The Texan guitar great talks BB, Bo and his Big Bad Blues record
By Ed Mitchell
Following the rhythmic experimentation of 2015’s Perfectamundo, the Reverend Willy G has gone back to basics with an 11-track time machine that recalls the glory of 70s ’Top. Here, the man behind Pearly Gates talks influences, gear and recalls that time BB King told him to change his strings…
Texas is where the blues always finds salvation in times of trouble. The Lone Star State was the birthplace of T-Bone Walker, the first blues superstar. He showed kids like BB King that Delta blues was dead. The future was a killer suit, a big-ass grin and an electric guitar.
Then there was Johnny Winter, the man who would inspire a floundering Muddy Waters to bounce back after the hippy BS of Electric Mud. Lest we forget, it was Texas that also gave us Stevie Ray Vaughan. The greatest Stratocaster salesman this side of Jimi Hendrix kept the blues in business in a decade that harboured the twin evils of synth pop and hair metal.
And it was guitarist Billy F Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard of ZZ Top who helped put blues back on jukeboxes in the early 1970s. Featured on the band’s ’73 album, Tres Hombres, La Grange doesn’t come over like a bunch of white kids messing around.
This is the song you can expect to hear as the patrons of some backwoods biker bar beat you senseless for winking at one of their ‘old ladies’. La Grange sounds black. The tough John Lee Hooker references – the Boogie Chillen rhythm and Billy G’s gruff “a-how-how-how-how” chant – make it sound like the real deal.
That John Lee-inspired authenticity is all over Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’ the opening track of Billy F Gibbons And The BFG’s new record, The Big Bad Blues. The follow-up to 2015’s Perfectamundo, the new record replaces its predecessor’s Afro-Cuban and hip-hop rhythms with good old-fashioned Texas blues. This is the record you wanted Billy Gibbons to make. Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’ has a groove like a runaway train. Much to Billy’s surprise, the song’s lyrics were scribbled down in the studio by his wife, Gilligan Stillwater. Two of the tracks – Standing Around Crying and the epic Rollin’ And Tumblin’ – are culled from Muddy Waters’ back catalogue, and there’s also a pair of Bo Diddley tunes to be found on the tracklist, too. More on those shortly…
The remainder, including the heavy boogie of Let The Left Hand Know and the self-explanatory Mo’ Slower Blues are Billy Gibbons originals. The Big Bad Blues has not one iota of the slickness of ZZ Top’s megasaurus records such as 1983’s Eliminator or 85’s Afterburner. No, the good Reverend has dug deep into the Texas mud here, just like he did back in the 70s. As you’d expect, then, it sounds live and features some truly filthy guitar tones.
The blues is in Billy G’s blood. In fact, it runs through the whole ZZ Top organization. Looking back to the 70s, it seems obvious that the ’Top helped keep the blues’ heart beating when the music was fighting to stay alive…
“We never had anything but admiration for the blues giants,” says Billy G. “Dusty, Frank and I, we shared so much of the same influences, but we never said that we’re going to rescue the blues. We didn’t do that.”
While Gibbons became acutely aware of rock’s shift from psychedelia to a heavier blues form in the late 60s, his love affair with the music developed many years earlier, as he explains.
When I was five years old, my mom took myself and my little sister out to see Elvis Presley live. I said, ‘Man, that’s what I wanna do!’
“Well, growing up, we had a house keeper who listened to blues radio all day and all night. It didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. It was always around – at least around the house. Then when I was five years old, my mom took myself and my little sister out to see Elvis Presley live. I said, ‘Man, that’s what I wanna do!’”
The next encounter with greatness sealed the deal. Billy continues: “My dad was an entertainer. When I was seven years old he said, ‘Listen, hop in the car. I wanna take you with me. I’ve got business to take care of at the recording studio.’ We went into the studio, he parked me in a chair and said, ‘You’ll probably like this, they’re recording a band. I’ll be in the office if you need me…’ It turned out to be a BB King recording session. So, between seeing Elvis Presley and BB King I thought, ‘Man, this is it. This is for me!’”
BB King and Billy G’s paths would cross countless times over the years. It’s a testament to Gibbons’ skill as a guitarist that he was so respected by ‘The King Of The Blues’. And BB would often give his younger compadre some useful words of advice to work with.
“BB King left me with probably the strongest statements you could ask for,” Gibbons recalls. “Firstly, you should learn to play what you want to hear. Not what someone is trying to teach you. Follow what’s in your head.”
The second piece of advice was lifechanging, shattering a supposed tonal golden rule, an assumption most of us make. It also explains why Billy likes his guitar strings on the slinky side…
“I was about 22 and just starting out with ZZ Top,” he says. “I was in the dressing room and BB said to me, ‘Can I play your guitar?’ I said, ‘Sure man.’ He strummed it a few times and handed it back to me. He looked at me rather quizzically and said, ‘Why you working so hard?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Those strings. You got real heavy, heavy strings.’ I said, ‘Well, isn’t that how to get the heavy, heavy sound?’ He said, ‘No! Don’t be working so hard!’
“That was something new! I was mistaken in thinking he was using these extra-heavy strings. I guess he was right there at the beginning when super-light strings were beginning to show up.”