Industry veteran Bob Merlis has been involved with publicity efforts on behalf of ZZ Top for the better part of four decades of the band’s 50+ year existence. He was publicity director at Warner Bros. Records when the group signed with that label in the late 1970s and estimates that he’s seen them perform more than 120 times over the years. Here, he remembers Dusty Hill, the group’s bassist since 1970, who died Wednesday at the age of 72.
Yesterday’s passing of ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill took an emotional toll here, as my many encounters with him over the years were marked by his good cheer and almost mirthful nature. He was a great guy to hang out with whenever the opportunity to do so arose. He was a sweet man who really had no agenda beyond playing music to the best of his considerable ability, and to put on a great show for the throngs who came to see him and the group over the years. For want of another way to put it, Dusty’s aim was to please — not in an obsequious way, but in an honest, human-to-human way.
He was certainly a star but, at the same time, literally an average Joe; he was born Joseph Michael Hill. He was dutiful to a fault, and his work ethic belied his rock-star status. When the lobby call was for 4:45 you could count on Dusty to be waiting there at 4:30. He just loved what he did and was loath to miss a second of it. He was raised by a single mom in a working-class neighborhood in Dallas and never forgot where he came from; he was simply incapable of pretense — the real deal, if you will. It was my privilege to spend lots of open-ended “down” time with Dusty, a kindly man and always great company.
He learned a lot from the blues masters he idolized as a kid and into his adulthood. He and Frank Beard backed up Lightnin’ Hopkins in their pre-ZZ days which, in blues circles, is akin to touching the hem of the Lord’s garment. He told the story of their first encounter with the redoubtable Mr. Hopkins. Nervous about playing with Lightnin’ who, of course, abhorred rehearsals, Dusty offered, “Just let us know where the changes are, and we’ll follow you.” The mighty Lightnin’ responded dismissively, “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change,” so Dusty bore down and did his utmost to follow the mercurial legend. He adored blues legend Freddie King, with whom he was long friendly, and was delighted to join his ZZ Top bandmates in inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as they had done for Howlin’ Wolf.
When the band were, themselves, inducted in 2004 — by Keith Richards, no less — it was a high point for a kid whose original and abiding influence was Elvis Presley. He loved Elvis and delighted in singing lead on “Jailhouse Rock,” which ZZ Top often performed as a concert encore, and on “Viva Las Vegas,” a standout during their residencies at the Venetian. Yes, he was one of rock’s most puissant bass players but also a richly nuanced vocalist who delivered in no uncertain terms. “Tush,” written during a soundcheck at an Alabama venue in with a dirt floor, is evidence of his vocal appeal — the song would go on to be the band’s very first Top 40 hit. He explained to me that “Tush is like ‘plush’ — it’s luxurious, but also means ‘fine’ or ‘cool.’” However, he did allow, “I heard the Yiddish term in Dallas, so you can think of it as our first body-part tune.” For my part, I always thought of him as a real mensch.
Speaking of Elvis, at Dusty’s 2002 wedding to his beloved Charleen “Chuck” McCrory, directly after vows were exchanged and all in attendance expected the traditional bride and groom first dance, he grabbed the mic and serenaded her with a heartfelt and evocative rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
The spirt of the King truly lived in “The Dust.”