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‘Tres Hombres’: How ZZ Top Went From Texan Upstarts To Global Contenders
In Depth

‘Tres Hombres’: How ZZ Top Went From Texan Upstarts To Global Contenders

Full of gritty tunes and helped by a mild scandal, ZZ Top’s third album, ‘Tres Hombres’, gave the Texan trio a push into the mainstream.

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Having long since styled themselves as “that little ol’ band from Texas”, hirsute rockers ZZ Top have never been ashamed of their roots. Yet while Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard and the late Dusty Hill will always be synonymous with the Lone Star State, a journey to another of the Southern states’ most significant musical meccas provided much of the inspiration for their landmark third album, 1973’s Tres Hombres.

Listen to ‘Tres Hombres’ here.

The backstory: “Memphis inspires you to write”

“We’ve always ascribed to the old phrase: ‘T for Texas, T for Tennessee’,” vocalist/guitarist Billy Gibbons told Classic Rock magazine in 2020. “There was something about it… I suppose by sticking in Memphis it offered us a little psychological advantage of maybe getting away from the house for a while.

“When you get into Memphis and you start breathing that air and you feel that musical vibe hit you, it inspires you to write,” he added. “There’s just something that comes over you. I don’t know if it’s this lineage of rich musical heritage… So we go up and live it, breathe it and see what we can do with it.”

The recording: “Billy just loved the sound of that”

Texas’ DNA is still detectable in Tres Hombres, as ZZ Top began recording the album’s backing tracks at Robin Hood Studios, in Tyler, where they’d laid down their potent second album, Rio Grande Mud. However, all the overdubbing, mixing, editing and sequencing of Tres Hombres took place at Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios. A complex famous for hothousing classic records from artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Led Zeppelin and Big Star, Ardent also brought ZZ Top into contact with a talented studio technician who would play a crucial role in their future success.

“I was a big fan,” Terry Manning – who later worked on the band’s multi-platinum-selling album Eliminator – told The Blues magazine. “I had really liked the first two albums, and had actually put out feelers to the band that I was interested in working with them. And it turned out Billy Gibbons had heard that I’d engineered and essentially mixed the Led Zeppelin III album, which was doing so well. Billy just loved the sound of that, and it turned out that he was also putting out feelers to work with me.”

The songs: “It was about the Waldorf Astoria of whorehouses in Texas”

Wanting the band to sound “powerful and tight” while also keeping “the grit and the grunge” of the blues, Manning succeeded in helping ZZ Top create their most satisfying collection of songs to date with Tres Hombres. Their playing having hit nigh-on supernatural levels of understanding from constant touring, the band nonchalantly slipped into infectious blues-rock grooves on songs such as Move Me On Down The Line and the rubber-burning Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers, the latter of which would spawn a suitably abrasive cover by Motörhead.

Indeed, Gibbons and company made the creation of their new music sound so effortless that Manning was able to segue Tres Hombres’ itchy opening cut, Waitin’ For The Bus, directly into the rangy groove of Jesus Just Left Chicago.

“The songs weren’t recorded that way or planned that way,” the engineer revealed to Classic Rock. “But when I was sequencing the album… I remember feeling those two could be like one very powerful recording… It was a shock to them because it was so abrupt-sounding. But once you’d heard it a few times, it was like, ‘I can’t hear it any other way now’… That was probably my best edit ever.”

Tres Hombres certainly succeeded in putting ZZ Top’s inimitable blues-rock hybrid on the global map, though songs such as the tough, Thin Lizzy-ish Master Of Sparks and the Stax-esque soul ballad Hot, Blue And Righteous revealed they weren’t merely bad-assed boogie merchants. Elsewhere, the band flirted with a more down-home, Delta-style blues on the album’s signature single, La Grange – even if the song’s rich backstory was 100 per cent Texan.

La Grange: “We wrote the song as a celebration. It ended up being a eulogy”

“It was about the Waldorf Astoria of whorehouses in Texas,” Gibbons told Sounds magazine of La Grange, around the time of Tres Hombres’ release. “So posh that you couldn’t cuss or even be really drunk in front of the girls. When you reach a certain age in Texas, you can go visiting down to Mexico or make a trip to La Grange.”

One of the best ZZ Top songs of all time, La Grange, which was based on the story of the Chicken Ranch brothel (which also inspired the movie The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds), was still in business when ZZ Top penned their song. However, that wasn’t the case by the time Tres Hombres was released.

“When we wrote the song and put it out, La Grange was still going strong,” Frank Beard told Classic Rock. “It seemed like maybe a month after the song came out when the local newscaster from Houston [Marvin Zindler] raised this big stink and got the place closed down. We kinda wrote the song as a celebration. It ended up being a eulogy.”

The release: “They were burning on all cylinders by that point”

The unfortunate events at Chicken Ranch, however, did nothing to hinder the progress of La Grange, which rewarded ZZ Top with their first Top 50 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Released on 26 July 1973, Tres Hombres ran with the baton. With help from some supportive critical notices (Rolling Stone referred to the Texans as “one of the most inventive of the three-piece rockers”), the album peaked at No.8 on the Billboard 200, eclipsing the performance of the band’s first two albums and scoring them their first ever gold disc.

“We could tell that we had something special,” Gibbons told MusicRadar in 2013. “The record became quite the turning point for us. The success was the handwriting on the wall, because from that point on we became honorary citizens of Memphis.”

“I had a real good feeling about it. I just knew this would push them up,” Terry Manning later reflected. “For me, it was the high point of several things coming together… this was running at a higher level of technical expertise and quality equipment. Plus the band… had been through the recording process twice before, and they had it down. They were burning on all cylinders by that point.”

Find out which ‘Tres Hombres’ track ranks among the best ZZ Top songs.

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