There was a time when Dusty Hill shaved.
That time was about 1968.
“I was 19 or 20 the last time I shaved,” says Hill, who is 63 years old and, as a longtime member of ZZ Top, one of the most famously bearded men on the planet. “I had a short beard before we grew these long, and I’ve had a mustache since I was 16.”
Guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons and he have been forever bearded, and it has been so long since Hill shaved, he can’t quite recall the type of instrument — a sharpened flint, perhaps? — he dragged across his face.
“I don’t know if it was a single-blade or one of those straight-edge razors, but I used to play in bands that were, like, show bands and would play different clubs, and, in those days, I would go to the barber twice a week,” Hill says. “I’d shave myself, too, but I wanted to get a close, baby’s-butt shave, you know? That was so long ago, I don’t remember what it feels like.”
The band’s fame has only grown steadily along with the facial hair of the two members of ZZ Top not named Beard (Frank Beard is the drummer). The band is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (inducted in 2004) with record sales topping 25 million. The 1983 album “Eliminator” accounts for nearly half that total, with sales of 10 million, and two years ago, the band filled the infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with tens of thousands of fans during the Carb Day concert the day before the Indy 500.
Wednesday night and again Saturday, ZZ Top headlines at House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. The Vegas HOB outpost seats about 1,800, so it should be a rockin’ good time in close quarters, a lot less sprawling than the Indy Speedway but more lively than the night in Alvin, Texas, when the band played for just one guy.
“It’s a story that’s been around some, but, yeah, we were playing the armory in Alvin, one of these hamlets we used to play, doing one of our first shows as a band (in 1970),” Hill says. “We went into the place, the curtain opened, and one guy was standing out there. He didn’t even have a date. He thought he was in the wrong place. We bought him a Coke and played a whole set for one guy.”
Fifteen years later, during a sold-out show at the Summit Arena in Houston, the guy sent a note backstage to ZZ Top.
“We saw him again and invited him backstage and met him,” Hill recalls. “That really happened. We played the places with the chicken wire up in front of the stage. That’s the way it was.”
The band once arrived in Vegas during its early years for a show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, in September 1976. They wound up dressing like they were auditioning for their own “Sharp Dressed Man” video.
“My impression of Las Vegas was in the movies and on TV. So we were all gonna go see somebody perform — I can’t recall who it was — and we went out and rented tuxedos because I thought that’s what you did in Vegas,” Hill says, laughing. “We wanted to look like the Rat Pack and all those guys. So we were walking around in tuxedos, and people must’ve thought we were waiters or something.
“We must have looked pretty stupid to a lot of people, but I thought we looked pretty good, y’know?”
Hill picked up the bass as his first instrument and learned to play it live, onstage, in those chicken-wire places. The band still roars onstage (it plays what many rock fans feel is the best version of “Viva Las Vegas”), just the three members who have been in place for nearly as long as Hill and Gibbons have been wearing the beards.
“Even if I were to retire, I wouldn’t shave. Everyone I know, including my wife, has never seen me without it,” he says. “I’m so used to it, it’s become a part of me. It’s a style, like how you wear your hair.”
It never goes out of style, either. A lot like a tuxedo.