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The Epic Track: ZZ Top’s “La Grange”

Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.

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What do you get when you combine ZZ Top, a real-life village brothel, the hit show The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and bluesman John Lee Hooker? The enduring blues rock classic, “La Grange.”

A deliciously gritty track from ZZ Top’s 1973 album Tres Hombres, “La Grange” pays hard-ass homage to a brothel called The Chicken Ranch, a shack of ill-repute on the edges of La Grange, Texas. Opening with a bouncy raunch that holds for the duration of the song, we hear a memorable mix of stunning guitar work (by Billy Gibbons and the late Dusty Hill) while the always-underrated Frank Beard delivers a deceptively simple beat. Gibbons handles the vocals with a spare, gravelly eloquence as he serves up the glories of the brothel:

“Rumor spreadin’ ‘round/In that Texas town/About that shack outside LaGrange…/(& you know what I’m talkin’ about)”

He continues to expound on “that home on the range” with a “lotta nice girls” that’s “tight most every night,” all in naughty fun. The real verbal impact comes from his playful pleas to “Have mercy!”, along with his hiccup-y “Haw Haw Haw” refrain that gets across what mere words cannot.

Back to Gibbons’ nasally “Haw Haw Haw” riffs: they kick up the ribald spirit of the track but are not original. Much of the chord structure and verbal handling of “La Grange” is strongly influenced by John Lee Hooker, one of the finest bluesmen ever, whose 1948 classic “Boogie Chillun” sounded so reminiscent of the opening of “La Grange” that a lawsuit was brought against ZZ Top for copyright infringement. The incident remains controversial, but the suit was eventually dropped because it was shown that “Boogie Chillun,” an established vintage Delta blues piece, was already in the public domain.

No question that Hooker deserves acknowledgment but ZZ Top brought their unique brand of moxie to the Hooker tribute (implied or otherwise), giving the world an updated old-school track that blends rock, blues, and boogie with a fresh Texas sound that’s become a head-bopping standard. “La Grange” hit the airwaves with swift impact, rising to #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

In a witty turn on the Howard Stern Show in 2013, the Texas gents brought their chill charisma to a live studio performance and a brief interview beforehand. Gibbons said that “La Grange” came together as a kind of accident in about two minutes, a spark of one-off musical mojo that needn’t be belabored. Why? “It just sucks out the energy [to overthink it]…lightning in a bottle is rare.”

“La Grange” has an early ‘70s sound in the context of the band’s history, with its discordant tones and inherent distortion. ZZ Top has always had a recognizable sound, but the 1980s brought in sophisticated studio technology (and cool MTV videos) to inform and smooth their work, all to great effect.

With their signature flowing beards and dark shades, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill broke out virtuoso guitars while beardless, low-key Frank Beard was a stellar percussionist. ZZ Top stayed together, making music for over a half-century, until Dusty Hill’s passing in 2021. They’ve retained devoted fans for generations while younger fans are drawn to their timeless cool.

Alas, ZZ Top did not help perpetuate the tenure of the place they paid loving tribute to with their epic track “La Grange.” The real-life Chicken Ranch, initially opened in 1905, closed one fiscal quarter after the release of the song. It was also the muse for the more wholesome Broadway show and movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. But perhaps the grittiness of ZZ Top’s rendition brought the establishment (which always made a point to keep things clean, elegant, and subdued) way too much attention. An eventual exposé by a Houston television news reporter forced the well-loved place to shutter in 1973, much to the consternation of ZZ Top and many others. But its playful legacy lives on.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: ZZ Top, 2015 (Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

4 comments on “The Epic Track: ZZ Top’s “La Grange”

  1. Great work, Ellen.

    I was growing up in Houston when this song was released. That reporter is the inimitable Marvin Zindler of Channel 13 Eyewitness News. He was renowned for his frequent exposure of “slime in the ice machine” at an alarming number of eateries around Space City.

    Apparently, he took a respite from restaurant wrecking to get himself in line for this take down of the “The Ranch”.

    Haw Haw Haw!

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks so much, John! I love your first-hand account of the dread Zindler – what an insidious pot stirrer!

  2. Stephanie

    Thanks for the fun read. I had no idea. Ha!

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