Dusty Hill, the quiet, bearded bass player who made up one third of ZZ Top, among the bestselling rock bands of the 1980s, has died at his home in Houston. He was 72.
His bandmates Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons announced the death on Wednesday through Facebook and Instagram. They did not provide a cause or say when he died.
Starting in the early 1970s, ZZ Top racked up dozens of hit records and packed hundreds of arenas a year with their powerful blend of boogie, Southern rock and blues. But the band really took off in the 1980s, when Gibbons, the lead singer and guitarist, and Hill grew their signature 20-inch beards and the band released a series of albums that added New Wave synthesizers – often played by Hill – to their hard-driving guitars, producing MTV-friendly hits like “Legs” and “Sharp-Dressed Man.”
The band paired their grungy sound and innuendo-filled lyrics with a knowing, sometimes comic stage act – Hill and Gibbons, in matching sunglasses and Stetson hats, would swing their hips in unison, spinning their instruments on mounts attached to their belts. (Despite his name, Beard, the drummer, sported just a mustache.) Their stage sets might include crushed cars and even livestock.
Though in public Hill and Gibbons were often mistaken as twins, their musical styles differed – Gibbons a showy virtuoso, Hill a grinding, precise musical mechanic. Hill rarely gave interviews, preferring to let Gibbons speak for the band. And he gladly accepted his supporting role for his bandmate’s masterful lead guitar playing. “Sometimes you don’t even notice the bass,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I hate that in a way, but I love that in a way. That’s a compliment. That means you’ve filled in everything and it’s right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”
Joseph Michael Hill was born in Dallas on May 19th, 1949. He started his musical career singing and playing cello, but he switched instruments at 13, when his brother, Rocky, who played guitar, said his band needed a bassist. One day Dusty came home to find a bass on his bed; that night, he joined Rocky onstage at a Dallas beer joint.
“I started playing that night by putting my finger on the fret, and when the time came to change, my brother would hit me on the shoulder,” he said in a 2012 interview. In 1969, Dusty was living in Houston and working with the blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins when Beard, a friend from high school, suggested that he audition for an open spot in a trio, called ZZ Top, recently founded by Gibbons. They played their first show together in February 1970.
The band’s humor was evident from the start: They named their first album “ZZ Top’s First Album.” Real success came in 1973 with their third release, “Tres Hombres,” which cracked the Billboard top 10. That same year they opened for the Rolling Stones in Hawaii.
Many of their early songs leaned heavily on sexual innuendo, though sometimes they set the innuendo aside completely. “La Grange,” their big hit on “Tres Hombres,” was about a bordello. In 1976, after a string of hit albums and nearly seven years of constant touring, the band took a three-year hiatus. Hill returned to Dallas, where he worked at the airport and tried to avoid being identified by fans. “I had a short beard, regular length, and if you take off the hat and shades and wear work clothes and put ‘Joe’ on my work shirt, people are not expecting to see you,” he said in a 2019 interview. “Now, a couple of times, a couple of people did ask me, and I just lied, and I said: ‘No! Do you think I’d be sitting here?’”
The band reunited in 1979 to release “Degüello,” their first album to go platinum, and the first time Gibbon and Hill grew out their beards. It was also the first sign that they were going beyond their Texas roots by adding a New Wave flavor to their sound, with Hill also playing keyboard.
They achieved superstar status in 1983 with “Eliminator,” which included hit singles like “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Give Me All Your Lovin.’” It sold 10 million copies and stayed on the Billboard charts for 183 weeks. In 1984, Hill made headlines when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach. As a girlfriend was taking off his boot, a .38 Derringer slipped out, hit the floor and went off. The band’s success continued through the 1980s, and while later albums – in which they returned to their Texan blues roots – didn’t climb the charts, the trio still packed stadiums. And despite their raunchy stylings, they began to draw grudging respect from critics, who often singled out Hill’s subtly masterful bass playing.
“My sound is big, heavy and a bit distorted because it has to overlap the guitar,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Someone once asked me to describe my tone, and I said it was like farting in a trash can. What I meant is it’s raw, but you’ve got to have the tone in there.”
ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Hill married his longtime girlfriend, Charleen McCrory, an actress, in 2002. He also had a daughter. Information on survivors was not immediately available. In 2014 he injured his hip after a fall on his tour bus. He required surgery, and part of the tour had to be cancelled. On July 23rd, he left their latest tour, citing problems with his hip. It is unclear whether that had any connection to his death.
Contrary to their image – and the hard partying that their music seemed to encourage – Hill and his bandmates kept a low, relatively sober profile. And they remained close friends, even after 50 years of near-constant touring. “People ask how we’ve stayed together so long,” he told The Charlotte Observer in 2015. “I say separate tour buses. We got separate tour buses early on, when we probably couldn’t afford them. That way we were always glad to see each other when we got to the next city.” –New York Times