Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top's lead vocalist and fuzzy guitar wizard, thinks the band's concert at this weekend's Beale Street Music Festival will be a special show. It's the first time Gibbons and his longtime musical accomplices, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, will have played the Bluff City since the Texas trio became the most eyebrow-raising act inducted into the inaugural class of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
"It should be a really special night," Gibbons predicts, describing his inclusion in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame as "a kind of 'fonky' affirmation."
"The fact that we were chosen, along with Elvis, Sam Phillips, Otis Redding, Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Al Green, B.B. King, Willie Mitchell, the great Jim Dickinson, and the others is one of the most gratifying honors ever bestowed," he says.
The members of ZZ Top, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, aren't from Memphis. But the band's 1973 breakthrough, Tres Hombres, which produced "La Grange," the band's first hit single, was recorded on Madison Avenue at Midtown's Ardent Studios, with Terry Manning running the controls. After the success of "La Grange," ZZ Top treated Memphis as a kind of good-luck charm and returned to Ardent to record the band's next seven records, including 1983's Eliminator, a career-defining album with five hit singles: "Legs," "Sharp Dressed Man," "TV Dinners," "Got Me Under Pressure," and "Gimme All Your Lovin'."
Early on in the band's recording career, ZZ Top hit on a successful formula: dirty boogies and double entendre. Over the years, even as the band has experimented with more electronic sounds, they've never strayed far from the blueprint. Although it wasn't recorded in Memphis, 2012's La Futura, co-produced by Gibbons and Rick Rubin, proves that ZZ Top can still serve stinging blues riffs with a healthy side of hilarity and sleaze.
In a recent interview, Gibbons fondly recalled his time in Memphis recording at Ardent, playing at the Overton Park Shell, and discovering the manifold joys of Velcro.
Flyer: I've heard members of the band mention the whole Jimmie Rodgers "T for Texas, T for Tennessee" thing. But, as a Texas band, how does it feel to be in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame by way of Ardent Studios and folks like Terry Manning?
Billy Gibbons: It's a most Memphian thing, for certain! The Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction is validation of the highest order. While we're identified with Texas, we've long had a special relationship with Memphis and its music. What went on at 706 Union Avenue [Sun Studio] and 2000 Madison [Ardent Studios] is a tremendously inspiring experience. When you come to Memphis, you come to the source. If you want it to be real, do it in Memphis. And so we have.
Before Memphis, you were recording in Tyler, Texas. Not much going on in Tyler in the 1970s but roses, as I recall. Can you tell us a little about the circumstances that brought you to Ardent Studios to record Tres Hombres? That record sounds like it was made in Memphis, Texas, U.S.A.
The good friends we made first coming to Memphis — Waltaire Baldwin, Steadman Matthews, Butch Johnson — allowed us to recognize the first-rate recording facilities that abound in Memphis. Once we met [Ardent's] John Fry and his staff — "The Terrible Trio" (Joe Hardy, Terry Manning, and John Hampton) — we knew we had to make Memphis our second home. You get everything you need — great studios, simpatico musical community, and great Southern cuisine and hospitality — to make "tuff" guitar-based records. That's Memphis magic of the highest order. As far as our pre-Memphis recordings are concerned, we've always strived to get things right in the pocket, Memphis-style, so the influence transcends geography.
Any special Memphis memories: the good, the bad, the weird?
Hanging out with Albert King was pretty special. We saw him trundling down the street and offered him a ride, which he accepted. When we asked where he was going, he said, "Over the motel," which was his way of saying the Peabody. That's Memphis for you. Its grandest lodging is boiled down to gut-bucket basics and becomes "the motel." It should be pointed out that the city's Southern limits border on Mississippi, which tells you much about this kind of root thinking. There are many tall tales to tell about water-skiing up the Mississippi, the Saturday night runs to Southland Greyhound Park, the dice games at the North End ... just too much groove to not maintain fond recollections.
King came to one of your birthday parties, right?
My gal, Christine Reid, organized the big surprise at the aforementioned "motel," with Albert, Tony "Mr. Big" Fortune, and a host of well-wishers while we were living there and recording at Ardent. It was December 16th, and Albert's presence at the bash was an early holiday present. What a night!
