Joseph Michael “Dusty” Hill, the bass player for the legendary Texas band ZZ Top, whose meandering facial hair and affinity for the blues propelled them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, died in his sleep Wednesday. He was 72.
ZZ Top has long proclaimed itself the “Lil’ Old Band from Texas.” Many of its adoring fans think the so-called “weird beards” hail from Houston when, in fact, two-thirds of the group grew up in Dallas.
“You can’t take the Big D out of Dusty. Then you’d have Usty,” Hill once told critic Thor Christensen in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “Even though I moved from Dallas, I still live there in my heart.”
Angus Wynne III, a longtime Dallas music executive who staged the legendary Lewisville Pop Festival in 1969, around the time ZZ Top was formed, booked the band as headliners for the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2019.
“Dusty was a driving force with ZZ Top,” Wynne said Wednesday. “You couldn’t watch them without taking serious note of his abilities as a bassist. He was a really wonderful fellow too. The style of music they played, Dusty was a master of.”
Band members Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard responded to Hill’s unexpected passing by issuing a statement:
“We are saddened by the news today that our Compadre, Dusty Hill, has passed away in his sleep at home in Houston, TX. We, along with legions of ZZ Top fans around the world, will miss your steadfast presence, your good nature and enduring commitment to providing that monumental bottom to the ‘Top.’ We will forever be connected to that ‘Blues Shuffle in C.’ You will be missed greatly, amigo.”
The bluesman from Dallas had suffered multiple health scares in recent years, though the cause of death has not been made public.
In 2000, ZZ Top canceled a European tour after Hill was diagnosed with hepatitis C. On Friday, the band noted in a Facebook post that Hill was on “a short detour back to Texas, to address a hip issue. They await a speedy recovery and [hope to] have him back pronto.”
Wednesday’s news came as a shock to millions of fans and friends around the world, who flooded social media, paying tribute to a bassist widely acknowledged as an icon of the blues. They included John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, who wrote on Twitter: “We are devastated to hear about Dusty’s passing. We were so blessed to share the stage with the great Dusty and ZZ Top many times, and if that wasn’t Rock and Roll heaven, I don’t know what is.”
Fogerty called the news “heartbreaking.”
Hill’s admirers also included Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who introduced ZZ Top at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We are devastated to hear about Dusty’s passing. We were so blessed to share the stage with the great Dusty and ZZ Top many times, and if that wasn’t Rock and Roll heaven, I don’t know what is. The show we did together just last week would be his last. So heartbreaking. pic.twitter.com/oKKslJ2U9M
— John Fogerty (@John_Fogerty) July 28, 2021
Earlier this month, when Hill was sidelined by his health, Gibbons and Beard took the stage for the first time in more than half a century with Hill missing from the lineup.
“Per Dusty’s request the show must go on!” the pair added, noting that the band’s longtime guitar tech, Elwood Francis, would, for the moment, fill in.
Hill lived in Houston for years but grew up near Fair Park in Dallas, where he attended Roberts Elementary and Long Junior High. He dropped out of Woodrow Wilson High School at 15 to join the Deadbeats and later the Warlocks.
ZZ Top was founded in 1969 and performed its first live show the following year. The band has released 15 studio and four live albums, and from the start has reveled in its one-of-a-kind style.
One of Hill’s fondest memories involved the Cotton Bowl, where the Rolling Stones have been booked to play later this year. Its last mega-concert, the Crossroads Guitar Festival, happened in 2004, when the headliners included Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana. Clapton picked ZZ Top to close the multiday show because of the band’s Dallas roots.
“The Cotton Bowl wasn’t far from where I grew up,” Hill told The News. “I used to sneak into the fairgrounds for free over by the old railroad tracks. So for me, playing Crossroads was a real magical moment.”
Over the years, the name ZZ Top has adorned multiple marquees in Dallas-Fort Worth: Panther Hall, Reunion Arena, Memorial Auditorium in Dallas, the Music Hall at Fair Park and the Grand Prairie venue now known as Texas Trust CU Theatre.
Soon after getting together, ZZ Top churned out a hit list of commercial triumphs. They included the LP Tres Hombres in 1973, featuring the raunchy single “La Grange,” a homage to the Chicken Ranch, the notorious bordello in the Texas town that also inspired the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Another top 10 LP, Fandango!, followed in 1975, powered by the single “Tush.” Half the record came from a live taping in New Orleans and helped define the band members as masters of a rare kind of blues, as did their trademark beards and Stetson hats.
The band’s first Top 40 hit, “Tush” contained the line: “I’ve been bad, I’ve been good/Dallas, Texas, Hollywood.”
“When I was writing that song,” Hill told The News, “I made sure to throw ‘Dallas, Texas,’ in there. In my neighborhood in Dallas, ‘tush’ was a term we used a lot.”
By the end of the 1970s, ZZ Top had emerged as one of the world’s most sought-after live acts, with unforgettable moments being a lasting part of the repertoire. The band’s 1976 Worldwide Texas Tour took place with actual livestock onstage.
As Hill once famously said, in an interview with The Associated Press: “I’m living proof that Hepatitis C can be contained and that ZZ Top cannot.”
He is survived by his widow, Charleen McCrory, whom he married in 2002. Services haven’t yet been scheduled.
Thor Christensen contributed to this report.