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Former ZZ Top Manager Bill Ham Dead at 79

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Manager Bill Ham, whose long stewardship of ZZ Top‘s career coincided with the band’s rise to global superstardom, has died at the age of 79. News of Ham’s passing is shared by Austin 360, whose report includes confirmation from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office, although a cause of death isn’t mentioned.

A crucial component of ZZ Top’s early success, Ham was often credited with instituting many of the rules that bred the group’s irresistible mystique — including insisting that none of their albums would feature guest appearances from outside artists, and none of the band members would record with anyone outside ZZ Top. Walling off the band helped create an image that — especially during the MTV era — made them a lifestyle brand as much as a Texas boogie trio.

Ham’s business acumen and intense devotion to the ZZ Top cause served the band well for decades — perhaps most notably when they departed their longtime label home, Warner Bros., for a lucrative new deal with RCA. Although their sales had already started to slow, Ham negotiated a headline-making contract that earned them millions across five albums that turned out to be among the lowest-selling of their career.

Aside from dollars and cents, Ham’s management style reflected ZZ Top’s simple aesthetic: He had a habit (confirmed through personal experience by Ultimate Classic Rock’s Matt Wardlaw) of sending pecan pies to friends of the band during the holiday season. “Every Christmas, ZZ Top sends me a pie. I’m not sure exactly why (I suppose because I once interviewed guitarist Billy Gibbons), but that’s beside the point,” Las Vegas Weekly editor Spencer Patterson wrote. “The important thing is that once a year, my co-workers and I enjoy a fine, Texas-made pecan pie, courtesy of ZZ Top. If that isn’t the mark of a great band, I don’t know what is.”

The band parted ways with Ham in 2006, following the end of their RCA deal, chalking up the change to a need to go in new directions after a period in which they felt they’d settled into stagnancy. Still, they made no attempt to disguise his impact on their legacy — or what they’d lost by leaving him behind.

“We were together from the beginning. It would not have worked with any of the pieces missing,” Gibbons said in 2012. “The three of us and him.”

“We still regard our management as an intricate part of the operation, but we don’t have the same kind of relationship. Now it’s business,” added bassist Dusty Hill. “With Bill it was more than that.”

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