“Tequila” Bandleader, 88, Lands Sony Record Deal

Grammy winner Dave Burgess discusses his latest project, his 70-year career, musicians and money, and more.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

Dave Burgess apologizes and asks, please, don’t think of him as a name dropper. He has it backward. Burgess, 88, is, among those who know their stuff, one of the more droppable names in musical show business.

And having just signed a contract to record for industry giant Sony, featuring his new song, “Lady Guitar,’’ Burgess’s name is about to become even more droppable.

Sony Music Publishing Nashville has released Burgess’s album, “Light It Up,’’ and from that, has released the singles “Lady Guitar,‘’ ”Love on  Tap’’ and “That’s What Lovers Do.’’

“Sony wants to release two singles every three months,’’ Burgess says from his home outside Nashville during a recent phone interview. “That will keep me busy.’’

A 16-year-old Burgess with Greg Ryan when at his radio show at KAVL in Lancaster CA, 1952.
A 16-year-old Burgess with Greg Ryan when at his radio show at KAVL in Lancaster, Calif., 1952.

In a career that began when Elvis was King, the hula-hoop was hot, and McDonald’s was leaping ahead of all fast-food chains, Burgess wrote more than 700 copyrighted songs registered with BMI. He also won a Grammy, seven ASCAP, four BMI and two Cash Box awards. His band The Champs, which he formed in the mid 1950s, had its first hit with the famed song “Tequila.”

But the largest chunk of Burgess’s career has been spent out of the limelight: He went from being a radio DJ in California and lead guitarist with a hot band to writing songs and producing for other musicians.

Among those he wrote and/or produced for were Dean Martin, Lou Rawls, Don Gibson, The Lettermen, Rick Nelson, Marty Robbins, Anne Murray, Darlene Love, Eddy Arnold, Don McLean, Englebert Humperdinck, Ray Price, Hank Snow, Gene Vincent, Johnny Rivers, Bing Crosby and Glen Campbell.

On a handshake, he became manager of the music publishing business for country music star Hank Williams Jr., a position he held for more than 40 years until 2022, when Williams sold the company.

‘Elvis was a very dear friend’

Elvis Presley was a friend of Burgess and his wife, Deon Robb Burgess, a dancer who appeared in three Presley movies — “Blue Hawaii,’’ “Viva Las Vegas’’ and “Kissin’ Cousins.’’ Burgess liked the recent movie, “Elvis’’ which co-starred Tom Hanks as Presley’s mentor/manager, Col. Tom Parker.

“I knew Col. Parker very well. Elvis was a very dear friend,” says Burgess. “I’m not into name dropping but, in the late 1960s, Tom Jones and his wife, Linda, and my wife and I went to Vegas, to a private birthday party for Elvis. There were probably 10 of us there. After he died, I really appreciated that day more than ever.”

“Well at the party, Elvis insisted on playing the piano while Tom sang. Elvis said, ‘I’m not singing in front of Tom Jones!’ He was so humble, a perfect gentleman. He respected Tom Jones’ talent that much,’’ says Burgess.

Feeling confident

Dave Burgess
Dave Burgess

Talking about his enthusiasm for his new career with Sony’s Nashville music publishing unit, Burgess says he feels confident that his new songs are some of the best ones he has written.

Challenge Records, owned by singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry, signed rhythm guitarist Burgess (also known as Dave Dupree) as a solo artist after his songs recorded by others, “I’m Available’’ and “I’ll Be There’’ became hits.

In 1958, Burgess and other Los Angeles musicians, including saxophonist Danny Flores (who Burgess says always carried a flask of tequila), recorded “Tequila’’ for Challenge Records. The song won the first Grammy awarded for best rhythm and blues performance, and sold more than a million copies.

Autry (who became a successful business man and later owned the California Angels baseball team) became mentor to the young and aspiring Burgess.

With Gene Autry at his and Deon's wedding in 1959.
With Gene Autry at Dave and Deon’s wedding in 1959.