Is the third verse of "My Head's in Mississippi" ("Last night I saw a cowgirl/She was floatin' across the ceiling") about Memphis musician Nancy Apple, who has often billed herself as the Cadillac Cowgirl? I've heard her tell a story about an "invisible 7-Eleven." That story involves you, a candy craving, and a citywide hunt for Chick-O-Sticks.
Oh, yes! Nancy Apple's remained a true friend once we hit town. As far as the invisible 7-Eleven, if you can't see it, how do you know it's not there?
I've heard it rumored that you first encountered Velcro at the Midtown Piggly Wiggly. Did you immediately think, Hey, this is better than a zipper?
Velcro came in strips that could be cut and sewn to make things sticky. The zipper has long been problematic. The juxtaposition of steel teeth and one's nether regions should be a cause for concern, so when Velcro came to the fore, it was welcomed with open arms and pants. The sound of Velcro is superb.
Some bands have looks. From the sound, to the Eliminator car, to the beards, to the fuzzy guitars, ZZ Top has an aesthetic. Knowing there are other artists in the family, I'm wondering if it's genetic?
Yes, my dad, the late Freddie Gibbons, was a bandleader/conductor in both Southern California and Houston. He was primarily a pianist and had what it took to keep his combo percolating over the years. This had a profound influence on me. It's not enough to just play music. One must present it. His cousin Cedric was a noted art director and is credited with designing the Oscar statuette. The fact that he was once married to Delores del Rio should have been enough to put him in the history books.
Your first show at the Overton Park Shell — now the Levitt Shell — was a pivotal moment for the band?
Our longtime friend and mentor, Waltaire Baldwin, inspired us from the beginning. One long-distance call from Memphis to Houston provided the inspiration to lean heavily on the bluesy side of things, which resulted in the recording of ZZ Top's First Album, containing the track "Just Got Back From Baby's". Waltaire received the send-out of the first copy off the press, which was auditioned for another instrumental Memphian, Steadman Matthews, who was organizing the initial Overton Park Blues Festival. Waltaire and Steadman considered that including ZZ Top in the show's lineup was a must, despite the fact that Steadman thought we were black. Upon arrival, we checked into the Linden Lodge on Beale Street and found that we had been placed last on the list for the show at Overton. Not a problem, as we were hanging about the scene, still lingering on Beale, with plenty of time to prepare for the evening performance. And it went down in fine fashion! Following the show, we were greeted by the local leaders in the rock scene — Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, Robert Johnson, the Ardent crew, all the important players on the scene! It was following the subsequent visits through town that took us into Ardent Studios. After that, we knew where we wanted to be: Memphis.
Border radio influenced your sensibility. Did you know that the man who created border radio — John R. Brinkley, a quack doctor who would restore male virility by grafting goat testicles onto human testicles — is buried in Memphis?
Yes, indeed. While Dr. Brinkley's "cure" might have been dubious, his contribution was revving up those Mexican radio stations south of the Rio Grande so the likes of me (and Dusty and Frank) could hear blues and R&B that we otherwise wouldn't have heard. When the three of us first got together, we realized that we had been listening to the same stuff, albeit Dusty and Frank in Dallas and me in Houston. The signal was so powerful it seemed like a local station ... "Coast to Coast and Border to Border!"
We're quite keen on how we came to know Howlin' Wolf, so, in some way, we have the good doctor to thank for facilitating our exposure to "the real deal." And Doc's final resting place in Memphis: Do they have goats grazing nearby? Seems like they should.
Prior to Eliminator, you guys seemed to be actively trying to connect the relationship of hit songs and beats-per-minute. In a digital world full of samples and mix tapes, this sort of thing seems obvious. Were you nerding out before nerding out was cool?
This idea that there's a specific formula for hit records is intriguing, but our idea wasn't to crack the code so much as to provide a pulse — in a way, to humanize things. The human pulse is 60-80 beats per minute, and the average for hits is something like 120, so maybe there's something to getting your pulse racing to get your attention. Seems like the blues is closer to humanity than anything else, but you'd lose your mind trying to determine the b.p.m.'s in a Lightnin' Hopkins song. A true heart stopper!
Finally, are there really a lot of nice girls out there in La Grange?
