Machine Gun – (J Hudson/R Dietrich/E Sawyers) and Wild Weekend (Todara/Shannon) – The Thunderbirds 1961.
It’s hard now to imagine the incredible popularity of instrumental records in the period 1960-1963, American artists had led the way and major international instrumental acts included Duane Eddy, Link Wray, Johnny and the Hurricanes, the Ventures, the Chantays, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (pictured below), while the Shadows and the Tornados from the UK were prominent and locally Rob E.G., the Joy Boys, and the Atlantics regularly charted as well.
Local rock bands who had regularly backed solo performers also began to emerge from the rear of the stage to prominence as they successfully covered overseas hits or wrote their own original songs, these bands included The Joy Boys, the Thunderbirds, the Denvermen, the Chessmen, the Strangers and the Phantoms.
The enormously popular Thunderbirds were one of the bastions of Melbourne’s early 60’s rock scene and the resident backing band at W&G records, they took their musical cues from the Shadows and the Ventures. Formed in 1957 the T Birds headlined at Earl’s Court in St. Kilda for many years and featured such lead singers as Billy Owens, Billy O’Rourke, Judy Cannon and Betty McQuade, the classic lineup included Harold Frith (drums), Murray Robertson (piano), Henri Bource (flute, tenor sax), Gordon Onley (bass) and Charlie Gauld (guitar).
Ron Tudor recorded the band at W&G Records and they took their cover of US group Johnny Hudson and the Riptides Machine Gun to #16 in Melbourne and #40 nationally in July 1961. The Thunderbirds brought the great saxophone of Henri Bource, pounding drums of Harold Frith and ringing guitar of Charlie Gauld to an exemplary version of Machine Gun. The song was written by Riptide band members Hudson, Ernie Sawyers and Ross Dietrich and although not a national hit in the US, it was a local chart success for the group in California.
The Thunderbirds followed up later in the same year with their cover of the Rockin’ Rebels Wild Weekend written by Phil Todaro and Tom Shannon. Shannon was a DJ in Buffalo (NY) who with Todaro wrote the music in 1961 as a theme song for his WKBW weekend radio show, and it originally had lyrics “Top tunes, news and weather, so we can get together… on the Tom Shannon show…KB radio…KB radio“, and it was originally recorded with vocals and music by the Russ Hallet Trio. Shannon often hosted local dances or “record hops’ as the Americans called them, and the Rebels would also perform at these functions, they asked Shannon if they could record an instrumental-only version of his theme music, he agreed and helped them to cut a record which became a local hit. The record then became a classic sleeper for two years until a major label in Swan Records picked it up in 1963, and it climbed to #8 on the Billboard charts, sold over a million copies, and the band appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. To avoid confusion with Duane Eddy’s backing group also known as the Rebels, the band changed its name to the Rockin’ Rebels after Wild Weekend had charted, it made no difference however as the band were a one-hit wonder.
The T Birds released Wild Weekend in 1961 and it charted #13 in Melbourne and #36 nationally, it was also a minor hit for them in the UK; they reissued it again in 1963 but it barely stuttered to #62 the second time around.
The Thunderbirds backed many classic records from the early rock period including hits for Johnny Chester (Hokey Pokey, Can Can Ladies, Shakin’ All Over) and Betty McQuade (Midnight Bus), and toured Australia with Roy Orbison, Cliff Richard, Helen Shapiro and Fabian