In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on ZZ Top‘s 1973 breakthrough album Tres Hombres.
In 2013, they still refer to themselves as “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.” But after Tres Hombres, there was nothing “little” about ZZ Top.
The group (Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard) had already released two albums by this point (ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud), and while we now recognize some of the songs as classics–”Goin’ Down To Mexico,” “Just Got Back From Baby’s” and “Just Got Paid,” for instance–they weren’t hits at the time. Tres Hombres, though, changed the game. Released 40 years ago this month, it contained “Waitin’ For The Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a pair of anthems that still can rock a party, decades later: “Beer Drinkers And Hell Raisers” and “La Grange.” Suddenly, ZZ Top was no longer just a Texas band, it was a celebrated American institution.
Singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons tells Radio.com that Tres Hombres brought the trio to the so-called next level, although they only noticed gradual differences due to their hectic life on the road. ”Let’s just say it was a big door opener for us,” he says. “The band entered the nonstop, continual touring mode before Tres Hombres hit, then we noticed the venues were getting bigger and the road map was getting longer, both nationwide to worldwide.”
In an era when lots of bands were getting more “progressive,” the members of ZZ stuck to their working class blooze-rock roots. Not every rock fan may have followed the lyrics of, say, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Yes. But in ”Beer Drinkers And Hell Raisers”–when Gibbons sang “I’ll be here around supper time” and bassist Hill answered “With my can of dinner and a bunch of fine!”–you can bet that plenty of fans from Texas to North Dakota to California knew what they were talking about and were singing (and partaking) right along with them.
“[That was] ZZ’s continual sound of the endless party,” Gibbons says of the dual lead vocals. “Lots of people, lots of fun, maybe some mayhem. Sin, sand, suds, and a second line dual singer’s salvation to bring the message across.”
Speaking of “sand” and “sin,” another song on Tres Hombres turned its attention to the world’s oldest profession. ”La Grange” celebrated a particular Texas bordello known as “The Chicken Ranch,” and it became the band’s biggest hit yet–not to mention one of its most enduring.
Did the bandmembers, though, know “La Grange” would be a hit when they recorded it?
“Well, it’s fair to say we liked the blues groove,” says Gibbons. “And, of course, the subject matter. It was a pleasant surprise when it began making its splash. The popularity was noted in a somewhat delayed fashion since the band were on the road… nobody called up on our nonexistent cell phones or sent an email through the nonexistent Internet. It was, to say the least, a shockingly pleasant surprise.”
Gibbons notes that similar establishments requested that the band consider writing about theirplaces of business as well. Although it seemed some of those businesses didn’t really need the publicity.
It worked out well for the Chicken Ranch, though, which went onto to further fame as the basis of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. That musical debuted on Broadway in 1978 and was then four years later was adapted into a film starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. “What goes around came around, so to speak,” demurs Gibbons.
“La Grange” may be the standout radio track from Tres Hombres, but Gibbons cites an album cut as his highlight of the collection.
“I’m gonna go with ‘Precious and Grace,’” he says, calling it “another true story in the ZZ Top tradition. We picked up two hitchhiking gals who turned out to be kinda scary, and let’s just say we got out of that one just in time to put it to rhyme. It’s a great reminder of a lesson learned.” Take note, kids!
A decade later ZZ Top would release what turned out to be their best-selling album, Eliminator. With the help of MTV, that album sold more than ten million copies in the U.S. alone.
But while many MTV-era stars wound up in the “Where are they now?” file mere years after their video play ended, that’s not the case with ZZ Top. And that ongoing success is thanks in large part to the enduring quality of Tres Hombres.
- Brian Ives, Radio.com