“Once, I remember I told Gene that I’d just written the greatest song I had ever written in my life, so he said bring my guitar over and play it. I sang it and I could tell by the look on his face he was not overjoyed,” Burgess recalls.

“‘Dave, let me ask you a question: If there was only one song you could pick, would you bet your career on this song?’” Autry asked Burgess, who replied, “No, I don’t think so.”

“But I have to tell you, if you would probably ask me that now, I’d say the song I’m most proud of is ‘Lady Guitar!’” Burgess continues, during our interview. “I had this concept and it came out just the way I wanted it to.’’

Latest act: behind the scenes

The story of how Burgess returned to performing is a slice of pure fantasy turned reality.

When his longtime music business friend, Joe Dark, heard some of Burgess’s new songs, he suggested they make demos of them. Another friend, Danny Bailey, heard the demos and invited Burgess to record the songs with Nashville musicians at his new studio away from the clamor of Nashville.

“Danny built his own studio in Columbia, Kentucky because he was disillusioned with (Nashville’s) Music Row; too many high rises. We had some of the best musicians from Nashville and one from California — the Beach Boys’ saxophone player — recording with us,’’ says Burgess.

Dave Burgess
With friend and sound engineer Danny Bailey while recording the album “Light It Up” in Columbia, Ky.

Burgess and Dark got an appointment with Sony Music Publishing Nashville’s CEO Rusty Gaston, to play him a CD of the recordings. After Burgess answered questions, for two hours, about what it was like in the music business in the 1950s and 1960s, the CD was played, and Gaston jumped up and started dancing.

“The CEO was dancing! Rusty said it was the best stuff he’d heard in I don’t know when; he wanted to know ‘How can we work together?’’’ says Burgess.

Gaston secured distribution of The Champs’ music by The Orchard, a unit of Sony Music Publishing, the largest music publisher in the world, with more than five million songs owned or administered by the company.

Burgess and Dark were given a “small advance’’ and Sony’s agreement to administer their music catalog. But most important, Burgess said, was to have Sony release an album featuring the new songs performed by the new version of The Champs, and have Sony distribute the recording. The new Champs include Burgess, Mark Prentice, Matt Bubel and Mike Severs. Burgess said other musicians will work with the group occasionally on recordings.

One likes to think that a new star will emerge from the new Champs. Back in the day, Burgess had an eye for burgeoning talent: Before they became famous, he hired Glen Campbell, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts, and Delaney Bramlett to join The Champs.

Walks in the woods

Burgess and Deon, who’ve been married 64 years, live in Dover, Tenn., near the Cumberland River and several wildlife refuges and recreation areas. They moved there two years ago.

For about 50 years, when he worked with Hank Williams Jr. and other musicians, the couple lived in Nashville, about 80 miles southeast of Dover. They have a son, David, now retired; their daughter died in 2003. Burgess said he doesn’t do anything special to keep fit and active.

“I like to walk in the woods where I really feel comfortable. I am blessed to live in a log home right in the woods,’’ Burgess says. He can get to Nashville in under two hours, and he has lots of stories about his years in that hub of country music.

Money lessons

Dave Burgess
Dave Burgess

Burgess wasn’t savvy about money or management in his early years. “I was 17 when I signed first with Columbia Records, so I left school, got credits later for my diploma, and went on the road to promote my records. I had a radio program and I sold my own sponsors,” he says.

“I was as green as grass when ‘Tequila’ was recorded,” when he was 25, he says, “and I put all my trust in my manager. It was not wise, but I did it.’’

Fifteen years later, he had established himself in Nashville as a songwriter and musician, and became a better money manager.

“One of the nice things about writing songs and having hit records, they continue to go on and on. Some other artist comes along and records it as a single, or for an album, or it’s in a movie, so there are all kinds of sources of income,’’ he says.

