Backstage with Ron Onesti: Billy Is Still THE “Top” In Rock and Roll
Backstage with Ron Onesti: Billy is still THE “Top” in Rock and Roll
Legends and icons-how lucky am I to be able to host these megastars at The Arcada Theatre who have helped shape popular culture, especially that of my own formative years? So many people in my industry pride themselves on NOT being star-struck, and how stars to them are really no big deal anymore. They will give you countless examples of celebs they have worked with, yawning in between the names of the groups, and how it’s just another day at the office for them.
Well I proudly proclaim that I AM star-struck! Not so much so that I grovel and stutter and trip over myself when I am in their presence, but I am to the level that I completely marvel at what these entertainers have accomplished and at how much their work has been a part of my life. That’s the best part of my job for I am a true fan of the music, with a deep admiration of the entertainers’ milestones shared with their fans.
I actually get caught up in it all emotionally sometimes. When I worked with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Johnny Van Zant raised a microphone stand to the heavens with his late brother Ronnie’s top hat on the mic and their band-symbolic Confederate flag tied to it (please, nothing political about this), I welled up in tears as we all remembered that fatal plane crash that killed many of the band’s members, including brother Ronnie Van Zant. There have been countless moments like these over the years, and these are the emotional trophies I have been lucky enough to hold inside my heart.
But some just have that familiar, iconic “look” and presence that brings you back, too. I did many shows with Alice Cooper, and seeing Vince Fernier in character as “Alice” with his signature makeup really represented rock of the 70s for me. To have Lisa Marie Presley at The Arcada was, as Fleetwood Mac has referenced countless times towards “The White-Winged Dove”, her face was “Hauntingly familiar”! To have the towering presence of Charlie Daniels in his white cowboy hat and fiddle on my stage was really cool, as was Bret Michaels’ rock ‘n roll cowboy hat and signature American flag jeans were as large as life as his band Poison is!
But speaking of cool, iconic looks, I recently knocked another milestone meeting off my extensive bucket list, and his look is about as legendary as rock music itself. I was able to score Billy Gibbons, founder and lead vocalist of the rock band ZZ Top! He was on a short national tour promoting his latest album entitled “Perfectamundo,” a solo effort with his “other” band, The BFGs, and The humble Arcada was lucky enough to land his Chicago appearance! WAS I EXCITED!
When he arrived at the theatre early in the day of his concert, a huge group of devoted fans were already congregating at our back stage door. It was a sight to see as many men (I think they were all men!) were sporting beards of various lengths similar to Billy’s long, signature style. I kinda felt under-whiskered myself!
I met him in our main green room, downstairs from the theatre. As I walked in I was met with a sly grin, but there he was, a legitimate, all-too-familiar, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, with a two-foot beard and knitted skull cap. He was dressed in what looked like pajamas, a free-flowing cotton button down shirt and baggy pants ensemble. It was definitely surreal, as I have seen ZZ Top countless times on television and in magazines, but never on stage.
I asked Billy about his new album and what would be in store for us later that night. “Well, it is a fusion record based on Cuban Rhythms,” he said. “Growing up in Texas I was surrounded by Latin-influenced music. My father was an orchestra leader and concert pianist, but he loved that style of music. His favorite was Tito Puente, so through his musical connections he sent me to New York to study with Tito. I actually started as a percussionist,” he said. “Then the late sixties hit, and I got involved in that Woodstock-style rock. I formed a band called “The Moving Sidewalks” and we actually opened for Jimi Hendrix on his first North American tour,” he said. “Jimi actually taught me how to play “Foxy Lady” when I was seventeen, ya know!”
ZZ Top had their biggest hits in the 80s, and is considered by many an 80s rock band, with “Gimme All Your Lovin’”, “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” really catapulting the band with the help of the MTV video age.
But Gibbons actually formed ZZ Top in 1969, after the Hendrix tour ended. It was a crazy year because he started it with two other guys and recorded a record then, but changed the band and re-directed its sound that same year by bringing aboard Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, the band’s historic lineup that continues today.
I asked Billy about the band’s name, and he talked about the fact that many of the bands from that era like The Rolling Stones, were largely influenced by the blues legends of the day. “I had a bunch of club posters of my blues heroes up on the wall in my apartment. My favorites were B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill. I was going to go with ‘ZZ King’ but I thought was going to be too close to their names, and I thought that B.B. was the “Top Guy” in blues so “ZZ Top” sounded cooler and I still got to pay tribute to my blues heroes,” he said.
The band limped along for a while, with marginal air play, so they took a hiatus in the late seventies. When they decided to get back together, they all met after separate international trips, with Gibbons and Hill both sporting long beards! They created that signature look, both doing so unknowingly of the others’ beards. Ironically, the band’s drummer, Frank Beard is the only member without a beard!
So I really didn’t know what to expect from the show. “Cuban rhythms?” I couldn’t imagine it. But as he began playing the guitar, that signature ZZ sound emanated! The new music was so cool, with a rockin’, Latin beat that had everybody moving all night, even the stone-cold rockers! He did play a few ZZ cover tunes, “Thunderbird’, “Ten Foot Pole” and “LaGrange”, and his finale brought the house down as he rocked Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. What a show!
Afterwards, he met a few of our guests, very cordial and warmly. We was generous with his time and was in absolutely no hurry to leave. The Arcada dressing rooms share a stairwell with a popular local bar called “The House Pub.” Billy wandered from the dressing rooms and wound up behind the bar at The House Pub, helping himself to spirits of his choice! But it WAS Billy Gibbons, so how could we be upset? Needless to say, his sly grin got wider as the spirits kept flowin’!
He stayed until about 3:00 a.m., only leaving with a promise by Johnny, our transportation chief to bring him to Steak and Shake! It was a wild night, but it wound up like being with a rock and roll Uncle Rip Van Winkle! I haven’t shaved since then, in his honor. But I don’t think the ZZ Top look is for me. I look more like a two-gun blarin’ Yosemite Sam wannabe. I’ll just keep bringing my rock heroes to The Arcada and leave the COOL looks to them!