Bill Ham 1937 - 2016
Legendary manager, producer, songwriter and publisher Bill Ham passed away in his sleep in Austin on Monday, June 20. He was 79 years old. Born in 1937 in Waxahachie, Texas, Ham is best known as the manager and producer of ZZ TOP, having helped create and define their sound since their beginning in Houston in 1969. But more than that, Bill Ham established his own style of music management, drawing elements from different areas of the entertainment industry to create a totally unique approach. In the process, Ham took on an understated persona, rare in a world known for flamboyance and flair. That modest demeanor lasted through a music industry career that spanned five decades, beginning when he became a Dot Records recording artist with a single produced by Pat Boone.
In the past 50 years Bill Ham was not only an instrumental part of ZZ TOP’s historic success, but also helped build Hamstein Music into one of the most successful publishing companies in the world. He discovered and helped engineer the success of country singer Clint Black, who had been singing in Houston pizza parlors. In addition, Bill launched and nurtured the careers of many other important musical artists. Through it all, he stayed out of the limelight, preferring instead that all the attention be directed at his artists. Soft-spoken, but always forceful, the Texan was a powerful enigma in the modern music business, one he had helped create.
Bill Ham began his music career as a record promoter for Bud Dailey Distributing in Dallas before encountering a band that would simultaneously change his life and the music business. He had seen a Houston-based group called Moving Sidewalks open a concert for the Doors in 1968 and formed Lone Wolf Management to manage them. Soon after the band’s dissolution, Billy Gibbons, their front man, founded ZZ TOP with Bill Ham continuing his role as manager. After some personnel changes, the band’s enduring line-up of Gibbons (guitar) bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard solidified and continues to this day. ZZ TOP became one of the best-selling and most enduring bands in rock history, the longest-running major rock group to have never changed personnel.
Bill Ham’s vision for what ZZ TOP could become was an instrumental trigger to the band’s massive success. His role was critical in shaping their image as “that little ol’ band from Texas.” A contract with London Records ensued and he became the group’s producer in the studio as well as, on occasion, a songwriting partner. Very few managers have had such an integral part in all aspects of their clients’ artistic side, but Ham had a distinct creative streak that he was able to share with the world through ZZ TOP.
After their signing with London in 1970, ZZ TOP began a march to success that has rarely been matched in the music business. Their third album, 1973’s TRES HOMBRES catapulted them to success with the worldwide mega-hit “La Grange,” which led to the still-talked about World Wide Texas Tour, that filled stadiums. The tour featured a Lone Star State-shaped stage, a longhorn steer, a buffalo, buzzards and rattlesnakes. No one has yet equaled that kind of live assault.
At the end of the tour, ZZ TOP took a well-earned break and Ham proceeded to negotiate a new contract with Warner Bros. Records. By the time the band returned to the stage, Gibbons and Hill had simultaneously grown their now-famous beards with drummer Frank Beard staying, for the most part, clean-shaven.
In 1983 ZZ TOP released ELIMINATOR, a milestone hit album that included the huge singles “Sharp-Dressed Man,” “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin.” The iconic videos for these songs made the group a key presence on MTV and led the album to become one of the very first to receive the Recording Industry Association of America’s Diamond Award, commemorating sales of 10 million albums. More singular successes followed until Ham’s long and fruitful relationship with ZZ TOP ended in 2006.
Upon hearing of Bill Ham’s death, the members of ZZ Top issued the following statement: “We were saddened to hear of Bill Ham’s passing. His early vision and continuing encouragement were invaluable; his efforts and energy will always remain deeply appreciated."
Bill Ham made his first venture into the country market with Clint Black, signing him to RCA Records in 1989. Although Black had been performing in Houston clubs for 10 years, it took Ham only three to help engineer the then-unknown singer’s meteoric rise to country superstardom while building a Nashville presence for Lone Wolf Management in the process.
In 1993 Bill Ham had two of the Top Ten-grossing touring acts in both the rock and country categories with ZZ TOP and Clint Black, respectively. As a result, he was also named Manager of the Year by Radio & Records magazine.
In addition to owning the music publishing rights to ZZ TOP’s prolific catalog, Ham had also created Hamstein Music, one of the most successful independent music publishing companies in the world. From 1987 through today Hamstein accrued over 100 Top Ten singles in country music, which included 60 Number One records, all penned by writers signed to Ham’s company. These writers include Clint Black, Hayden Nicholas, Frankie Miller, members of Little Texas, Tom Shapiro, Chris Waters, Rick Giles, Chuck Jones, Tommy Barnes, Stephen Allan Davis, Billy Kirsch, Tony Martin, Reese Wilson, Lee Thomas Miller, Monty Criswell, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and others. Bill was recently appointed the exclusive administrator of the estate’s music assets for the catalog of the deceased multi-hit songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams.
During that same period Hamstein Music was also very successful in the pop and international charts with numerous songs on multi-platinum records by artists such as ZZ TOP, Tim McGraw, Eric Clapton, the Doobie Brothers, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, Fabulous Thunderbirds, B.B. King, Johnny Lang, Paul Rogers, Hall & Oates, Meat Loaf, Cher, Sheryl Crow, Utopia, Johnny Hallyday, Robert Plant, Roy Orbison and others. In January 2002 Bill Ham sold Hamstein Music’s copyrights and publishing assets to Mosaic Media Group in a multi-million dollar transaction.
Ham’s latest venture had been a reprise into country music and the Nashville publishing business. He recently had launched Wolftracks Music Publishing Company and signed songwriters Presley Tucker and Spencer Bartoletti, professionally known as the group Reverie Lane. They are also signed to Lone Wolf Management.
Bill Ham devoted his life to music, from a recording artist in his younger years to a hugely successful manager and entrepreneur. One of his later projects was as investor and associate producer of the stage play “A Night with Janis Joplin,” flying his Texas colors once again. He moved from Houston to Austin in the 1990s but never left the heart and soul of the state he loved so much.