"Let Dusty Sing One!" ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill (1949-2021) and the Pursuit of the Perfect Note

Legendary Texas bassist died in his sleep Tuesday night

Dusty Hill performing with ZZ Top at the Austin360 Amphitheater on May 19, 2019 (photo by David Brendan Hall)

I am crying. If you are Texan, you are too.

If you’re like me, you’re weeping, eating barbecue, and blasting Fandango! It’s only appropriate, when a member of ZZ Top passes away, as bassist Dusty Hill did in his sleep at his home in Houston, Tuesday night, July 27, 2021, according to a statement released Wednesday afternoon by bandmates Frank Beard and Billy F. Gibbons.

“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’,” wrote Beard and Gibbons. “We will forever be connected to that ’Blues Shuffle in C.’

“You will be missed greatly, amigo,” they concluded.

Hill was the glue of ZZ Top, their secret weapon. His tone was fat, his touch perfect. They may have been doing their Lone Star take on the loud, rocked-up blues format that English bands like Cream favored. But ZZ Top wasn’t using blues as an excuse for masturbatory instrumental passages. Every member of the band was committed to playing one note, but it was the perfect note, so full of juicy tone that it would lay perfectly in place. And then they would ride that note to death.

Cover design by Jason Stout

“I met Dusty when I was maybe 15 or 16, playing in different bands in Dallas,” Beard drawled at me backstage at the Alamodome on Dec. 7th, 2013, when I interviewed him for an Austin Chronicle ZZ Top cover story. (See “Tracking The Beards,” Dec. 27, 2013.) “We started playing together in the American Blues [with Rocky Hill, Dusty’s brother] in about ’66, ’67, something like that. Made a couple of records, and as bands do, we broke up. Then I got a call from another buddy from Dallas. [Early ZZ Top bassist] Billy Etheridge was down in Houston, and he started playing with Billy [Gibbons]. He said, ’Hey, I found this great guitarist down here. I’ve been playing with him, but the drummer’s not cutting it. We need you.’ So, I packed up all my drums and threw ’em in this Volkswagen I had and went down there. I jammed with Billy and Billy Etheridge, and got hired right on the spot. Then two months later, Billy Etheridge’s wife was a Braniff stewardess, and she got transferred to Tulsa. So, he quit. I said, ’Well, I know a guy in Dallas who can fill in for us.’ That was Dusty, and that was ’69. Been together ever since.”

“It was Frank that found the expression that was probably the most appealing,” added Gibbons in his clipped, measured tones an hour later. “He said, ’Hey, since we’re talking about bass players, there’s a guy that I’ve worked with since I was 14.’ I mean, we were 18 then, boy!” he laughed.

“But that was a remarkable connection that was of value,” he concluded. “Because I was fortunate enough to have stepped into this powerhouse bass player/drummer relationship that was unrelenting. Then once the three of us gelled, it was ’Let’s go!’

“Frank and Dusty have worked together since they were 14,” he mused the next day, in his suite at the San Antonio Grand Hyatt. “They’re by no means reduced to just sidemen. However, the functionary positioning as sidemen is to lay down a platform that makes it the most beneficial springboard. Dude, I can go just crazy, and there they are, providing that platform. Probably one of the reasons it has worked so well for so long is they enjoy being the chassis, the railbed. And I get to be the gear grinder.”

“I’d toyed around with three-piece groups before,” Hill recalled backstage at the Alamodome 12 hours earlier, in a twang perched somewhere between his bandmates’. “And I think Billy had. But I don’t think until the three of us played together did it ever sound like more. It was just the way we played. Y’know, the first song we played together – well, it wasn’t a song. It was a shuffle in C done on the spot. And it was long. We just kept playing it, because it felt so good. All of this sounds like hype, but this is true.”

“Well, as a band member yourself, you know those moments where you say, ’Alright, let’s just do three minutes and just see what happens,’" Gibbons smiled at his longtime bandmate. “But three hours later, everyone is still doing it and smiling. Because it just feels so good.”

“Like Billy said, Frank and I were fortunate in that we’d played in bands together and we’d found a rhythmic relationship to set Billy up,” shrugged Hill. “But yeah, it just felt really good from the beginning and it was stunning. ‘Whoa!’”

