The bandmates' image has been as unchanging and memorable as their music. Their signature style of dress and accessories are hard to miss. Gibbons and Hill often use the same synchronized dance moves while performing onstage, and with few exceptions appear in public wearing sunglasses. The pair favor wearing similar black clothing (usually biker leathers) and various head gear which often include cowboy hats, baseball caps, and bandannas. Gibbons and Hill, who appear as twin frontmen wear chest-length untrimmed beards, although drummer Frank Beard has only a trimmed mustache. In 1984, the Gillette Company reportedly offered Gibbons and Hill $1 million each to shave their beards for a television commercial. They allegedly declined, saying "We're too ugly without 'em."
ZZ Top was inducted by Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 2004. Cub Koda wrote, "As genuine roots musicians, they have few peers; Gibbons is one of America's finest blues guitarists working in the hard rock idiom ... while Hill and Beard provide the ultimate rhythm section support."
The band's name is often said to be a combination of two popular brands of rolling paper, Zig-Zag and Top. It has also been claimed as a tribute to blues singer Z. Z. Hill. However, Gibbons wrote in his autobiography, Rock + Roll Gearhead, that it actually came from a tribute to and a play on the name of blues guitar master B. B. King. The band had planned to call themselves Z.Z. King, but felt it was too similar. Since B.B. King was at the "top", they settled on ZZ Top. According to an interview with band members while on tour in France in July 2010, the true root of the name has been kept hidden for fear of censorship, and actually come from a play on words combining the French word "Zizi" (popular slang for "penis" often used by children similar to how English-speaking children use the word "weenie") and "Top". When combined, "ZZ" (English contraction of "Zizi") and "Top" refers to the penis head (or "dick head") was considered to be a humorous inside joke by band members. It is unknown whether this new revelation has always been known to band members secretly or whether it is simply a new publicity stunt designed to revive their popularity late in the band's career.
Beard suggested his former band mate, "Dusty" Hill and the final lineup of the band was formed.
The group played their first show at "The Cellar" (a now-defunct underground bar) in Houston in February, 1970, and toured Texas for several years. They signed a contract with London Records; their first two albums, ZZ Top's First Album and Rio Grande Mud, were made at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas.
In January 1973, ZZ Top opened for The Rolling Stones three shows in Hawaii. They also began recording with engineer Terry Manning at Ardent Studios in Memphis. The resultant third album, Tres Hombres (1973), was the first for which the band gained a million-seller and wide acclaim. Hombres featured ZZ's classic hit "La Grange", written about the Chicken Ranch, a famous La Grange, Texas bordello (that was also the subject of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Other album cuts like "Waitin' for the Bus" and its immediate follower "Jesus Just Left Chicago" became fan favorites and rock-radio staples.
By September 1974, ZZ Top was drawing tens of thousands to shows such as the Labor Day stadium concert in Austin, dubbed "ZZ Top's First Annual Texas-Size Rompin' Stompin' Barndance and Bar-B-Q". Also on the bill were Santana, Joe Cocker, and Bad Company.
A photo of the 1974 crowds was used on the record sleeve of Fandango!, released in 1975. The album — half studio material and half live document — spawned the infamous hit "Tush" as well as "Heard It on the X", a paean to Mexican border-blaster stations whose call signs began with X. The band continued touring extensively in 1976, releasing Tejas and the single "Arrested for Driving While Blind".
By 1977, after hefty touring and recording schedules, ZZ Top drifted into an extended and unplanned hiatus. Manager-producer and overall image-meister Bill Ham used the time to negotiate a recording deal which allowed the band to retain rights to their catalogue on London Records, which would then be distributed by their new label, Warner Bros. Records.
ZZ Top reunited in 1979 for live shows and a new album, Degüello, under their new Warner Brothers contract. Unbeknownst to each other, Hill and Gibbons had both grown out their now-famous beards. (The only beardless band member remained the mustachioed Frank Beard.) The album displayed a strikingly minimalist approach to the ZZ Top sound. Along with Gibbons' clean guitar and the sparse Hill-Beard rhythm section, Deguello sported saxophone harmonies courtesy of Gibbons, Hill, and Beard — touted "The Lone Wolf Horns" — and yielded famous hits such as "Cheap Sunglasses", along with a cover version of Sam & Dave's' "I Thank You".