There certainly were back in the old days when visiting there was something of a right of passage. We've been blamed with calling attention to La Grange's famous/notorious Chicken Ranch in our song, but the fact is everybody knew about it for the previous hundred or so years. Our role was just to celebrate that little piece of Texas reality in song. Haw, haw, haw, haw.
Orion Stage • Saturday, May 4th • 10:45 p.m.
Beale Street Music Festival • Tom Lee Park
Friday, May 3rd-Sunday, May 5th
Single-day tickets are $35 for Friday and Sunday and $45 for Saturday. Three-day pass is $115. Tickets available at ticketmaster.com or at (800) 745-3000.
After the Gold Rush
French rockers Phoenix respond to new-found fame by going Bankrupt!
When Phoenix headlined Coachella in mid-April, they arranged to have a special guest perform with them. Rumors spread that they would be joined by fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk. "Coachella is one of those festivals where you can't just play the same show," says Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars. "You have to do something special."
After brainstorming ideas, the band decided to invite eccentric Chicago R&B superstar R. Kelly, who agreed despite the daunting logistics of attending the show. "R. Kelly does not fly," Mars explains. "He only drives. So he drove three days to play four minutes with us." It almost didn't work out. When Phoenix took the stage, Kelly was stuck in traffic, and he arrived at the concert site mid-set. The band met him for the first time onstage. Yet, the songs they played together — a mash-up of Phoenix's "1901" and Kelly's "Ignition" with a few bars of Kelly's "I'm a Flirt" thrown in — came off. Afterward, Kelly made the long haul back home. Videos of the performance went viral.
Phoenix plays highly polished, precise, energetic pop music inspired by early-'80s new wave and '60s pop art, while Kelly has founded his career on sophisticated R&B filled with over-the-top sexual come-ons. "We like his music, and we thought it would be an artistic move," Mars says. "We figured all the contradictions would bring something interesting."
That is, in fact, the band's strategy on their latest album, Bankrupt!, which despite its title and emphatic punctuation is among their more creative and daring. It's as streamlined as anything they've ever done yet much more dense; it's enormous, yet its hooks move agilely.
The band found inspiration in an unlikely purchase — the soundboard that Michael Jackson used to record Thriller — which perhaps more than any other factor determined the sound of these new songs. It was, according to Mars, a pleasure to use: "Instead of recording one melody with one instrument, we would record 20, 30, even 40 tracks — just to use it as much as we could."
The result is an album that looks to old sounds to find something new. While recording, the band listened heavily to "Ethiopiques," a series from Paris-based Buda Musique that compiles Ethiopian pop music. "All these sounds sound like the future to us," Mars says. "It's as simple as that."
There's a sense of constant activity to the songs on Bankrupt!, which are bracing in their frantic embrace of ideas. It's crowded and chaotic but invigorating. According to Mars, Bankrupt! is about "watching the world without judging it, as a tourist almost. You're just witnessing without commenting. Brands in general are very poetic and powerful. They can have powerful meanings. It's sort of the religion of a new generation — a new authority."
The first single, "Entertainment," embodies these ideas. With its voluminous synths and a choir singing the main hook, the song sounds like it was written to fill the enormous venues that Phoenix now commands. Yet, its central lyric declares, "I'd rather be alone."
Bankrupt! is Phoenix's "fame" album — a rite of passage for every band that makes it to a level where R. Kelly even returns your calls. Most fame albums are bogged down in self-importance or self-pity, yet Phoenix take a more philosophical view: What distinguishes art from entertainment? When does a band transform into a brand? Why are we doing this? What do you want from us?
Despite the exclamation point, Bankrupt! is not a statement album. It's more of a question album. And as the band takes it on tour, they are finding a few answers.
"I think this is our most intricate and puzzling album," Mars says.
"What we are enjoying right now is that all of this nonsense is starting to make sense. All these things — the artwork, the album title, the lyrics, the sounds — are starting to make sense for people, and they're starting to connect with the record." — Stephen Deusner
Sunday, May 5th • 6:55 p.m.
Breakthrough R&B vet Charles Bradley brings his vintage sound to Soulsville.
In 2011, soul singer Charles Bradley became one of pop music's most unlikely debut acts. Bradley first got the music bug in 1962, at the age of 14, when he saw James Brown at Harlem's Apollo theater. Bradley was entranced, but, for him, it became a dream deferred.