Read Tim Stegall's interview with Billy Gibbons on the death of Dusty Hill and the future of ZZ Top. (photo by David Brendan Hall)

They rode that simple, effective groove from the hard-grindin’ Texas boogie of 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album through the mega-selling proto-electronica of Eliminator, all the way to 2012’s back-to-the-boogie La Futura, their last studio release. It was always about their deep blues roots, that “shuffle in C.” You could sprinkle any sort of fairy dust atop that, and it would be solid, in a large part because of Hill digging consistently into The Perfect Note.

"When we did Eliminator, at the time, it was experimental for us,” Hill recalled. “It obviously turned out real successful, but at the time, we caught crap about it from some of our old fans. They thought we were deserting our roots or our old style or whatever. I never understood it, because what we do in the studio, we don’t do for anyone else. We just do it. And that’s what was created then.”

Another thing Hill brought to that Lil’ Ol’ Band From Texas: his voice. He had a wailing vocal style that was a favorite for many fans. “Tush” or the ZZ Top version of “Jailhouse Rock” could tear a crowd apart like little else, in a large part due to Hill’s lead vocals.

He had a wailing vocal style that was a favorite for many fans. “Tush” or “Jailhouse Rock” could tear a crowd apart like little else, in a large part due to Dusty Hill’s lead vocals.

“In the beginning, we were playing a show,” Beard chuckled. “I think it was at the Cotton Bowl. It was 50,000 people there or whatever, but you could hear this one voice crying out from the crowd: ’LET DUSTY SING ONE!’

“It was his mom!” he laughed. “She was about 60 years old at the time! So, we’ve always got to think about that one: ’Let Dusty sing one!’

He smiled, taking another puff on his cigarette. “I like the ones Dusty sings.”

“That’s true, yes!” Hill roared via telephone two days later. “The thing is, my mom, bless her heart, she was my biggest fan all my life. Every band I was in before this one, I did all the singing. So, she wasn’t quite used to the shared responsibility!” he laughed. “A good Texas mother. But not everybody’s mother would yell that in front of everybody.”

A good Texas mother for a good Texas boy. And ZZ Top showed the world a better, hipper way of being a Texan, one that wasn’t quite so rural.

“Most things that ever worked for us weren’t really planned out or anything,” Hill mused. “I think that’s true with most people. But all we did was take what we were and brought it forward. Yeah, we obviously had a great amount of pride in being from Texas. It all bloomed out of the ’70s. We were bunched up with a bunch of Southern bands, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. We just wanted to make it clear we weren’t a Southern rock band – that’s more like Georgia, I think. We were more of a Texas band.”

No one carried that Texas-ness more than Dusty Hill. No matter how flashy ZZ Top got through their entire career, Hill was the one member who continually looked like he’d stepped off the cover of 1975’s Fandango!: crisp cowboy hat, Nudie rhinestone Buck Owens suit, boots.

“The whole attitude is probably a little less rural,” he concluded. “But that’s no bother for us. We’re from the city. So, it’s easier for us to put that stamp on it.”

Hill, Gibbons, and Beard kept putting that stamp on it for 51 years, until last week. A news item at their website posted on the July 23 announced that Hill was “on a short detour back to Texas, to address a hip issue. They await his speedy recovery and to have him back pronto.” Longtime guitar tech Elwood Francis deputized for the bassist for last week’s shows, complete with a flowing beard grown during COVID lockdown. Now comes the news that Dusty Hill will not be back pronto. He will not be back, period.

How will I choose to remember Dusty Hill? The moment we were introduced backstage at the Alamodome, approximately 8:12pm CST, Dec. 7, 2013. He shook my hand fervently, and stared down at the three-inch pin adorning the lapel of my pea coat, depicting a certain punk icon on all fours. “Who’s that on your button?” he drawled.

"Iggy Pop in 1972," I replied.

"Ah, good," he smiled. "Making a spectacle of himself, as usual. Hell, we’ll be making spectacles out of ourselves in about an hour!”

Rest in peace. And always let Dusty sing one.

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ZZ Top, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy F. Gibbons, Tush

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