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Dusty Hill - An Obituary

Dusty Hill – Bass player, singer, songwriter

 Born May 19, 1949; died July 27/28, 2021 


 Dusty Hill, who has died aged 72, was the bass player and co vocalist with ZZ Top, the Texas sired trio whose combination of southern blues, bar-room boogie, bump-and-grind rhythms and libidinously inclined lyrics hit commercial pay dirt. There was humour too, reflected in the identical appearance of Hill and guitarist and lead vocalist Billy Gibbons. As they rocked out in co-ordinated fashion to the likes of Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man (1983), (1983), and Legs (1983), both wore shades, ten gallon hats and voluminous chest-length beards Hill and Gibbons called Texan goatees. 


The dry humour was driven home even more by the fact that the only band member without extensive facial hair was called Frank Beard, who only sported a mere moustache. In videos for the songs that became MTV staples, Hill and Gibbons looked like runaway Amish homeboys who’d discovered how to have a good time.


Despite the cartoon image, Hill maintained that his and Gibbons’ mutual look was unplanned, and occurred during a band hiatus meant to last six months, but which went on for two years. Only when the group reconvened after a period that saw Hill take a job at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport did they discover that both men had allowed their beards to grow wild. 


Musically, ZZ Top’s evolution from straight-ahead blues rock on their 1970 debut album, to incorporating a shiny synthesiser pulse into the glossy mix of their hit-laden 1983 album, Eliminator, saw them ride a stadium sized wave. The group had begun to make their mark in 1973 with their third album, Tres Hombres. This spawned hit single, La Grange, a song about the Chicken Ranch brothel in Texas, setting the tone for things to come on follow-up album, Fandango! (1975), which featured self-explanatory single, Tush.


With Texas at the heart of ZZ Top’s music, the band took their affection for their home state to an epic level with The Worldwide Texas Tour, featuring a set that recreated their home state’s landscape, complete with real livestock onstage. Following their sabbatical, albums included Deguello (1979) and El Loco (1981), with Eliminator followed by Afterburner (1985), Recycler (1990), and Antenna (1994).


Hill described his meaty bass playing as “like farting in a trash can – raw, big, heavy and a bit distorted”. Beyond music, Hill appeared in Back to the Future III (1990), and played a version of himself in an episode of Mike Judge and Greg Daniels’ animated series, King of the Hill (2007). 


Joseph Michael Hill was born in Dallas, Texas, the younger of two sons raised in the Lakewood neighbourhood of East Dallas. Hill attended Woodrow Wilson High School, where he played the cello. His mother was a blues fan, and Hill was inducted to the sounds of Muddy Waters and Son House from an early age.


He began singing in a band with his guitar playing older brother John, better known as Rocky, aged eight, and was drafted into Rocky’s band the Starliners to play bass live aged thirteen, with his brother tapping him on the shoulder when he needed to change notes.


Hill went on to play in local bands the Warlocks, the Cellar Dwellers, and American Blues, with the siblings joined by future ZZ Top drummer Beard between 1966 and 1968 to play the Dallas-Fort-Worth-Houston club circuit. American Blues released two albums, while Hill and Beard later played as part of a fake version of The Zombies.


In 1968, Hill and Beard decided the band should move to Houston. With Rocky Hill declaring he wanted to focus more on pure blues, he stayed behind, later going on to play with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King and Jimmy Reed. Dusty Hill and Beard decamped as planned to Houston, where they joined guitarist Gibbons, late of 13thFloor Elevators inspired psychedelic outfit, Moving Sidewalks. 


Gibbons had already formed a prototype version of ZZ Top, with the band’s first single, Salt Lick, released in 1969. Once Hill and Beard joined, it was the beginning of a great adventure that would last more than fifty years. With the line-up unchanged throughout, the band travelled on separate tour buses to avoid any potential for conflict.


In 1990, Hill and ZZ Top got back to their musical roots when they opened a tribute album to 13thFloor Elevators driving force, Roky Erikson, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, with a version of the band’s song, Reverberation (Doubt). In 2004, Hill and his fellow members of ZZ Top were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. 


Several days before his passing, and with Hill receiving medical treatment for a hip injured several years before in a tour bus fall, Beard and Gibbons appeared live without him for the first time in more than fifty years, with the band’s long-serving guitar tech Elwood Francis standing in on bass. ‘Per Dusty’s request the show must go on’, the band posted on social media. The statement may have inadvertently marked the end of an era, but it kept Hill’s rocking spirit alive to the end.


Hill is survived by his wife of almost twenty years, Charlene McCrory, and his daughter, Charity, from a previous marriage.

The Herald, August 6th 2021




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