My Top 5 Debut Albums Turning 50

Earlier this week, I wrote about my top 5 studio albums turning 50 this year. That post was inspired by “Top 50 Albums Turning 50,” a fun program on SiriusXM, Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26) I had caught the other day. But capturing the greatness of 1971 with just five albums really doesn’t do justice to one of the most remarkable years in music, so I decided to have some more fun with it.

This time, I’m looking at great debut albums from 1971. While that caveat substantially narrowed the universe, an initial search still resulted in close to 10 records I could have listed here. Following are my five favorites from that group, again in no particular order.

Electric Light Orchestra/The Electric Light Orchestra

Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO, were formed in Birmingham, England in 1970 by songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, along with drummer Bev Bevan, as an offshoot of British rock band The Move. The idea was to combine Beatlesque pop and rock with classical music. I always thought the result was somewhat weird, feeling like The Beatles and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” on steroids; yet at the same time, ELO created a signature sound and songs that undoubtedly were catchy. The band’s debut album, the only record with Wood, first came out in the UK on December 3, 1971 as The Electric Light Orchestra. In the U.S., it appeared in March 1972, titled No Answer. Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, that title was accidental when a representative from U.S. label United Artists Records unsuccessfully tried to reach an ELO contact in the UK and wrote down “no answer” in his notes. Here’s the record’s opener 10538 Overture, a tune Lynne wrote, which initially was recorded by The Move to become a B-side to one of their singles.

Bill Withers/Just As I Am

Bill Withers got a relatively late start in music. By the time his debut single Three Nights and a Morning appeared in 1967, Withers already was a 29 year-old man who previously had served in the U.S. Navy for nine years. It took another four years before his debut album Just As I Am was released in May 1971. Unlike his first single that went unnoticed, the record became a significant success, reaching no. 35 and no. 37 in the U.S. and Canadian mainstream charts, and peaking at no. 9 on the Billboard Soul charts. Much of the popularity was fueled by lead single Ain’t No Sunshine, one of Withers’ best known songs and biggest hits. Just As I Am was produced by Booker T. Jones, who also played keyboards and guitar. Some of the other musicians on the album included M.G.’s bassist and drummer Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr., respectively, as well as Stephen Stills (guitar) and Jim Keltner (drums). While Ain’t No Sunshine is the crown jewel, there’s more to this record. Check out Do It Good, a soul tune with a cool jazzy groove, written by Withers.

ZZ Top/ZZ Top’s First Album

While guitarist Billy Gibbons recorded ZZ Tops’s first single Salt Lick (backed by Miller’s Farm) in 1969 with Lanier Greig (bass) and Dan Mitchell (drums), the band’s current line-up with Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) has existed since early 1970. This makes ZZ Top the longest-running group in music history with unchanged membership. It was also the current line-up that recorded the band’s debut ZZ Top’s First Album released on January 16, 1971. It was produced by Bill Ham, who was instrumental to ZZ Top’s success. Not only did he produce or co-produce all of their records until their 12th studio album Rhythmeen from September 1996, but he also served as the band’s manager until that year. Here’s the great blues rocker Brown Sugar, one of my favorite early ZZ Top tunes written by Gibbons.

Bonnie Raitt/Bonnie Raitt

As a long-time fan of the amazing Bonnie Raitt, picking her eponymous debut album for this post was an easy choice. According to Wikipedia, it was recorded at an empty summer camp located on an island on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. That location had been recommended to Raitt by John Koerner and Dave Ray, two close friends and fellow musicians. We recorded live on four tracks because we wanted a more spontaneous and natural feeling in the music, a feeling often sacrificed when the musicians know they can overdub their part on a separate track until it’s perfect, Raitt explained in the album’s liner notes. Here’s Mighty Tight Woman written and first recorded by Sippie Wallace as I’m a Mighty Tight Woman in 1926.

America/America

America sometimes are dismissed as a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff. I’ve loved this band since I was nine years old and listened for the first to their 1975 compilation History: America’s Greatest Hits, which my six-year older sister had on vinyl. The folk rock trio of Dewey Bunnell (vocals, guitar), Dan Peek (vocals, guitar, piano) and Gerry Beckley (vocals, bass, guitar, piano) released their eponymous debut album on December 26, 1971 in the U.K. That was the year after they had met in London where their parents were stationed with the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. version of the record, which appeared on January 12, 1972, included A Horse with No Name, a song that initially was released as the group’s first single and was not on the UK edition. Remarkably, that single became America’s biggest hit, topping the charts in the U.S., Canada and France, and surging to no. 3 in the UK. Here’s a track from the original UK edition: Sandman written by Bunnell. Beckley and Bunnell still perform as America to this day. Peek left the group in 1977, renewed his Christian faith, and pursued a Christian pop music career. He passed away in July 2011 at the age of 60.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

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My Playlist: ZZ Top

The idea to put together this playlist came to me yesterday, after I had spotted this clip on Facebook. It shows John Fogerty and Billy Gibbons rocking out together to some Creedence Clearwater Revival and ZZ Top tunes to promote their upcoming Blues & Bayous Tour. While nothing is spontaneous here as it seems they want folks to believe, and I just wish they would have played more of each song than just the opening bars, hey, it’s still fun to watch these guys. And the thought of them doing a double-headliner that also will be right in my backyard sure as heck is very tempting!

