A Man of His Word

Longtime manager and booking agent Ray Bingham operates on integrity, grit and a love of “real country” music.

Last month in this space, I wrote about the Tulsa-based nonagenarian country-music impresario Jim Halsey, manager of the Oak Ridge Boys for the past half-century and a continuing force in the music business. This time around, I’d like to devote the column to another longtime manager and booking agent who, like Halsey, is still out there in the trenches doing good work.

Ray Bingham, now nearly halfway through his eighties, began booking acts around 1960, after going to work for Leon McAuliffe at the famed steel-guitarist’s Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa. (Interestingly enough, McAuliffe was the first act a teenaged Jim Halsey booked in Halsey’s hometown of Independence, Kansas, back in 1949.)  Bingham went on to not only manage country-music performers Red Steagall and Billy Parker, among others, but also to be instrumental in the careers of such star acts as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Becky Hobbs. He remains especially fond of what he calls “real country music” and Western swing – the kind McAuliffe and his former boss, Bob Wills, helped make famous throughout the world. Artifacts in frames on the walls of Bingham’s ranch house office in rural Claremore bear witness to the latter: There’s a 78 rpm record of Bob Wills’ greatest hit, “San Antonio Rose,” for instance as well as what looks to be handwritten sheet music for “Blub’s Twist,” a regional hit in the ’60s for Bob’s brother Johnnie Lee Wills.

Western swing – and, to a great extent, “real country” – is dance music, and a few years ago, when Ray Bingham’s words last appeared in this column, he said that the biggest change he’d seen come over the country-music business was the rise of casino stages and the decline of dancehalls, especially those in smaller towns.

“There were honky-tonks at every intersection in Oklahoma,” he recalls. “That’s how it was for years. We’d have six or seven Saturday night dances going. That’s slowed down a lot, but you still have some of those places, and if you bring Gene Watson or Moe Bandy or one of those type acts in, you’ll sell your venue out almost every time. People want to hear the real country music, and real dance music. Gene sells out every dancehall he plays this side of the Mississippi. Moe Bandy does as well. We find a lot of those kinds of jobs for them, those kinds of venues.”

It’s no coincidence, he adds, that the singers he mentions enjoyed their greatest popularity in the ’90s, when country music really took off and the influence of both radio and record labels were at an all-time peak.

“I think that people like Moe and Gene, T. G. Sheppard and David Frizzell will always have places to play, because there are people who want to hear that kind of music,” he explains. “We don’t have another bunch like those guys coming along, so they have to fill that void.”

What is coming along, Bingham says, is Red Dirt music, that lyric-based, Oklahoma-brewed combination of country and rock that began in the late ’80s in Stillwater. Earlier this year, the Turnpike Troubadours, a Red Dirt act, had to add a second show to their BOK Center appearance because of ticket demand. It’s not dance music, but it’s become increasingly popular with the venues Bingham books.  

“The Red Dirt thing has taken over the regular bands around here,” he notes. “All of ‘em that say they’re Red Dirt aren’t, but we’ve got some really great Red Dirt bands here in Oklahoma.”

In addition to booking those acts, along with the aforementioned ones who first hit in the ’90s, he also remains involved with booking Western swing, the music closest to his heart. One of his main Western-swing acts these days is the Tulsa Playboys, a group led by veteran musician Shelby Eicher whose repertoire is firmly rooted in the classic Wills tradition.

“Most of the jobs we get are in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma,” he says of the Tulsa Playboys. “A few years ago, with Roy Clark, we did go to Wisconsin, which is pretty far for a Tulsa-based band to go play. But man, there are lots of people who come to watch the Tulsa Playboys. We draw good crowds all the time.”

And sometimes, the acts he books attract great crowds. Bingham says it’s likely that the biggest audiences he ever got as a booking agent came on the West Coast a few decades ago. That happened after, as he recalls it, a representative of the Los Angeles Times contacted him. The newspaper, as it turned out, was putting together a big country-music festival.

“They called me wanting Red [Steagall], and I said, ‘Who else are you having on it?’

“He said, ‘Well, we’re just starting the Western-swing part.’ So they ended up letting me do the whole thing, three days, with every star that ever made a record on it. I got some good names for ‘em. I believe Conway Twitty was the headliner, but I had Mel Tillis, Hank Thompson, Leon McAuliffe  – boy, there were a bunch on that. Three full days of music with three stages out there in a park. It was a pretty amazing thing.  

“You know,” he adds, “I’ve booked Conway’s son Michael a lot, and I had him booked in Omaha, Nebraska, a week after the Los Angeles thing, along with Marty Haggard, Merle’s son. So I’m sitting in the lobby of the hotel in Los Angeles, and everybody’s talking about where they’re going next, and somebody says, ‘What about you, Bingham? Where are you going?’

“And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got Haggard and Twitty in Omaha.’” He laughs. “It was the sons, but it was the truth. And it impressed ‘em.”

All these years later, Ray Bingham still books Marty Haggard and Michael Twitty, along with hundreds of other acts at all sorts of different levels in the business. And he keeps after it, he says, for one overriding reason.  

“I truly love music,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s Western swing or opera or whatever – if it’s done properly, I like it. If it’s a good act, I love every note I hear.

“This is not an easy job,” he adds. “It’s gotten a little more difficult over the years, with more production and things like that. We’ve got a show coming up at the Ben Johnson Rodeo in Pawhuska, a dance afterwards with the Tulsa Playboys. It’s not easy to drive that far, and not be able to start playing until the rodeo’s over, with a bunch of us people who probably should be home having a glass of milk instead.” He laughs again. “But we’re there because we love it. That’s the only reason I’m there. It’s why I’m in it. It’s why I’m talking to you today.”

At this point in his life and career, Ray Bingham acknowledges that he has “not slowed down as much as I should, probably”; in fact, he continues to be fully engaged in the business of music. However, he knows that a time will come when he won’t be doing the job he’s worked at for more than 60 years. When that day comes, he says, he hopes he’ll be remembered chiefly for being a man of his word.

“I have name acts now who’ll do a job for me in Wyoming, without a contract,” he says. “I can just talk to ‘em on the phone and say, ‘Here’s the deal.’ I mean, we always do a contract, but if we’re running late or something, they’ll do it on my word. That means they know my word is good. And that, to me, is the most important thing I could ever be remembered for.”

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