Over the years, “I met a lot of talented people, like Gene (Autry); I was with him for 15 years. He was a brilliant businessman. Gene was one of the most ethical men I have ever met. He was like a second dad to me,” says Burgess. “He had my whole song catalog and it came back to me when he passed away. That gives you an idea of what kind of man he was.”

Hank Williams, Jr. also wins Burgess’s praise. “He always kept his word and his integrity. I can’t imagine anybody more honest than Hank Williams Jr,’’ he says.

However, “there were terrible experiences, too,” says Burgess. “My first manager was not what he should be. We built up a multi-million-dollar company together. I sold my interest in it to my partner, and I was to be paid a yearly amount for the rest of my life. I never got one payment. He bankrupted the company, through cocaine.”

“I hired a lawyer and the best accounting firm and did everything right, but he filed bankruptcy and it was a giant setback. I had to start all over again.’’

Burgess began a new music publishing company, and had several hits including, “Don’t the Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time.’’

‘You need to have a financial advisor’

Mostly, “I was able to surround myself finally with good, honest people, who took an interest in me. I went to them for help when I needed advice. I am not suggesting that this is the way to go. The way the music business is today, it’s very complicated, there’s much more money to be made in the music business than ever,” he says.

“If you are devoted to being creative, you need to turn your financial career over to someone whom you can trust, that is the key,” says Burgess. “Seek them out, talk to people who are working with people, make sure they are happy, get good word of mouth.”

“Because the music business has changed so much, today I think I would get a business advisor, because it’s a full-time job managing income, preparing for taxes. So many people in our business get behind in their taxes, that is the mistake of mistakes. You need to have a financial advisor just to take care of that!’’ he says — although he says he has never had one.

He assumes the new Champs will have baby boomer fans from the old days, who remember the iconic hit, and younger ones who’ve heard “Tequila’’ in movies like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’’ and commercials.

“I will be very interested to see our record sales. I don’t expect Dave Burgess and The Champs to be number one on the charts or in the Top 10. But I am doing what I feel, not trying to get into a slot or box,” says Burgess.  “I’m doing what my heart leads me to.’’

A $1 million mistake

Burgess is full of stories, and next we chatted about guitars. In his career, he has performed on guitars made by Gibson, Fender, PRS, and an acoustic guitar made by Takamine on “Lady Guitar.’’

Which reminds him of the time he and his wife attended a dinner party in Beverly Hills in 1959, also attended by guitar great Les Paul and his wife and performing partner, Mary Ford.

“‘Tequila’ had been out and Les said how much he liked it. Well, I said, ‘I like all your records.’ Les said he had a guitar in his car, would I like to play it?” says Burgess. “It was a gold-topped guitar that he had made some changes to and was really heavy.  He asked me if I liked it, and I said, ‘Sure,’ and he said, ‘It’s yours.’‘’

Burgess took it on the road, but it was so heavy, he switched back to his Gibson. He gave the guitar to a friend and later heard that it had been sold for more than a million dollars.

“Les had signed it,’’ Burgess says sheepishly.

Looking ahead

Burgess is a hybrid in the music business: not only still alive and active but performing and probably touring.

“I am 88 years old, 89 in December, and most of my friends and associates, including the band members, are all passed away. But here I am, still going. It’s the last thing I ever expected to be, at  this age and to have a new record deal partnership with Sony. It’s still shocking to me. I am having a blast.’’

He says there are more than 450 recordings of his songs, and that he’s written more than 1,000 songs, in several genres: rock, pop and rhythm and blues.

“I honestly feel that I am doing better, writing better songs today than I ever have in my life. Years ago, I was pressing. I had some pretty big hits but I could have written them better,’’ he says.

Burgess says he figures he will do two weeks on tour, then come home to rest, then go back out again. And this time, he will bring Deon with him.

“We’ll have to make arrangements for our pets, of course — we have a bunch of dogs and cats. I think playing one show a day would be sufficient. I’d rather have one show completely packed,” he says. “I am just so appreciative and humbled by the fact that people like what I am doing today. I will never quit.’’

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was the movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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