One of my secret weapons at making ROCK 103 the top-rated radio station in Memphis from 1980 through 1983 was the friendship that developed with the legendary John Fry and his staff at the world-renowned Ardent Studios nearby. As it turned out, one of my personal favorite bands, Houston-based ZZ Top, had discovered the high caliber low key facility as early as their 1973 breakthrough album Tres Hombres , and in typical Bill Ham style ( the band’s longtime manager and producer), “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. So ZZ Top proceeded to make every subsequent album there with titles en Espanol including Fandango , Tejas , DeGuello , and El Loco .
By February 1983, ROCK 103’s owner decided to reinvest some of the record revenues back into the facility with a major control room studio update, complete with new broadcast console, electronics, and JBL monitors. When I mentioned this fact to ZZ Top’s veteran recording engineer Terry Manning, he replied,” Before you go ‘live’ to broadcast with your new studio, would you allow me to play the master mix of the unreleased ZZ Top album in there?” I could not believe my good fortune!
Terry arrived with two large metal reels of tape, loaded them onto the pristine new Studer reel machines, and pushed the “play” button. What happened next absolutely blew me away: “Gimme All Your Lovin’ “, followed in rapid succession by “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man” played at about 100 dB sound level, left me in sensory boogie overload. It was just too good to absorb the sonic banquet that ZZ Top was serving up. And just when I begged “Have mercy!” to break from the intensity of Billy Gibbons‘ feedback-soaked “squanking” guitar, Dusty Hill‘s propulsive bottom end, and Frank Beard‘s in-the-pocket drumming, the song sequence shifted to the cascading midnight blues of “Need You Tonight”; the Dusty raunchy rave up “I Got the Six”, the international hit “Legs”, and the grinding smoldering groove of “TV Dinners”. In just a few weeks the rest of the world would soon discover what I had experienced that day, responding by purchasing over 15,000,000 copies of Eliminator worlwide. And yes, the series of clever, campy videos on the upstart MTV video channel in America undoubtedly had much to do with that staggering level of popularity (truly ironic, since manager Ham had steadfastly kept ZZ Top off of U.S. television until then). But the songwriting, musicianship, modern arranging, and state-of-the-art recording on Eliminator which I heard that day was truly extraordinary. – Redbeard