When ZZ Top and Jeff Beck became the subject of an internet video hoax back in 2012, they decided to make the best of it. The result has become the new music video for “Sixteen Tons” which premiered this week in support of ZZ Top’s album Live! Greatest Hits From Around the World.
The piece was directed by Odin Wadleigh who has created music videos and documentaries for numerous artists including Alice In Chains, Kool Keith and Mayer Hawthorne. He melded August, 2016 performance footage of ZZ Top shot on tour in Dayton, Ohio with black and white archival film of ditch diggers, auto workers and (literal) bridge builders as an homage to the travail of the blue collar worker. It is the story behind the track that contains one of the more interesting twists in music history.
The Texas trio and British guitar legend Jeff Beck have long been friends, collaborating together on stage occasionally. When a YouTube video surfaced in 2012, purporting to be ZZ Top and Jeff Beck performing the Tennessee Ernie Ford classic “Sixteen Tons,” it seemed entirely plausible, save for the fact that they had never performed that song together in their lives. In reality, it was appropriated from a joint performance at Madison Square Garden in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but “Sixteen Tons” was not on the set list that night. Instead of attempting to file suit against the perpetrator, whose identity still remains a mystery, That Lil’ Ol’ Band From Texas and Mr. Beck embraced it by covering “Sixteen Tons” on their 2014 tour together, using the same arrangement as heard in the hoax video.
Live! Greatest Hits From Around the World features two authentic collaborations with Jeff Beck in his native London – “Rough Boy” and “Sixteen Tons.” It is from this version that the music video was spawned.
“It’s a mega meta kinda thang,” says ZZ Top frontman Billy F Gibbons. It gets even more meta than that. The most familiar pervious version of “Sixteen Tons” was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s massive 1955 hit that went all the way to #1 on the charts. It was originally recorded in 1946 by country singer Merle Travis who gets writer’s credit. His song is based on folk singer George S. Davis’ “Nine-to-ten Tons,” written in the 1930s.