As a young adult, Bradley led a band, building a live audience, but the group fell apart when some band members were drafted to Vietnam. Bradley landed in a studio while he was in California, but the recordings never saw the light of day. He worked mostly as a cook.
By his 60s, after a largely itinerant life, Bradley was paying the bills, in part, as a James Brown tribute performer, billed as "Black Velvet" in Brooklyn clubs. That's when Bradley came to the attention of Gabe Roth, co-founder of the record label Daptone, which had had its greatest success with another "undiscovered" traditional soul singer, Sharon Jones. Daptone hooked up Bradley with its "house band," the Menahan Street Band, and a debut album, No Time for Dreaming, was released in 2011.
"At the time, I was on the edge of giving up," Bradley remembers, speaking by phone last month as he prepared to tour behind his second album, Victim of Love. "It was bittersweet, because I was praying and hoping and going to every door I saw, trying to get an opportunity."
Bradley's debut immediately drew strong press. I was in the crowd for his live coming-out party a couple of months later, playing right before headliner TV on the Radio at Stubb's amphitheater in Austin during the 2011 South by Southwest Music Festival. Wearing a sharp black suit and showcasing a soul scream seemingly as derived from Wilson Pickett as Brown, Bradley was better live than on record and drew a rapturous response from an industry-heavy crowd.
"Texas," Bradley says, pausing to remember that night. "I'll never forget being there. It was too overwhelming for me. There was so much love, I felt like I was flying."
No Time for Dreaming succeeded beyond its story-peg concept. The opening "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)" was deliberate, tough soul that could have been Jerry Butler's "Only the Strong Survive" follow-up. At its best, the album was often autobiographical. "Why Is It So Hard" testifies to his professional and financial difficulties. "Heartaches and Pain" recounts in detail the death of Bradley's brother, who was shot by his own nephew.
Though a relative studio neophyte, Bradley was a veteran live performer at the time of his debut album. But that was often singing other people's material. The autobiographical nature of No Time for Dreaming made live performance more difficult than studio performance.
"I think the first album was harder [than Victim of Love]," Bradley says, "because I had some deep, dark moments that had to come out of me. It was hard to get that onstage. One of the first places I went, on tour, was in Europe. I was singing 'Heartaches and Pain,' and I thought it would be impossible to be onstage singing that song without breaking down. When it was time to go on, I didn't want to go. It was too emotional. They told me, 'You're missing the lyric. You're not singing it how you're supposed to.' I said it hurts. I can't do it."
Once Bradley grew more comfortable singing personal material onstage, his well-honed performance style, well-reviewed album, and enticing back story pushed him through. A year after his SXSW debut, a documentary on his life, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, was a hit at SXSW's film festival component.
Bradley, once on the verge of giving up on music, was now touring the world, making TV and radio appearances, and sharing a stage with Stevie Wonder. Now comes the hard work of turning a breakthrough into something more sustainable. Bradley's told his story. Now, with Victim of Love, he's relying more fully on his vocal gifts.
"The new lyrics ... the new album ... I can perform it greater and better," Bradley says. "It's not as much about hurt as the last album."
There's still plenty of deep soul here. "Crying in the Chapel" — not the standard of the same title — is horn-driven, soul pleading reminiscent of Otis Redding. But elsewhere, Bradley and his Daptone cohorts push his sound in new directions. "Confusion" is a bit of psychedelic soul that echoes the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion." And "Hurricane" struts with a guitar-laced groove and background vocals that suggest Curtis Mayfield.
"I'm just really getting a chance in life now," Bradley says. "I'd been working jobs, cooking, biting my tongue. The world has truly given me a chance." — Chris Herrington
Horseshoe Casino Blues Tent
Friday, May 3rd • 11:10 p.m.
Metal great Yngwie Malmsteen remains relevant decades after the hair-metal heyday.
