Bill Ham, the 20th-century Texas music business titan who managed ZZ Top’s rise to international fame and guided Clint Black to country stardom, died Saturday at his home in Austin, the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Tuesday. He was 79.
Ham’s company, Lone Wolf, was founded in Houston but moved to Austin in 1992. A 2000 article in the American-Statesman of the 25 most powerful people in Austin music put Ham at No. 1 on the list, in part because his Hamstein Publishing company wielded considerable influence on the country and pop charts.
Both Black and ZZ Top eventually parted ways with Ham, though the latter stayed with him until 2006.
Excerpts from a 1999 American-Statesman article written by Chris Riemenschneider shed light on Ham’s man-behind-the-curtain influence:
Those who know him use a see-saw of adjectives to describe Bill Ham. Charming. Cunning. Friendly. Manipulative. Clever. Erratic. Protective. Paranoic. Genius. Mad.
We wouldn’t know. ZZ Top’s wildly empowered manager refuses to talk to the press. He hasn’t given an interview since the early days of the band, when preserving the mystique of the trio became a major concern. His reclusiveness is a never-ending source of frustration for music journalists, particularly in Austin and around Texas, where the influence and reputation of Ham’s Lone Wolf Management Co. is unrivaled in music-business matters.
“Bill is a guy who almost single-handedly made Texas more competitive with New York or Los Angeles as an industry hub,” said Casey Monahan, director of the governor’s Texas Music Office. “There are a lot of people who want to know how he has done it, but we may never know.”
We do know he was born Billy Mack Ham in Waxahachie in 1937. In a bit of Texas trivia, rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson grew up with his backyard facing the Ham house.
“My parents thought the world of him,”‘ said Dawson. “He was a magical kind of guy. Everybody liked him. Even back then, he could charm the heck out of you and get you to do whatever he wanted.”
Similar statements are made today by many of Ham’s detractors — that his likability is disarming. In his axe-grinding book “Sharp Dressed Men,” ex-roadie David Blayney described the manager as “the Reverend Ham,” always making speeches that would sweeten his notoriously shrewd business tactics.
“Whenever [ZZ Top’s] Frank Beard and Dusty Hill got the nerve to ask to ‘look at the books,'” Blayney wrote, “Ham would get his spiel into high gear. … When you heard one of his sermons, you forgot all about money and material possessions. Bill Ham would tell you things that got you fired up and ready to carry the ZZ flag, boy.”
Former Lone Wolf vice president Sam Taylor, who is also a distant cousin to Ham, remembered being caught in the manager’s headlights in the mid-’80s. Taylor had left Lone Wolf to carve his own musical path as manager of Houston rock act King’s X. Taylor said Ham saw this new venture as an assault on his precious ZZ Top.
In the ’90s, descriptions of Ham as the aggressive “lone wolf” softened. His wife, Cecile Ham, was murdered in a truly tragic and maddening case in which a thrice-convicted 23-year-old man beat and strangled her for her car. The killer had just been paroled and didn’t want to walk the distance to his halfway house.
Ham also helped give rise to country star Clint Black, who was playing James Taylor covers in no-name coffeehouses and eateries around Houston before Ham got a hold of him and tailored his career.
“Yeah, he’s a bear of a manager, but look at what you get,” said Taylor. “This is the guy who talked RCA Records into giving ZZ Top a $7 million advance on each album, when things had already started to slow for them. He has protected and fought for ZZ Top at all levels and stages of the game. I think the fact the group is still around and still well-off is almost solely due to Ham.”
We’d all love to hear what Ham thinks of all this.
“I wish he’d talk,” said journalist Joe Nick Patoski, who’s been trying for an interview with Ham for more than 20 years. “I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you’ve got a story to tell, and it’s a story as fascinating as Bill’s probably is, you should tell it.”