I don’t want to pretend I’m a ZZ Top expert, but I have a good deal of their songs in my iTunes library – certainly more than enough material to inform this playlist. I think the first time these Texan rockers entered my radar screen was in 1983, when seemingly out of nowhere, they were all the rage on the radio with songs like Gimme All You Lovin, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. At the time, my parents didn’t have cable, which wasn’t as popular in Germany as in the U.S., so it wasn’t until much later that I also got to watch some of ZZ Top’s hilarious music videos, such as the rotating guitars in Legs!

ZZ Top were formed in 1969 in Houston, TX, when Gibbons (guitar), Lanier Greig (organ) and Dan Mitchell (drums) got together. That formation recorded the single Salt Lick, but record companies weren’t receptive, and it didn’t go anywhere. Greig and Mitchell left shortly thereafter. In late 1969, bassist, keyboardist and co-vocalist Dusty Hill joined, replacing then-bassist Billy Ethridge. Hill subsequently introduced Gibbons to drummer Frank Beard with whom he had played in various other bands in the past. The classic line-up was in place and still is to this day, more than 45 years later – frankly, I don’t know of any other band that hasn’t changed its line-up over such a long time!

ZZ Top in 1975
ZZ Top in 1975, with Dusty Hill (left) and Billy Gibbons

Due to continued lack of interest from U.S. record companies, ZZ Top finally signed a contract with UK label London Records and released their debut album. Cleverly called ZZ Top’s First Album, the record appeared in January 1971. While it established the band’s blend of blues, boogie, hard rock and southern rock, it didn’t get much attention. The sophomore Rio Grande Mud from April 1972 entered the U.S. Billboard 200, peaking at no. 104 in June 1972, while the single Francine climbed to a respectable no. 69 on the Billboard Hot 100.

ZZ Top’s commercial breakthrough came with the follow-up album Tres Hombres from July 1973. While the reception from music critics was lukewarm at the time, the album climbed all the way to no. 8 on the Billboard 200. The single La Grange, which has since become a classic, peaked at no. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1974. The band’s fourth album Fandango! from April 1975 brought another successful single, Tush, which peaked at no. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became ZZ Top’s highest charting single in the ’70s.

ZZ Top_Eliminator

The band has since released 11 additional studio records, four live albums and various compilations. Eliminator from March 1983, which includes the above mentioned tunes Gimme All You Lovin, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs, became ZZ Top’s best-selling album, thanks to a more commercial sound the band had adopted in the early ’80s. Their 15th and most recent studio release La Futura appeared in September 2012. I haven’t seen any reports about a new album. La Futura was the first new record in nine years, so if that’s any guide, fans may need to have patience for a few more years. Time for some music!

Let’s start off the playlist with ZZ Top’s debut single Salt Lick, a nice blues rocker written by Gibbons, an early showcase of his outstanding guitar skills. I also like Greig’s organ work.

Brown Sugar, another tune by Gibbons to whom most of the band’s early songs are credited, appears on ZZ Top’s First Album. I like how the song begins slowly with just Gibbon’s vocals and his guitar, before it launches into a groovy blues rocker.

Tres Hombres may be best known for La Grange, but the tune I’d like to highlight from that album is the fantastic opener Waitin’ For The Bus, which is credited to Gibbons and Hill. I just totally dig the guitar riff and groove on that track, and also like the blues harp solo.

If I had just one ZZ Top tune to select, it would be Tush from the Fandango! album. To me it’s perhaps the ultimate guitar blues rocker. I love the riff and how tight the band is playing – there’s not one second being wasted here! Starting with this record, the band’s songs typically are credited to all three members.

In November 1976, ZZ Top released their fifth studio album Tejas. It includes this nice Stonesy tune called It’s Only Love.

Next up: Tube Snake Boogie from El Loco, ZZ Top’s seventh studio album from July 1981. It’s the first record on which the band started experimenting with a more commercial sound, introducing synthesizers on some of the tracks.

Even though it sounds more commercial than their ’70s records, no ZZ Top playlist would be complete without music from the Eliminator album. Despite the somewhat monotonous drum beat, which sounds more like a drum machine, Sharp Dressed Man is just a cool song. And the official video is too hilarious to leave out, so here it is!

And ‘coz it’s so much fun watching ZZ Top music videos from that time, here’s Legs. No doubt, the rotating guitars have become an unforgettable part of music video history.

I would also like to acknowledge a couple of the band’s later songs. Here’s Fearless Boogie, a tune from XXX, ZZ Top’s 13th studio album released in September 1999. And just in case, the title is a reference to the band’s then-30th year in business.

I’d like to close out this playlist with Chartreuse. The tune, which sounds a bit like a remake of Tush, is from ZZ Top’s most recent studio record La Futura. It surely proves these guys still know how to rock.

With total domestic record sales of some 25 million copies, ZZ Top are among the top 100 selling artists in the U.S. Internationally, the band has sold more than 50 million albums. In 2004, the Texan rockers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Asked during a Rolling Stone interview in November 2017 whether he still wants to be in ZZ Top at age 80, Gibbons said, “Well, yeah, I could do it. We are smack dab in the middle of a technological breakthrough that is making life extension quite a bit of the day-to-day norm.”

As for that double-headliner with Fogerty, the Blues & Bayous Tour kicks off in Atlantic City on May 25. Currently, there are 24 additional dates on the schedule, with the final gig being in Welch, Minn. on June 29.

Sources: Wikipedia, U.S. Billboard Charts, Rolling Stone, YouTube