Photography courtesy of Ben Burgess
East Dallas native Ben Burgess may have written the hit country song “Whiskey Glasses,” but his first claim to fame was writing and recording the famous on-hold telephone music at Greenville Avenue Pizza Company. Burgess has long kept his identity as the “Pizza Man” a secret because of contract reasons. When the contract ended earlier this year, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter confessed: “I am the Pizza Man.” Burgess grew up in East Dallas and attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. At 20, he went to Austin and performed at the clubs on Sixth Street before moving to Los Angeles to pursue his musical dreams. But his “twang was too loud,” and he relocated to Nashville in 2010. The Jonas Brothers cut his song “Chillin’ in the Summertime,” and other artists soon fell in line to record his work. He helped write Lil Wayne’s “Dreams,” Dierks Bentley’s “My Religion” and Morgan Wallen’s triple-platinum hit, “Whiskey Glasses.” Burgess followed that success by signing with Big Loud Records, which represents Wallen and fellow country stars Jake Owen and Chris Lane. Burgess’ debut album is scheduled for release later this year.
What was it like growing up in East Dallas?
I grew up right behind Bryan Adams. We used to go to Casa Linda Park. There used to be a pool back there, and we’d do hood rat things. Mamma used to take me to Flag Pole Hill and White Rock Lake. I want to make an old-school record from my days as a young buck called “Penny Whistle Park.” I think it would be cool.
Have you always been interested in music?
My dad was a guitar man, and mamma was a DJ. Mamma had to drive herself to the hospital [when I was born]. They didn’t have a name for me, but it had to be something about music. They’d been jamming, so mom was like, “What about Benjamin?” Been jamming. It’s destiny that I’ve been jamming for people.
What was the inspiration behind the “Pizza Man” song?
My buddy [Sammy Mandell] owns Greenville Avenue Pizza Company. He said, “I want it to be for my employees, for the people who make the pizzas.” So I said, “I’m going to have to write it from the perspective of me slinging pizzas.” It was easy to do because I used to do all sorts of crazy jobs. I just made a little beat and started freestyling. It’s a hit. People call just to listen to it. [Mandell] said I get free pizza for life, so it was worth it.
Were you surprised by the success of “Whiskey Glasses?”
It’s honestly surreal. I wrote the song like five years ago with a buddy. It’s one of those heartbreak hitters. You had to have your heart broken, and I’ve had my fair share. When it was released, it was struggling. When Mogan [Wallen] first played it, there was like one guy jamming to the song. I was like, “Dude, you’re my hope right now.” It just didn’t stop after that. Hopefully it’ll be around forever. Maybe I’ll get some more with my voice on it.
Tell me about your deal with Big Loud Records.
The producer said, “You’ve got ‘Whiskey Glasses.’ You’ve got something to play for people. You might as well put out your own [songs].” I said, “OK. Whatever you guys think. I’m ready.” We’re working on the debut album, which will come out later this year. Things are going good, and I’m excited.
How would you describe your music?
I’m like a dirty sponge. I soak it all up. I’ve studied the greats. I’m trying to be on the Texas troubadour path like Willie [Nelson], George Strait and Townes Van Zandt. I’m trying to make them proud. Those guys were songwriters first. They put the blood, sweat and tears into the hustle before they got their artist stuff going. I’m ready to share my voice with the world.
What was it like starting out in the music industry?
I played a lot at the Curtain Club, and I had a gig at Trees. I remember being excited about it because that’s where Nirvana played. I was about to start a moving company and flip houses in Forest Hills. My buddy said, “Burgess, you’re a rock star. Don’t settle down yet.” The rest is history. I was working with a lot of pop producers in L.A. They played me their beats, and I’d sing it. They’d say, “It’s too much. Straighten it out. Adam Levine is not going to sing your song because it sounds country.” They ran me out of town. But I really learned how to craft songs in L.A. different than they do in L.A.
Is there anyone who’s really welcomed you in Nashville?
Jake Owen — Mr. Barefoot Blue Jean Night himself. I had a song called “Stupid.” He heard the song and wanted to cut it. He left me a three-minute voicemail telling me how much he loved the song. It’s so rare for a major artist to do that. We ended up hanging out, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s been a bright light in Nashville who has been kind to me.
Who would you most want to have dinner with?
I want to hang out with Erykah Badu. She’s the East Dallas queen. I love her. She went to Booker T. Friends started telling me about her, and I’m obsessed. She’s got the laid-back groove, and I listen to her before big meetings.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.