Yngwie Malmsteen is a virtuoso’s virtuoso whose name will be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has spent more than 30 minutes in a guitar shop. The Swedish-born pioneer of a heavy-metal style known as “neo-classical” blasted onto the American metal scene in the early-’80s as the young guitarist for the one-album power-metal band Steeler (who originated from Nashville, btw). Malmsteen was only 18 years old at the time and Steeler’s eponymous 1983 debut is considered a genre-launching masterpiece based entirely on Malmsteen’s lightning-fast but very organic playing style. Malmsteen promptly left Steeler and formed the band Alcatraz with former Rainbow front man Graham Bonnet and the band released their debut No Parole for Rock ‘N’ Roll (1983), but the band failed to garner any attention outside of a cult following. Malmsteen’s desire to go solo won out and lead to the formation of Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and an eponymous album that won Guitar Player magazine’s award for “Best Rock Album” of 1984 while picking up a Grammy nomination for “Best Rock Instrumental.” Malmsteen's fourth album, Odyssey, garnered the MTV-heavy hit “Heaven Tonight,” and even throughout the heavy-metal unfriendly 1990s, Malmsteen nurtured a growing and loyal fan base in Japan and Europe.
Malmsteen and his Rising Force band (with many lineup changes) has since released 23 studio and live albums, plus joining fellow shred-men Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. for the double-live G3: Rockin’ In the Free World album and tour of 2003. Malmsteen and Rising Force’s most recent album, Spellbound (Rising Force Records/Universal Japan) was released on December 5th, 2012, and on May 6th, Yngwie’s memoir, titled Relentless: A Memoir will be published by Wiley Publications. Malmsteen spoke with the Flyer about all of this ahead of his Beale Street Music Fest performance:
Flyer: Let’s start off with your book, Relentless: A Memoir, which comes out this month. I must say it is refreshing and impressive that you wrote this book from the ground up, no co-author or any help writing it.
Malmsteen: I’ve been working on it for eight years. My reason for writing it is that I felt like the world needed my side of ‘the story,’ if you will, my side of things. One thing that people don’t realize about where I’m from, Stockholm, in the 70’s … no one did things that brought attention to themselves. You were supposed to go to your job every day, support your family, and avoid being a creative or artistic person. I come from a very musical, artistic family, so I grew up knowing otherwise, but by the time I was in my teens, it was time to get out. I worked very hard to establish myself as a guitar player and to follow my vision, and I just wanted the world to know that it wasn’t handed to me. You don’t know how great you have it here in America, compared to where I came up. The minute I landed over here, I was a superstar. But it was not easy during those years before I came over here. Americans have a lot more tolerance and respect for artists and musicians than in my home country. It is better now, over there, of course, but back then it was bad.
You’ve always played Fender Stratocasters, despite the explosion of “shredder” guitars via other manufacturers in the ’80s and up to current day. You were one of the first, if not the first, guitarist to be approached about making a signature model for production?
You know, Leo Fender, he didn’t even play guitar, but he was a genius designer, very intuitive. After creating the Telecaster, he knew he had to make a guitar that was more comfortable, one that felt like an extension of the player, with curves that fit a player’s body. It was such an honor when Fender came to me about making a Yngwie Malmsteen model, and it took some time and several models, but the current model is perfect.
You’ve had many lineup changes within the ‘Rising Force’ band, including the most recent stint with the famed Ripper Owens on vocals. Are there any lineups that have stuck with you or are your favorites?
No, I can’t really look at it that way. What people don’t realize is that this is a band in which the guitar player is the band leader and songwriter, so just like a bass player or a drummer, I handle vocals just like another instrument or side man. So I try to utilize someone’s vocals when they are going to be best for that particular time period or chapter of the band. Rock and metal bands are traditionally seen as those of the singer, and it is often assumed that whoever is singing, then it must be their band, but this band is different.
You seem to be getting younger fans now because of the use of your songs in the Guitar Hero games.
It’s so great. At shows, I have 12 and 13 year olds coming up and they are huge fans because of Guitar Hero. I think those games have had a positive impact, not just on my career, but on the culture with young people learning the guitar and starting bands through them.
I read that the difference between your guitar work and the work of your many imitators was to slow down the recording: Your playing always remained musical at any speed, while everyone else’s just collapsed into a sonic mess.
Other guitarists got so caught up in the speed of the notes and playing, and then everyone wanted to call it something. People call it “power metal” and “shred-metal” and “thrash-metal” but to me it is just rock and roll … a guitar into a Marshall amp turned up to eleven, you know? — Andrew Earles
Friday, May 3rd • 7:40 p.m.