Making the case for the trio’s third album being their greatest
In January 1977, blues legend Muddy Waters released the album Hard Again, which included a song he co-wrote with another blues legend, Brownie McGhee: “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll, Pt. 2.”
They could easily have been referring to an album released three-and-a-half years earlier: Tres Hombres, ZZ Top’s third studio release that hit the streets on July 26, 1973.
Billy Gibbons, the trio’s lead guitarist, was a child of the blues: He was lucky enough to be taken by his father to a B.B. King recording session when he was seven. Receiving his first electric guitar at the age of 13, Gibbons cites blues legends like Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins and Albert Collins as influences.
In late 1969, Houston native Gibbons joined forces with two members of the Texas-based band American Blues: drummer Frank Beard and bassist Dusty Hill, who grew up listening to Muddy Waters and Son House and, at the age of 15, was playing with bluesman Freddie King.
The blues’ latest baby, ZZ Top, was born.
“Actually, my mother turned me on to the blues,” Hill told Guitar World in 2008. “We had Lightnin’ Hopkins as well as Elvis Presley records. I thought everyone had them. I’d go over to friends’ houses and ask them to put on some Howlin’ Wolf, and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Then, when they would come over to my house, I’d play them some blues. Their parents wouldn’t let them come back. [laughs] The blues were still called ‘race records’ back then. I mean, how cold is that? The emotion on those records really captured me. I loved the feeling of the music. When I started playing, I couldn’t wait to play something that had that much feeling.”
That feeling – not just from Hill, but from all three members of ZZ Top – was evident on their first two records, 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album (that first half of “Brown Sugar” in particular is like being transported to a smoky, sweaty blues club) and 1972’s Rio Grande Mud (check out Gibbons’ harp work on “Mushmouth Shoutin’ “).
As solid as those first two ZZ Top outings are, the benefits of hindsight tell us that something was missing … the kind of something that takes a band’s sound and elevates it to that place where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
A solid argument can be made that engineer Terry Manning was the something that made the third time the charm for ZZ Top. Manning had previously worked with artists on the legendary Stax label like the Staple Singers, Otis Redding and Booker T & the MG’s as well as on multi-platinum records like Led Zeppelin III in 1970 and James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon in 1971.
“I was a big fan [of ZZ Top],” Manning said in a 2020 article. “I had really liked the first two albums, and had actually put out feelers to the band that I was interested in working with them. And it turned out that Billy Gibbons had heard that I’d engineered and essentially mixed the Led Zeppelin III album, which was doing so well.”
With regard to Tres Hombres, Manning continues: “I wanted to keep the blues element, which is the grit and the grunge, where things aren’t perfect, but I wanted to fit it into that highly technical framework where things were perfect in certain ways: sonically, timing-wise. When you try to marry two things together like that, sometimes it can be a disaster, but I think in our case we were fortunate that it did work.”
It sure did: The record opens with a rock-solid one-two punch: “Waitin’ for the Bus” which segueways directly into “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” It’s a perfect combination, fitting together seamlessly like rum and Coke or gin and tonic at your favorite funky roadhouse. And like Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street” into “Rosalita” or the Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider,” FM radio stations often played the songs together. For any ZZ Top fan, they’re essential tunes.
“Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” is up next, released as the second single. As the title suggests, it packs enough energy that Motorhead would cover it and use it as the title of a four-song EP just four years later. When the song begins to fade, you wish it wouldn’t: Come on, Gibbons, keep shredding those strings!
“Master of Sparks,”, propelled by fat bass and drums, is followed by the side one closer, “Hot Blue and Righteous,” a lazy, languid blues that shows (dare it be said?) the tender side of ZZ Top.
Flip the vinyl and side two opens with “Move Me on Down the Line,” which has an early-‘70s radio-ready feel. It’s almost surprising that it wasn’t released as a single. Maybe that’s because, after “Precious and Grace,” the middle track on side two is one of ZZ Top’s most defining songs: “La Grange.”
Written about the famous Chicken Ranch brothel, “La Grange” was released as the album’s first single. It peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped propel the entire album to #8 on the Billboard chart. Beard’s clickety-clack drumming, Gibbons’ grumbling vocals, that iconic and irresistible riff – forget about it being one of ZZ Top’s best songs, this is one of the best rock songs of the ‘70s, period.
If “Master of Sparks” showed off the tender side of the trio, “Sheik” shows off their spacier side: Play the last 45 seconds of it to anyone who doesn’t know the song already, they’ll never guess it’s ZZ Top. Odds are they’ll think it’s an excerpt from one the Dead’s “Drums / Space” performances.
The album closes with “Have You Heard?” another slow blues with a dose of Gospel. Have we heard? Hell yeah, we’ve heard – we’ve just heard a damn great breakthrough album.
For ZZ Top, the whole finally became greater than the sum of the parts.
Manning would stay with the band and engineer their sound for nearly two decades, helping to guide them to their greatest commercial success, Eliminator. But even though that 1983 release has a trio of ZZ Top’s most successful songs – “Gimme All Your Lovin’,“ “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs” – the slickness and popularity of the album take a back seat to the grittier, bluesier sound of Tres Hombres.
Let’s face it: If you have to own only one ZZ Top album, Tres Hombres is the one to own.
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