ZZ Top started out the 1980s with an eclectic mix of songs on El Loco, released in 1981. The album featured the band's first use of synthesizer and incorporated unusual electronic effects. Singles stayed in the previous ZZ good-time vein, however, such as "Tube Snake Boogie" and "Party on the Patio".
By late 1983, with the telling release of Eliminator, ZZ Top had undertaken a complete artistic reinvention both in sound and image. Eliminator featured a darkly innovative and distinctive synthesizer-laced sound which wove into and augmented the band's guitar-bass-drums formula, a rarity in the blues-rock genre. Beard also played most songs to a click track, maintaining a metronomic rhythm to synchronize with the electronic instruments.
The album's sound was distinctive in other ways. To obtain the signature overdriven Eliminator guitar tone, Gibbons devised the "amp cabin", a collection of guitar amplifiers surrounding a microphone. Gibbons also used the Rockman headphone amplifier invented by Tom Scholz of the rock band Boston. He has repeatedly stated in years since that he plays guitar with a peso coin instead of a traditional guitar pick.
With the advent of MTV, ZZ Top promptly embraced the phenomenon of the music video and boosted itself to new popularity with video releases of "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man", each featuring the band's new icon: a cherry-red 1933 Ford Coupe hot rod nicknamed The Eliminator. The comic videos feature a trio of mysterious, sexy women who roam around and rescue people from seemingly dire situations, along with an iconic Billy, Dusty, and Frank, who seem to appear out of nowhere and offer keys to the Eliminator.
The ZZ Top sound now featured a modern, electronic, and danceable formula which won the band new fans and multi-million-dollar success in sales, radio and video play, and live tours. Eliminator remains ZZ Top's most successful album to date.
The band's next album, 1985's Afterburner, expanded Eliminator's use of synthesizers coupled with blues-rock rhythms. The ZZ Top sound now incorporated the use of sequencers, notably on the hit singles and videos "Sleeping Bag", "Rough Boy", and "Velcro Fly". The Afterburner album cover (and "Sleeping Bag" video) now portrayed the Eliminator as a hot-rodded version of the Space Shuttle and the band as a space-station lounge act in "Rough Boy".
In 1987, Warner released the three-disc set ZZ Top: Six Pack, a collection of ZZ Top's albums from 1970 to 1981 (minus 1979's Degüello). The first five albums, however, were remixed—perhaps controversially—by the label (along with ZZ Top) in order to make them sound more like the band's most recent (1980s) works. The drum tracks had digital reverb added, lyrics were changed (such as the last verse of "Mexican Blackbird") on several songs, and in order to fit six albums on three discs, some tracks (such as "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" from Rio Grande Mud) were edited or faded out sooner than their original versions. At the same time, individual CD releases were released of these albums which also contained these remixed versions.
Recycler, released in 1990, was ZZ Top's last studio album under contract with Warner Records. Recycler was also the last of a distinct sonic trilogy in the ZZ Top catalogue. The collection actually marked a return towards the earlier, simpler guitar-driven blues sound with less synthesizer and pop bounce of the previous two albums. This move did not entirely suit the fan base that Eliminator and Afterburner had built up, and while Recycler did achieve platinum status, it never matched the sales of Eliminator and Afterburner. The cartoonish and sexy-ZZ-girl videos continued in singles like "My Head's in Mississippi", "Give It Up", and "Burger Man".
ZZ Top contributed a song, "Doubleback", and appeared as an acoustic band in the wild-west dance scene in the 1990 movie Back to the Future Part III. The band also appeared in the 1990 TV movie Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme, portraying the Three Men in a Tub.
In 1992, Warner released ZZ Top's Greatest Hits along with a new Rolling Stones-style cut "Gun Love" and an Elvis-inflected video, "Viva Las Vegas".
