ROCK OF AGES – 1955-1963 – BETTY McQUADE

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Midnight Bus (J D Loudermilk) – Betty McQuade and the Thunderbirds 1961

Betty McQuade and her family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1956 and settled in Brisbane where she won a local talent quest, and for the next five years she performed at town hall and suburban dance venues such as Cloudland and as support act to Col Joye and Johnny O’Keefe on shows at Brisbane’s Festival Hall. Below – Betty McQuade

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Betty relocated to Melbourne in 1961, signed with Astor Records, and appeared on many national TV shows of the time, Six O’Clock Rock, Teen Scene, the Go! Show and Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight. She was backed by one of the best rock bands of the era, The Thunderbirds, whose classic lineup throughout 1960-62 was Gordon Onley (bass), Harold Frith (drums), Murray Robertson (piano), Charlie Gauld (guitar) and Henri Bource (flute/sax).

Thunderbirds

McQuade performed regularly with the Thunderbirds at such Melbourne venues as Earl’s Court (St. Kilda), and town hall dances at Frankston, Preston, and Ascot Vale, where they were renowned for their hard-rocking repertoire and professional sound. Below- John D Loudermilk

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Betty went into the Channel Nine (Melb.) sound studios in December 1960, to record the John D Loudermilk composition Midnight Bus, on two-track recording equipment, essentially it was a live recording like all local productions of this era. 

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The Thunderbirds powerful and peerless backing on Midnight Bus elevated this song to classic status, and it has become an Australian landmark record from the early rock era. Gordon Onley delivered distinctive, pulsing, bass backing on the record which is dramatically counterpointed with Henri Bource’s wistful flute flourishes. Frith’s driving percussion provided a solid bedrock for Charlie Gauld’s powerful, ringing, dramatic, echo-inflected lead guitar riffs, all swelling behind the bluesy, slightly ragged-edged vocals of Betty McQuade, it was a rare gem of a record, and remains under-appreciated to this day. This potent chemistry created the first local female rock chart success in Australia and Loudermilk said it was his favorite version of the song.

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Midnight Bus was originally a minor hit for Billy Graves in the US in 1959, and subsequently included as the B-side of Loudermilk’s release of Tobacco Road in 1960. Loudermilk had grown up in Durham (North Carolina, USA) and as such was aware of the practice of young couples who were pregnant or just desperate to get married, catching the midnight bus to South Carolina where the legal age for matrimony was 14 “Me and my baby we left on the midnight bus/ Pulled out of Durham and left in a cloud of dust/ Headed for the border of the North and the South Carolina/This time tomorrow he’ll be mine.”

Echo-inflected garage rock classic from Betty McQuade and The Thunderbirds.

Unlike other female singers of the day such as Noelene Batley and Judy Stone who were middle of the road pop, McQuade developed a tougher R&R style reflective of Wanda Jackson, Brenda “Little Miss Dynamite” Lee, and LaVern Baker and succeeded in an era when male acts dominated. Below- Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, LaVern Baker

Betty took this song to #29 nationally (#6 in Melbourne), but it wasn’t released in Brisbane or Perth until four years later where it charted at #17 and #1 respectively, probably denying Betty a national top ten hit, it was subsequently covered by Johnny Chester, Normie Rowe, and Bobby and Laurie. Betty McQuade sadly passed away in 2011.Betty McQuade, backed by the peerless Thunderbirds made John D Loudermilk’s Midnight Bus her own, with a blistering, bluesy, rocking rendition that was unique and unparalleled by female Aussie rockers of the time.

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