While bussing tables at Palace Café on Canal Street in 2002, I cleared dirty plates from beneath the low-hanging red beards of the two main dudes from ZZ Top. Our bosses demanded that we not bother famous guests, and so I was barely able to exchange hellos with the great ZZ Top. Or the Pointer Sisters. Or Jimmy Swaggart. Though I’ll have good anecdotes about them later in this series…
However, years later, after Hurricane Katrina, I dated the sweetest redhead girl named Catherine, who offhandedly mentioned that she sometimes spoke on the phone with her “Uncle Billy.” She finally told me her Uncle Billy was Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s main man.
Not only is Gibbons a great guitarist and songwriter, he’s one of the best gingers of all time. Us ginger kids grow up without too many idols (Only Axl Rose comes to mind. Maybe Eric Stoltz. Louis CK meant a lot to us for a period of time but then became yet another albatross around our splotchy necks). Even as a kid, I loved ZZ Top’s red beards, and their wild videos (especially “TV Dinner”), and the way they incorporated drum machines into traditional blues music. The fact that all of that came from a couple fellow redheads made it even sweeter.
My new girlfriend promised me that someday we’d attend one of ZZ Top’s many southern tours, and she’d introduce me to Uncle Billy. That day came on her birthday.
My psychedelic guru Ray Bong (who, like Gibbons, is originally a Texan, 20 years old than I) drove all three of us to the casino in Biloxi, Mississippi where ZZ Top was to throw down. The concert had already started as we entered the hall. As we walked to our great seats right up front, Uncle Billy, mid-shred, looked down and noticed his niece, smiled big, and waved to her from the stage. I was already deeply impressed.
The band’s stage setup was beautiful: they wore sharp, matching suits, and played through clean, white amplifiers that sat in front of stacks of big cubes lit from the inside, that strategically changed colors. Gibbons could totally just get up there and play the hits, and impress everyone with his famous guitar licks, but dude is clearly an aesthete who thinks about every detail.
After a killer show, we went backstage, but were first asked to sit outside Gibbons’s dressing room for about a half hour. This might have seemed odd had I not played a lot of concerts myself; there’s a period afterward where you just need to be alone. Being on stage is a singularly dramatic experience, even for those of us who’ve never had real fans. In my imagination, Gibbons just probably didn’t want to smoke pot in front of his niece (nothing is better or more relaxing after a big show), though I’ve no evidence to support that idea.
Finally, we joined Gibbons in his brightly lit dressing room. His grey-dyed-orange beard was now wrapped up in a tight bun against his chin. He wore a bathrobe, plus a small red, black, and green wool beany atop his head rather than his signature Texas cowboy hat, and looked like a skinny rasta Santa Clause. He hugged and kissed my girlfriend, handed her a fat roll of $2 bills equalling $100, then told us to meet him out back at his tour bus.
Gibbons told us that each member of the band had their own tour bus. Gibbons’s was all red inside, and very comfy, like a big version of his bathrobe. He aimed us at his mini-fridge stocked with Red Stripe beer. Another fan was let onto the bus momentarily, long enough to gift Gibbons with a very nice, homemade cigar box guitar, which Gibbons very much appreciated, though I could tell he really wanted to get back to lovin on his niece — they clearly had a special bond. He seemed like a genuinely caring uncle.
When Gibbons’s superfan left, Ray Bong and I shut up and let him and Catherine talk and catch up. After they’d had their fill, Gibbons turned to us, and gifted us with an ultra-rare treat: Uncle Billy cranked up the stereo, which was hooked to a dozen or so speakers strategically hidden all over his killer tour bus. He busted out his old-school white Mac laptop, and played for us demos of a solo album he was working on. The music sounded nothing like ZZ Top: mellow ballads, some acoustic country songs, even a reggae tune floated from his elaborate sound system.
Usually, in this situation, I am interviewing the celebrity. But this was different: a unique honor that I will never forget. Thanks, Uncle Billy!
Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.