The Oak Records Story
The story of Oak Records cannot be told without the story of the man who created Oak Records in 1970 – famous record producer Ray Ruff (1938-2005).
Ray Ruff and the Checkmates, 1959
Ray Ruff and the Checkmates, 1959
Born Marvin Ray Ruffin in Amarillo, Texas on March 24, 1938, Ray was a Texas country boy at heart, raised around horses and cowboys. He graduated from high school in 1952, just in time to see Bill Haley and His Saddlemen perform at an Amarillo night spot, and that got him interested in music. He liked Hank Williams and Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, and then something new that came along called Rock’n’Roll in 1953 when Bill Haley renamed his band The Comets and played this new kind of music the next time they were in town.
In 1956, Ray was playing semi-pro baseball for Amarillo against the team from Lubbock, and met one of the opposing team members, a 20-year-old named Charles Hardin Holley. You may remember him as Buddy Holly. They became fast friends and Buddy invited him to see Elvis Presley in Lubbock in October, and Buddy decided to go pro with his rock band The Crickets, and Ray tagged along for fun with Buddy to radio disc jockey Bob Montgomery’s studio at KDAV radio, and then Buddy introduced him to a record producer named Norman Petty in 1957, and soon Ray was trailing along with the band going to Petty’s recording studio sessions in Clovis, New Mexico.
Ray decided this was the life for him, and went on the road with Buddy and The Crickets that year, as a roadie and musical assistant with another young fellow named Waylon Jennings.
When the tragic Day the Music Died happened in February 1959, Ray was devastated, but he soon pulled himself together and decided to form his own tribute band to Buddy, when The Crickets went out on tour as themselves that year. Ray’s own band, The Checkmates, began recording songs Ray and others were writing as tribute songs to Buddy, and Ray was singing them in Buddy’s own style, wearing a spare pair of the “Wonder glasses” Buddy had given him.
Checkmate Publishing Logo
Ray’s biggest hit came when he released a song called “I Took A Liking To You” for the one-year anniversary of Buddy’s death in February 1960. Ray recorded about a dozen songs from 1959 to 1964 in various places, on various labels, around the great state of Texas, until deciding he wanted to be a record producer like his friend Norman Petty, and get paid for it. He went to Hollywood and got a meeting with famous record producer Dick Pierce at RCA Victor, thanks to his friend Norman Petty calling Mr. Pierce, and giving him a business card in hand, and Ray was given some valuable pointers on how to record in the studio and work with artists and musicians.
His first artist he personally produced was pop singer Brian Hyland on his song “Ginny Come Lately” in late 1962, when he sat in on recording sessions with the song’s writers, and producer Stan Applebaum. Ray liked it, and in 1967 he moved to Hollywood from Amarillo and began work as an A&R man for Dot Records when it was sold to Paramount Pictures.
Ray brought Brian Hyland to Dot and began working with him and produced his song “Tragedy” in 1969. Ray also worked for other labels in the late 1960s, and other well-known artists. In 1967 he landed a gig at Bang Records and produced Van Morrison’s first big solo hit, “Brown-Eyed Girl”, which Ray also recorded in another excellent version in 2003 for country-western star Tony Brantley. Ray also worked in the late 1960s for record labels Era and Happy Tiger with Anita Kerr, who was also busy at Warner Bros. working with poet Rod McKuen on their successful series of “The Sea, The Earth, The Sky” albums of orchestra music and poetry.
Flush with cash, but still frustrated by not having control over the music he was recording for others, Ray decided to start up his own record company. He had already had one label in the early 1960s, called Ruff Records, but he wanted something more polished and professional, so he called his new company Oak Records, founded in 1970.
Ray began work on a really ambitious project that year – he wanted to do a Rock Opera of the Bible, like The Who’s Rock Opera “Tommy”, released in 1969. He thought it would be a hot seller especially for the Christian market, which was radically changing that year because of the spiritual Jesus Movement which swept the USA in the 1970s. Kids wanted Christian music in their own musical idiom instead of preachy church hymns, so they began making their own music for praise and worship at churches across America, and around the world, and this new music project would fit right into that new market.
Ray hired a group of studio session players, and some very creative singers and songwriters, for his new Rock Opera of the Bible, titled TRUTH OF TRUTHS, which became a musical stage road show extravaganza employing up to 300 people. He recorded the entire show in a rented studio stage in Hollywood as the soundtrack album from the Rock Opera, and released both the stage show and the soundtrack album on Easter Sunday in April 1971. It was a big success, and toured the USA in six major cities in a year, and the album sold half a million copies in the 1970s.
Ray said when asked if he was trying to compete with Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rock Opera “JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR”, and he said no, he honestly was not, it was just coincidental that the two projects were made and released around the same time.
Ray moved on to many other projects, like recording two albums for Hank Williams Jr. and a bicentennial album called “Happy Birthday USA!” in 1976. He was soon in demand by many famous names in show business, and worked hard for another 20 years, also co-founding two other record companies, Cougar Records in 1994, producing a new album for Nancy Sinatra in 1995, “One More Time”, and working with Outwest Entertainment in 1998.
After the turn of the century, Ray decided to record once again on his Oak Records label, and began auditioning new Country-Western artists for his company, including Holly Wynette, Alicen Holden, Christi Bauerlee, Tony Brantley, and Billy Pierson, among others. Ray also recorded a new Country-Western Rock Opera in 2001, titled “Billy the Kid”, a romance of the Old West narrated by a cowboy actor. For reasons unknown, the album was never released, but we have all the rights to it now, and will be releasing it soon in 2018.
I met Ray Ruff that year, 2001, when I stopped by a recording studio where I knew someone, and Ray was there. He gave me his business card, and we kept in touch, and in the summer of 2003 we got together and I went along with him to the recording studios to see how he worked the music business. I was already a promoter who had put together some shows here and there, and was lead singer in a rock band myself in the 1980s. I met a rock band in Santa Cruz, California that I really liked, named BIG RAIN, who were playing local nightclubs, and I got them a contract with Ray Ruff when I talked them into driving down to southern California to meet with him. We all reached a comfortable contract arrangement and Ray produced their next album, a country crossover album of their local Rock music hits on their own label, Umbrella Records.
The album was their first album to play on nationwide radio stations and chart on the national record charts in 2004, and the band went on to international stardom, playing all over the world over the next five years or so.
Ray often recorded with singer Pat Boone, and his last two albums as producer were on Pat Boone’s “Ready To Rock” in 2004, a great album, I think; and his last, “Gospel Train” in 2005.
Ray passed away on September 15, 2005, and his record company went with him.
After a few years of negotiations with Ray’s widow, who inherited it all, we reached a contract agreement to acquire all the rights to Oak Records and two of his most ambitious works, TRUTH OF TRUTHS and BILLY THE KID. The company had gone defunct in late 2005, and was out of business for ten years, until I began the laborious process of creating a new record company with the same name and a similar logo – we call it the “Legacy Logo”. After two years of legal negotiations and working with the U.S. Trademark & Patent Office, we are now finally moving ahead starting up the new business.
We hope you will enjoy the ride along with us!
Don J. Long
CEO-Manager, Oak Records Inc. LLC
Left: Don J. Long, 1999; Right: Ray Ruff, 1970