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When Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Played a Train Station in Manchester, England in 1964

Updated: Apr 22

On a damp evening of May 7th, 1964, a crowd of super excited music lovers gathered on a rain-soaked disused railway station platform in south Manchester. They eagerly took their seats for what one of the city's esteemed music scholars describes as a "massively culturally significant" event.

The performance at Whalley Range's Wilbraham Road station, captured by Granada TV as the Blues and Gospel Train, featured legends like Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Dr. Chris Lee from the University of Salford highlights how the show "left a lasting impact on nearly everyone who experienced it" and was as pivotal as the Sex Pistols' 1976 gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, which inspired attendees like Morrissey, Mark E Smith, and the future members of Joy Division and Buzzcocks.

The event stemmed from the Blues and Gospel Tour, on its second European stint after debuting in 1963.

The lineup boasted musical icons - besides Waters and Tharpe, there were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Cousin Joe, Otis Spann, and the Reverend Gary Davis.

Though the tour was a nationwide hit in 1964, Dr. Lee notes that the previous year, Manchester was its sole British stop.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Brownie McGhee

This was the second year of the Blues and Gospel Tour that travelled throughout Europe, featuring a line-up of musical legends including Waters, Tharpe, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cousin Joe, Otis Spann, and the Reverend Gary Davis, the event became the stuff of legend.

However, despite the tour's widespread success in 1964, Dr. Lee reveals that the previous year saw its sole British stop in Manchester.

That, he says, is exactly why the TV programme came to be made in the city.

"Manchester was the hottest blues and jazz scene in the country and we already had a very big R'n'B appreciation scene.
"The Twisted Wheel [nightclub] had been operating since 1961, playing more or less all urban black music and concerts at the Free Trade Hall were always sold out.
"In fact, Manchester was the only place that took the first tour in 1963 - what many people don't know is that a minibus came from London to that show and in it were Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. They came all that way just to watch the concert.
"So by 1964, the country was catching up with Manchester.
"Johnnie Hamp, the legendary Granada TV producer, had booked them the year before and did so again, only this time instead of it being in a studio, he had the great idea of staging it in a disused train station in south Manchester."
Johnny Hamp (right) with Muddy Waters

Mr Hamp himself says the idea for the station set rolled out of an early show he had done, in which he hired three trains as a backdrop for Little Eva's The Loco-motion.

"Hiring them meant I had a relationship with the railways, so when we decided to do the second blues show outside of a studio, they tipped me off to the derelict station.
"I asked if they could throw in a train as well, which we dressed with a cow-catcher and such like, and everything fell into place.
"Of course, the imagery of the trains, the whistle blowing in the distance, is one that is long associated with the blues."

Props were dotted around the station so it could be transformed to resemble one straight out of the American South, but true to Manchester's nature, the weather failed to mimic the dusty conditions of that region.

Just after the train, transporting the audience a few miles south from Manchester's city center, arrived, a fierce storm battered the station.

Mr Hamp says the downpour would have been his worst memory of the show had it not led to his best.

"Sister Rosetta came to me and asked if she could change her opening number to Didn't It Rain When she strapped on her guitar, it was astounding."

Audience member John Miller, who was in his 20s at the time, picks Sister Rosetta's performance as his "outstanding memory" of the night too.

Unlike many at the show, he was not on the train from Manchester, but lived locally and went along simply "because I was a blues fan".

"My brother-in-law called to say that if we got down to the station, there was a chance of a free concert. We just walked in and sat down, as did several others - and it was a really good time."

Dr Lee was not at the station, but was one of "something like 10 million viewers" who tuned in at home.

He says it was the TV broadcast that gave the show its significance, as "it turned a lot of people on to the music".

"Young people saw it and thought 'right, I need to form a blues band'."

The list of musicians who have told Johnnie Hamp that the show influenced them is staggering.

"Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones... the list goes on. You have to remember that Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy, Sister Rosetta - they were icons to us."

Dr Lee says the TV show was also important because

the images that we were getting from America on TV at the time were the civil rights marches, where people were being attacked with hoses and clubs. This show allowed us to see living witnesses to that struggle."

He says that the differences were not lost on the artists themselves either, as they "were amused that they didn't have to sit in different restaurants and travel in different coaches on the trains over here".

Mr Hamp says there was another reason for the performers to be keen to play Europe.

"In America, their major popularity had passed, as the young audience moved on to Motown and the like.

'Bizarre but great'

As for the setting, on a platform mocked up as "Chorltonville", Dr Lee says it was "bizarre but it was great and visually, it was like nothing that had come before".

"Nobody had tried anything like that - and the performers loved it.

"Sister Rosetta couldn't believe she was brought to the stage in a horse-drawn carriage - she was used to limousines."

Dr Lee says he watched the show with his mother because they were fans of the blues.

And like Mr Miller, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Didn't It Rain that stood out for them.

"She straps on an electric guitar and blows everybody away. Lots of people, myself included, were looking around for the bloke playing lead guitar - and it's not [anyone else], it's her. It was absolutely mind-blowing - a great song and a great gospel singer belting it out."


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