Updated February 2009
Geoff Cook rhythm guitar
Ken Griffiths bass guitar
Neil Stallard drums
Ray Ward lead vocal
Peter Ward lead guitar
The Thunderbirds were typical of many rock 'n' roll groups who formed throughout the West Midlands during the early 1960s. While retaining their day jobs, the band remained "semi-pro" but were kept busy with bookings on the thriving local live music circuit that existed in those days. Thunderbirds guitarist Geoff Cook tells the story of the group as follows:
In 1959 the three guitarists (aged 14) got together through the local Y.M.C.A. youth club known as "The Blue Triangle." The lead guitarist (Pete Ward) was already playing in a skiffle group called 'The Hellraisers'. The guitars were home-made with add-on pickups which we played through a radio or a radiogram. After driving our respective parents to their limit, a friend of Peter's dad informed us that the landlord of the pub where he drank would be happy to let us practice in his Function Room during the week for 2 shillings a night.
The pub was 'The Park Inn' on the corner of Park Lane and The Cannock Road - now long gone. By this time we had an amplifier and proper "non-crack" electric guitars. This was where we met our vocalist (Ray Ward) and a drummer who had only a snare drum. Much to our amazement, people from the pub were coming into the function room to listen to us play. That's where it really started.
We were soon being asked if we would play at weddings and 21st birthday parties. It was now decision time for us as the drummer wasn't really interested and we needed better equipment. This is when Neil Stallard joined as our permanent drummer. As the guitarists were still at school we had to persuade our parents to sign "Hire Purchase Agreements" on our behalf which we paid off with part-time jobs and paper rounds, etc. Fortunately our singer Ray was older than us (18) and worked as a mechanic and he swapped his Austin 7 for the proverbial old "Transit" type van, I think it was an A55. Neil, our drummer, was also older (21) and had his own transport which I believe was a Vauxhall Cresta. At this juncture I was appointed "manager" bearing in mind my parents had no telephone!!
We then started to play for money! (£5) at weddings and parties. We learned very quickly that these venues required more than just Rock 'n' Roll i.e. "Can you play a waltz?" - hence songs like 'Diane" by The Bachelors had to become part of our repertoire. As any group of that time would tell you, the dreaded phrase of "Can you turn it down a bit?" from the older generation and "Can you turn it up please?" from the younger generation still echoes in my ears when we played at these type of mixed audience venues.
By 1961 we were playing at larger venues and had upgraded amplifiers, an echo effects box, and guitars - and were £360 in debt, but we also, much to our surprise, had a following of fans - It was great! Roger Branton of the Wolverhampton Chronicle took us to his heart and used to give us the 'Pre-Release' records he was sent to review which meant we were playing the latest chart entries as they were released. We were then playing The Gaumont (Saturday Morning Show), The Civic And Wulfrun Hall (The Woolpack), The George Hotel (now The Varsity), The Sportsman's Club (Temple Street), Star Aluminium, Manders, The Spread Eagle, etc.
To add to the history of the Wolverhampton music scene, following the shows on Saturday morning at The Gaumont, the local groups including The Mavericks, The Californians, The Atoms, etc. used to congregate at "The Bandbox" music shop on Snow Hill. The owner who was known to us all as "Billo" used to be driven mad by all of us trying different amps and guitars in his shop but he was great to us all - Thanks Billo. By 1963 although we all had "day jobs" things were going great. Our practice sessions were now held at Studio A on Stafford Street (approx. opposite where The Art College is now) - anyone remember it?
We had been approached several times by 'South Staffordshire Variety Artistes Association' and had resisted as we felt we were o.k. on our own but in 1964 we were offered a 3 month contract to tour Spain (The Atoms had recently returned from a similar tour). This offer made us realise that to progress further we had to go from "semi-pro" to fully "professional" which meant giving up a secure income from our jobs. Although time was becoming somewhat precious, i.e. get home from work, wash and shave, collect your gear and into the van for the next gig, we were coping.
However, Neil had a family to support and we were totally phased by the thought of risking all by turning fully "pro." At this juncture we decided it was probably time to call it a day - a decision, which saddened us all and one which looking back is one that we regret when one reflects on what happened to the music scene. I'm sure we would have earned a living and who knows what could have happened?
On a more sombre note 12 months later, Ray Ward our vocalist, was killed at work (Kenyons Garage, Wednesfield). He received 95% burns whilst draining petrol from a car which ignited and after 3 weeks in Birmingham Burns Unit he died. As you can imagine this event traumatised all of us as when you're 20 things like that aren't supposed to happen to you or your friends.
The only member who continued playing (as a session musician) was our lead guitarist Pete Ward who had decided to go to University and get his Masters Degree's in Science and Philosophy. He was a natural born musician. As to myself and Ken Griffiths, we restricted ourselves to playing for personal pleasure only. We don't know what happened to Neil Stallard after Rays' funeral and things seemed to drift - understandable I suppose. There are so many memories from that era I could go on forever which is why I think it's time for me to stop. Albeit they were fantastic times!!
Thanks to Geoff Cook for sending this exclusive biography of The Thunderbirds.
Copyright © Geoff Cook