Deep Dive: ZZ Top, TRES HOMBRES
When it came time for ZZ Top to record a third album, the band was ready for change. In this case, that change came in the form of engineer Terry Manning.
"I had really liked the first two albums, and had actually put out feelers to the band that I was interested in working with them," Manning told The Blues magazine about connecting with ZZ Top (via Classic Rock). "And it turned out that Billy Gibbons had heard that I'd engineered and essentially mixed the Led Zeppelin III album, which was doing so well. Billy just loved the sound of that, and it turned out that he was also putting out feelers to work with me. So I wasn't surprised at the quality of the songs they were playing, or the sound. I was already a fan. And it's always really nice when you can work on something you really love like that."
Manning's studio prowess combined with the band's hunger for success was a lethal combination. It helped bring the band from Texas to Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in order to mix the album. Settling into the local scene during the mixing process, the energy around the ZZ Top camp was decidedly good.
"We could tell that we had something special. The record became quite the turning point for us," Gibbons recalled to Music Radar. "The success was handwriting on the wall, because from that point we became honorary citizens of Memphis."
Manning's perspective on Tres Hombres reads like a roadmap for the band's success through the years: "I wanted the band to sound powerful and tight and just sonically as pure as possible. I wanted to keep the blues element, which is the grit and the grunge, where things aren't perfect, but I wanted to fit it into that highly technical framework where things were perfect in certain ways: sonically, timing-wise. When you try to marry two things together like that, sometimes it can be a disaster, but I think in our case we were fortunate that it did work."
Released on July 26, 1973, Tres Hombres was exactly the launching pad ZZ Top needed. The album was an underground hit on FM rock radio, simmering on the airwaves for more than a year. That percolating interest was fueled by the band's relentless touring schedule across 1973 and 1974. Breakout single "La Grange" very nearly crashed the top 40, peaking at #41 over the week of June 29, 1974. The album was an even bigger chart success, climbing all the way to #8 for the week of August 10, 1974. The #1 album in America that week: John Denver's Back Home Again.
"That album is very big, to me, when I listen now," Terry Manning marveled in retrospect. "It's big, powerful and tough-sounding. It reaches enough levels of sonic purity to be pleasing to me in that way, but it's also down and dirty and funky. I think it marries pretty well."
FUN FACT: The album's gatefold sleeve image of a table laden with Tex-Mex food was achieved thanks to legendary (and now shuttered) Houston restaurant, Leo's: "Leo's had a Mexican dinner special for $2.99 that was huge. And terrific," Billy Gibbons told Texas Monthly in 2016. "But it was also a far cry from what they prepared for the gatefold shoot. Galen Scott was the photographer who shot it. We did it down the street in his photo studio. We found an antique radio and tuned it to our favorite border radio station, XERF, 1570 on the dial. And the calendar with an Adelita, the famous female revolutionaries, similarly set the mood. And then we threw in the bottle of Southern Select, the Houston beer Howard Hughes owned. Being the consummate eccentric that he was, we thought it would be a fitting to top it all off."