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Artist: ZZ Top
Album: Tres Hombres
What’s the most covered ZZ Top song? La Grange. What ZZ Top Song is most often played on the radio? La Grange.
Released in 1973 on the album, Tres Hombres, the song also has the most interesting history, although it was not originally a big hit, going only to no. 41 on the Billboard Chart.
Where Did La Grange by ZZ Top get its Name?
The song is named after La Grange, Texas but the “shack outside La Grange” the song refers to was an operation a few miles out of La Grange known locally as the “Chicken Ranch” or just the Ranch, for short. The shack, which began in 1844 out of a local motel, was actually a semi-mobile “house of ill-repute” started by three women. It grew during the years and, when money was scarce during the Great Depression, the business would often take chickens or other livestock for payment, hence the name.
Decades after the release of La Grange, ZZ Top and, their manager Bill Ham and their publishing and production companies were sued by producer and song-writer Bernard Besmans’ La Cienga Music Co. over alleged copyright infringement.
In 1948 Besman had joined John Lee Hooker to write Boogie Chillen. The song was a number one R&B hit and sold at least one million copies. It became Hooker’s signature song. It was originally recorded as a solo performance but Hooker recorded a new full-band version in 1970 with Canned Heat for the album “Hooker ‘N’ Heat.” Hooker had given his rights in the song to Besman, who claimed to have registered for a copyright in 1967.
Besman claimed not only that La Grange was similar to Boogie Chillen but that ZZ Top intended La Grange as a cover of the song, and even told John Lee Hooker that this was their intention. Oddly, Besman was supposedly not even aware of the existence of La Grange until 1990 or ’91 and only found out about it because Hooker told him of it.
In reality, as is often the case with rock music, by the time ZZ Top released La Grange, Hooker’s original riff for Boogie Chillen had already inspired other artists. Bo Diddley had used a variation of the riff on his song Bring it to Jerome as early as 1955, and Slim Harpo combined Hooker’s riff with some of Bo Diddley’s variation on his 1966 song Shake Your Hips. Even Hooker himself took some inspiration from Slim Harpo’s ‘Hips’ version in his update of the song with Canned Heat, Boogie Chillen No. 2. Later, in 1972, The Rolling Stones covered Harpo’s Shake Your Hips for Exile on Main Street, with nary a note changed. All of this happened before La Grange was released.
As it turned out, Besman had never actually filed for a copyright on the song at any time. ZZ Top’s lawyers argued that the release of the original 1948 recording constituted publication, and thus implied copyright. This copyright would have expired in the mid-1970s. Eventually, after a lot of legal wrangling, the court decided that the song was in the public domain. This became a landmark case, setting a very important precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to review the case and overrule the decision, but they decided to decline. This caused a huge uproar in the music industry since so many artists with copyrights on songs before 1978 would find their copyrights being rendered invalid.
The industry lobbied for a new law to be passed by Congress that would basically render the court’s verdict impotent. This new rule was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1997. For Hooker himself, whose song’s legal status were always hard to pin down given his hundreds of compositions under so many different contracts, this was all just a curiosity. He had lost most of the rights to his songs long ago.
There is no doubt that La Grange was directly influenced by Boogie Chillen. There is also no doubt it is one of the best ZZ Top songs ever, full of great guitar work and trademark attitude.
Watch ZZ Top Perform La Grange
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