Dusty Hill’s voice, tone and passion for the blues lifted ZZ Top into greatness

<span>Photograph: Manuel Lopez/EPA</span>
Photograph: Manuel Lopez/EPA

Dusty Hill was evidently used to being mistaken for someone else. Well, for one other person. In 2012, backstage at a strange festival in Maryland, I watched as drunk twentysomethings walked up to a man with a vast beard, eyes hidden behind shades. “Billy!” they shouted. “Billy, can I get a photo with you?” But Dusty Hill clearly didn’t like being mistaken for Billy Gibbons, who stood a few feet away from him on stage with ZZ Top for more than 50 years, and he walked away without a word.

Gibbons tended to be the focus of attention: he was the guitarist; he took most of the lead vocals; he was the band’s great and delightful eccentric. But Hill, who died in his sleep aged 72, was just as important. He sang lead or co-lead on several of ZZ Top’s best loved songs – his high, true tenor a contrast to Gibbons’ radioactive growl – and his bass tone was every bit as crucial to their sound as Gibbons’ guitar. And, perhaps even more importantly, the pair came as a double act, not just by looking so similar they could be mistaken for one another but also in the perfect, minimalist choreography of their stage show (“Low energy, high impact,” as Hill described it to me, later that afternoon in Maryland).

Hill and ZZ Top came from the blues, but neither Hill nor the band were the simple 12-bar boogiers they were often portrayed as. Instead, they were Texans, with everything that conveyed: part traditional, part contrary, and part of the deep seam of Texas weirdness that stretched from the 13th Floor Elevators through to the Butthole Surfers. And when Hill started playing music in the 1960s, that act alone was enough to mark him as an outsider in the Lone Star State.

“Being a musician in Texas had its own set of risks,” he told me. “I was with a group called the American Blues, and at that time we had long, blue hair – in the 60s in Texas. I got probably less shit about having blue hair than about having long hair, because I believe they thought I was crazy. But however much crap you got about it, you got tenfold back in experience, because there’s so much music down there.”

I’d bring Muddy Waters or Son House or something, and the parents of these other kids would almost freak out

He was marked out as musically weird from childhood. He’d grown up in a household where his mother listened to the blues, which wasn’t true of every white family but turned out to be something he shared with his future bandmates. “Back then, kids would go to each others’ houses, bring some records to play,” he said. “And I’d bring Muddy Waters or Son House or something, and the parents of these other kids would almost freak out – ‘What the fuck are you bringing here?’ Whoa! I thought everybody had these records, because that’s what I had. But the thing with this band that we noticed early on is that the three of us, independent of each other, listened to a lot of the same radio shows. Billy in Houston and myself and Frank in Dallas – we wrote the song Heard It on the X about that.”

Heard It on the X, from the 1975 album Fandango, is one of the great Top songs. Rooted in the blues, but urgent and dynamic and in that great tradition of songs that celebrate the motivating power of radio, in this case the “X” stations – those with the call letter X – based just across the border in Mexico, blasting blues and rock’n’roll and whatever else into American ears. Fandango also offered up the song Hill was best known for, Tush, a number so single-minded in its focus on the female body that it became a strip club favourite.

But if that suggests ZZ Top were the lowest common denominator, their tour in support of the album – the Worldwide Texas Tour – proved they were anything but. Their stage was a recreation of the Texas scrub, complete with the wildlife: real pigs, snakes, buffalo and all. “There were six or eight semi tractor trailers to carry the gear and they were painted in a desert scene and they were done in order – they had to travel down the highway in a certain order so the scene went from one to another,” Hill said. “It cost us. We knew it would. But it didn’t matter - here we are a long time later and we’re still talking about it.”

The real absurdism started to come through in the late 70s and early 80s, as ZZ Top started integrating influences from new wave and electronic music, culminating in them becoming unlikely pop stars with the Eliminator album, whose videos shrewdly used the band as almost supernatural beings materialising in the lives of others: they looked so odd, so alien in the MTV world, that casting them as otherworldly made perfect sense. And they never lost the oddness. When they returned in 2012, it was with the stellar single Gotsta Get Paid, which was a brilliant remake of the Houston hip-hop standard 25 Lighters by DJ DMD.

ZZ Top always came back to the blues one way or another, but it was always bent into their shape. “A lot of people lump us in with southern boogie, whatever that means,” he said. “It had an implication of being overly simplistic. And that’s OK. People listen, and that’s their opinion. But a lot of people make the mistake of thinking the blues is very simple music. But it’s not easy to play well. People say jazz is real music because it’s very intricate. But they’re both very intricate. Our band, people have blown off as being really simple, nothing to it. But the three of us together, we get a lot of ideas, so why not use them?”

Related: ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill dies aged 72

Billy Gibbons has suggested ZZ Top will carry on without his old friend, and maybe they will. He can surely find another player to hit Hill’s basslines and sing his high notes. But every fan knows something profound will be missing, because rarely has there been a band so completely defined by its principals as ZZ Top have been since 1969. And you noticed, if you ever went to see them, that people loved them for it. Hill knew that, and he was grateful.

“People are all the time telling me stories,” he told me. “They named their son after me, or more than likely their dog. Or they got a tattoo. Or had their first sexual encounter when a song was playing. Well, something had to be playing.” He laughed. “Thank you for the compliment, I really wish I had been there. I take it as a compliment. I appreciate that they care that much.”