When ZZ Top met Elvis on the 3 a.m. streets of Memphis
Dusty Hill (L), Billy Gibbons (R), and Frank Beard (rear row) rock out in classic ZZ Top formation. (Photo: AP)
Sad news this week when word broke of the death of Dusty Hill, the bassist/vocalist for ZZ Top, aka “that little ol’ band from Texas.” It brought to mind memories of the many times I saw them perform, and also of an amusing interview I had in 1992 with guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons, on the occasion of the band releasing its first greatest hits album. A new song on the album was a cover of the Elvis Presley rouser “Viva Las Vegas,” sung by Hill doing his best Elvis impersonation. Gibbons told me the amusing story of how the band never got to perform with Elvis, who died in 1977, but they did meet him, in a manner of speaking. Here’s the tale, told to me for the Toronto Star, in honour of the dearly departed Hill:
Elvis isn’t dead, he’s just copping some ZZ
After some 23 years together as ZZ Top, an occasion marked by the release of their new Greatest Hits album, it's time to ask important questions of guitarist-vocalist Billy Gibbons:
Do these three Texas blues-rock reprobates still get knocked out by cheap sunglasses?
"Indeed, " Gibbons replies, on the phone yesterday from Houston.
Do they still like to do the tube-snake boogie all night long?
Do they find that girls still go crazy for a sharp-dressed man?
Glad to hear it's business as usual aboard the CadZZilla, the band's customized '48 Cadillac. Or maybe it's Taking Care Of Business as usual, because Greatest Hits is causing a stir with its cover of Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas".
Besides squeezing "Cheap Sunglasses", "Tube Snake Boogie", "Sharp Dressed Man", "Legs" and other ZZ classics on the new disc, the band also found space for an Elvis song that began for them as a dressing room warm-up number.
It features bassist-vocalist Dusty Hill doing a very impressive Elvis turn, all shook up by electropop beats. It's been so well received at radio and video stations, Gibbons said, that the band is getting heavy pressure to tour behind it this summer.
That's fine with Gibbons, although the band had planned to take an extended break to record a new studio album, now that it's wrapping up the last of 187 shows for its two-year Recycler tour.
He hopes ZZ Top will motor into Toronto during the warm-weather months, because "we always seem to go there in the winter," he says.
"Viva Las Vegas" includes a brief spoken-work sample from The King himself in the intro.
He's heard saying, "Y'all still want me to go with ya?" a line from the highly forgettable flick “Loving You.”
The line also happens to be "the in-house motto for our band, " Gibbons says, "and it has been for a long, long time."
The members of ZZ Top have long been admirers of the late Elvis — they previously covered his "Jailhouse Rock" — but neither Gibbons, Hill nor drummer Frank Beard (the one without the waist-length beard) ever got to meet with him or play with him.
They did have an interesting encounter with him at a Memphis street corner, early in the 1970s.
"We were leaving the studio about 3 o'clock in the morning. We drove up to the corner, the light was red and, while we were waiting, a big black Lincoln pulled up next to us, " Gibbons recalls.
"We looked over and it was this moment of disbelief: It really was him. And he took a big draw on something he was smoking, he kind of threw his head back and said, 'Hey, howya doin'?'
"Then Elvis just floored it through the red light, because he owned Memphis, of course. The King stopped for no one."
Neither does ZZ Top, who are fully aware that the other new tune on the album, "Gun Love" — with its girl-love-her-gun theme — will probably bring all kinds of outraged hellfire and brimstone upon their heads.
"Well, what doesn't get ya these days?" Gibbons chuckles. "It's just another song written in the classic ZZ Top style, and it will probably get more feminists after us than anyone. We've been their pals for quite some time."
That leaves just one more important question for Gibbons. Would he agree that Greatest Hits is the first great party album of the summer?
"Yes. And we hope we get invited to the party." 🌗
(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star on April 9, 1992.)