In 1993, ZZ Top inducted a major influence, Cream, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The band then signed to a five-album deal with RCA Records, releasing the million-selling Antenna in 1994. Subsequent RCA albums, Rhythmeen (1996) and 1999's XXX (the second album to feature live tracks) sold well, but did not reach earlier standards. ZZ Top, however, continued to play to enthusiastic live audiences.
In 2003, ZZ Top released a final RCA album, Mescalero, an album thick with harsh Gibbons guitar and featuring a hidden track – a cover version of "As Time Goes By". RCA impresario Clive Davis wanted to do a collaboration record (in the mode of Carlos Santana's successful Supernatural) for this album. In an interview in Goldmine magazine, artists Pink, Dave Matthews, and Wilco were among the artists slated for the project.
A comprehensive four-CD collection of recordings from the London and Warner Bros. years, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, was released in 2003. It featured the band's first single (A- and B-side), several rare B-side tracks as well as a radio promotion from 1979, a live track and several extended dance mix versions of their biggest MTV hits. Three tracks from Billy Gibbons' pre-ZZ band, The Moving Sidewalks, were also included.
In 2004, ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones gave the induction speech. ZZ Top gave a brief performance, playing "La Grange" and "Tush."
Expanded and remastered versions of the original studio albums from the 1970s and ’80s are currently in production. Marketed as "Remastered and Expanded," these releases include additional live tracks which were not present on the original recordings. Three such CDs have been released to date (Tres Hombres, Fandango!, and Eliminator). The first two were released in 2006 and use the original mixes free from echo and fake drum machines, while "Eliminator" was released in 2008. The Eliminator re-release also features a collector's edition version containing a DVD featuring several videos and additional live tracks.
As of 2006, it was reported that ZZ Top were recording their 15th studio album. There was no release, however, and on September 17, 2006, the band ended their tenure with RCA Records and further left their manager Bill Ham, president of Lone Wolf Management. No reasons were publicized for these changes. In December 2006, Sanctuary Management added ZZ Top to its roster.
The band was honored by Billy Bob Thornton at the second annual VH1 Rock Honors on May 24, 2007. Nickelback performed a rendition of "Sharp Dressed Man" as an introduction. The same show also included Ozzy Osbourne, Genesis and Heart.
ZZ Top's most recent high-profile appearance was a performance at the 2008 Orange Bowl game in Miami. They also performed in 2008 at the Auto Club 500 NASCAR event at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
On May 21, 2008, ZZ Top played their song "Sharp Dressed Man" with the winner of American Idol Season 7 David Cook on the American Idol Finale. On June 12–14, they performed at Bama Jam, outside of Enterprise, Alabama. On June 12, 2008, they performed on the main Coca Cola Stage at the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee in front of an estimated crowd of 125,000.
On June 23, 2008, ZZ Top celebrated the release of their first (official) live concert DVD entitled Live From Texas with the world premiere, a special appearance and charity auction at the Hard Rock Cafe, Houston. The DVD was officially released on June 24, 2008. The featured performance was culled from a concert filmed at the Nokia Theater in Grand Prairie, Texas on November 1, 2007.
In the summer of 2008, ZZ Top co-headlined Brooks & Dunn's Cowboy Town Tour.
Rubin will be producing the next album, and it has been reported that the band will be aiming to move back to their pre-80's La Grange sound.
The Eliminator Collector's Edition CD/DVD celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band's iconic RIAA Diamond Certified album was released September 10, 2008. The release includes seven bonus tracks (five of which are previously unreleased live cuts from 1983) and a bonus DVD (including the four concept videos originally associated with the album and four live performances from a 1983 British television program).
In July 2009, the band appeared on VH1's Storytellers, in celebration of their four decades as recording artists.
On January 22, 2010, Billy Gibbons accompanied Will Ferrell and others playing "Free Bird" on Conan O'Brien's last show. O'Brien joined in on Guitar.