Dusty Hill, hirsute bassist whose raw-boned style was the foundation of Texan rockers ZZ Top – obituary

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ZZ Top in 1981, l-r, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons - Ebet Roberts/Redferns
ZZ Top in 1981, l-r, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons - Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Dusty Hill, who has died aged 72, was the bassist in ZZ Top, the witty, bearded Texan rock trio who enjoyed a half-century of success.

ZZ Top was formed by three teenagers in Houston in 1969, and their blues-based rock became noted for its dynamic instrumental interplay and sly, observational lyrics. Quickly catching on in Texas, they became one of the most successful American bands of the 1970s.

Retooling their sound at the start of the 1980s, they released the album Eliminator in 1983 – accompanied by a series of striking pop videos – and 14 years into their career, ZZ Top were suddenly huge beyond their home shores.

With Hill and the guitarist Billy Gibbons wearing long beards, Stetson hats, sunglasses and tailored suits and ponchos, ZZ Top resembled cartoon characters, their popularity reaching beyond rock and permeating popular culture. Of his bass-playing, Hill remarked that it was “like farting in a trash can – raw, big, heavy and a bit distorted”.

Joseph Michael Hill was born in Dallas, Texas, on May 19 1949 and brought up in the suburb of Lakewood. His parents enjoyed the arts, and young Joseph learnt the cello, while also listening to his mother’s collection of blues records. With his older brother Rocky, Dusty began singing in public, and when Rocky took to playing guitar and formed a band, he roped 13-year-old Dusty in on bass.

They played regularly around Dallas, then in 1969 Dusty was hired to play in a group that toured as the British band the Zombies (while featuring none of the original members). He admitted to having been a counterfeit Zombie decades later with a shrug and the explanation: “It was the Sixties, man.”

Dusty Hill in 1973 - Tom Hill/WireImage
Dusty Hill in 1973 - Tom Hill/WireImage

Playing in the band American Blues, Hill and the other members dyed their long hair blue, attracting the opprobrium of conservative Texans. American Blues shifted to Houston in 1969 but split after Rocky and Dusty disagreed on the band’s direction, Rocky preferring to remain faithful to the blues, while Dusty wanted to head in the rock direction.

The band’s drummer Frank Beard joined forces with the guitarist Billy Gibbons, who had enjoyed a taste of success with his band the Moving Sidewalks – they had toured as support act for Jimi Hendrix. As ZZ Top, they released a single in late 1969.

Unable to find a suitable bassist, Beard convinced Hill to join in early 1970. The trio gelled, Beard and Hill providing a solid, swinging rhythm section that allowed Gibbons to play raunchy riffs and virtuoso solos.

Hill and Gibbons shared vocal duties and much of the songwriting. Bill Ham, a Texan music industry veteran, was their manager, and having won them a deal with London Records he became their producer, as well as working on their image.

Hill onstage at the Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, in 1981 - Ross Marino/Getty Images
Hill onstage at the Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, in 1981 - Ross Marino/Getty Images

Their 1970 debut, ZZ Top’s First Album, was a solid blues-rock effort that owed a strong debt to the Rolling Stones. Gigging across Texas, ZZ Top quickly built a large following, and the 1971 follow-up, Rio Grande Mud, was a more distinctive effort, with the opening track, Francine, reaching the US pop charts.

Their 1973 album Tres Hombres featured 10 striking songs, including the single La Grange – a celebration of a noted Texan brothel (sex and Texan landmarks being among the band’s most regular subjects) – which won wide airplay and helped the album into the Top Ten. The Rolling Stones invited ZZ Top to support them on the Hawaiian leg of their tour that year (in 2004, Keith Richards would induct the band to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).

From then on ZZ Top were huge in the US, playing to the image of Texan good ol’ boys (referring to themselves as “that little ol’ band from Texas”). They set out on their Worldwide Texas Tour in support of their 1975 album Fandango! with bison, vultures and other animals sharing the stage.

When the band took a lengthy break in the late 1970s, Hill took a job at Dallas Airport to keep himself “grounded”, as he put it. ZZ Top finally toured Europe in 1980 – the British music press and public had largely overlooked them until then – and made an immediate impression.

The band in 1983 - Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images
The band in 1983 - Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images

The admiration was mutual, and ZZ Top studied the British synthpop bands, adapting their sound for the Eliminator album – which gave them their first UK hit single, Gimme All Your Lovin’ reaching No 10 in September 1983. The videos that accompanied the album’s three singles – featuring hot rods, young women in short skirts and high heels and the trio themselves resembling something akin to sci-fi cowboys – helped Eliminator sell more than 10 million copies worldwide.

For the next few years ZZ Top were one of the biggest bands in the world, headlining festivals and packing out arenas. In 1994 they signed a $35 million deal with RCA – but it proved a poor investment, as after 1994’s platinum-selling Antenna album sales dwindled, reviewers suggesting that their formula had grown tired.

They hired Rick Rubin, the producer who had relaunched Johnny Cash’s career, to produce their most recent album, La Futura (2012), which attracted their first favourable notices in more than 20 years.

Hill appeared with ZZ Top in Back to the Future Part III (1990) and in the TV series Deadwood and King Of The Hill. In 2019 Netflix premiered the documentary ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.

Hill was droll offstage, and never revealed much in interviews. He made headlines in 1984 when he was accidentally shot in the stomach after his girlfriend pulled one of his cowboy boots off; when it hit the floor a Derringer he kept in it discharged.

Hill had suffered other medical issues: he was diagnosed with hepatitis in 2000, sidelining ZZ Top for several months. Later, a fall on a tour bus in 2014 aggravated a hip injury. Another hip problem meant that Hill had to leave the band’s current US tour, and he died at home in Houston.

Dusty Hill is survived by his wife, the actress Charleen McCrory, whom he married in 2002, and by a daughter from a previous marriage.

Dusty Hill, born May 19 1949, died July 27 2021

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