances without Hill in more than 50 years, stating that the bassist had been forced to seek medical attention “to address a hip issue,” according to a statement, although his ailment was apparently more serious than they let on. “Per Dusty’s request the show must go on!,” the statement continued, and the band’s longtime guitar tech, Elwood Francis, filled in.
While ZZ Top was best known for their synthesizer-powered 1980s hits, they were a thoroughly Texan, heavy rock-blues band at heart, spawned from the same psychedelic scene that birthed Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators but keeping things roots and rocking throughout their more than 50-year career.
Hill was born in Dallas in 1949 and played cello in high school, which made for an easy transition to electric bass. He, his guitarist brother Rocky and future fellow ZZ Top Frank Beard, a drummer, played in local bands such as the Warlocks, the Cellar Dwellers, and American Blues, working same Texas touring circuits as ace guitarist Billy Gibbons’ band, the Moving Sidewalks.
The brothers parted company in 1968 over musical differences, and Hill and Beard moved to Houston, where they eventually united with Gibbons in ZZ Top. Gibbons had formed the band in 1969 and recorded a one-off independent single produced by manager Bill Ham, who would remain with them for decades. The act’s original bassist introduced the guitarist to Beard; Hill would join Gibbons and Beard for a gig in Beaumont, TX, on Feb. 10, 1970. The lineup remained the same for more than five decades: They celebrated their 50th anniversary at a San Antonio concert in February 2020.
Launched on London Records in 1971, the Houston-bred threesome secured its first major hit with the No. 8 LP “Tres Hombres” in 1973; the set included the raunchy single “La Grange,” a homage to the Chicken Ranch, the notorious bordello in the like-named Texas city. Another top 10 albums, “Fandango!,” followed in 1975, powered by the FM-staple single “Tush.” Half of that album was recorded live in New Orleans and captured the band’s powerful blues-rock groove. Moving to Warner Bros. in 1979 for “Degüello,” which shifted 1 million copies.
By the end of the ‘70s, ZZ Top’s potent brand of gutsy, no-frills blues ‘n’ boogie had made it one of America’s top concert attractions; its elaborate 1976 Worldwide Texas Tour featured actual livestock on stage.
While the popularity of “Degüello” hinted at bigger things to come, “El Loco” (1981) introduced both the sound and the look that would put the band over the top. The first hints of the sonic manipulation that would take center stage on “Eliminator” were heard on that set. Also, two years of tonsorial neglect between tours resulted in Gibbons’ and Hill’s long beards, which graced the album’s cover.
But it moved to another level of popularity with 1983’s “Eliminator,” which found Gibbons and his bandmates experimenting with new technologies – guitar loops, manipulated vocals, and synthesized bass and drums — that refreshed their sound.
The breakout success of three “Eliminator” singles – “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” – and their accompanying videos, which featured car aficionado Gibbons’ like-named 1934 Ford coupe, lofted the band to a new level of commercial success and popular ubiquity. In the wake of “Recycler,” the band was cast as themselves in Bob Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future III” (1990).
“Eliminator” peaked at No. 9 and spent a remarkable 183 weeks on the American album charts, ultimately receiving diamond certification for sales of more than 10 million copies. The megahit album was succeeded by the quintuple-platinum “Afterburner” (1985) and the million-selling “Recycler” (1990).
In 1994, ZZ Top exited Warner Bros. for a highly publicized $35 million pact with RCA Records. With that move, Gibbons took on co-production duties with the band’s manager Bill Ham, who had helmed their studio work since the group’s debut single. The immediate result was the platinum album “Antenna.” Gibbons took the solo production reins on the group’s last two RCA releases, “XXX” (1999) and “Mescalero” (2003), and co-produced “La Futura” (2012) with Rick Rubin for his American Recordings imprint.