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Watch Sister Rosetta Tharpe shape the future of blues-rock guitar with an incendiary 1964 performance at an English train station

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performs at Wilbraham Road train station in 1964
(Image credit: docludi2/YouTube)

On May 7, 1964, a who's who of future blues guitar luminaries – among them (opens in new tab) Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones – gathered, with a number of other excited blues fans, at the Wilbraham Road train station in south Manchester.

Clapton, Beck and co. had journeyed (opens in new tab) to the out-of-use station all the way from London to see a show unlike any other – the Blues and Gospel Train.

Staged dramatically on the station's platform – with the audience on one end of the tracks and the performers on another – and filmed for a Granada TV special, the show gathered together a mind-blowing lineup of blues giants: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Cousin Joe, Otis Spann, and the Reverend Gary Davis.

Though all of the aforementioned blues legends brought their A-game, it was Tharpe – brought to the stage in style in a horse-drawn carriage – who completely stole the show.

Inspired (opens in new tab) by the downpour that had lashed the station shortly before her arrival, Tharpe decided to open her set with a ferocious rendition of the gospel standard, Didn't It Rain

Armed with her beloved, three-pickup 1961 Gibson Les Paul SG Custom, Tharpe treated those in attendance – and the estimated (opens in new tab) 10 million viewers who would later watch the broadcast at home – to a display of powerful, hard-driving blues guitar fire that was years ahead of its time. 

You can draw direct lines, for instance, from Tharpe's fluid but always in-the-pocket rhythm work to Richards' later playing with the Rolling Stones, and hear the influence her lyrical slides would go on to have on Jones, already a huge fan of slide master Elmore James. 

You can see Tharpe's Didn't It Rain performance above, and the full Blues and Gospel Train TV special below.

Lizzo guitarist Celisse and Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist Amythyst Kiah recently staged – as part of Gibson's Shout, Sister, Shout! mini-documentary on Tharpe – a tribute to the 1964 train station performance.

Wielding Custom Shop replicas of Tharpe's 1961 Les Paul SG Custom, the duo put their own, unaccompanied spin on Didn't It Rain, while retaining the spirit and passion of the original.

"She [Tharpe] entranced audiences and inspired untold numbers of blues-loving players from across the pond, people like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards," Celisse says in the film. "There's an endless list of artists that borrowed from Sister Rosetta – folks like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, even me!

"Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born to be on stage and channel her joy of faith through her powerful voice and volcanic playing. She took audiences to church and her male guitar playing contemporaries to school.

"While it's taken decades to finally give her her due," Celisse concludes, "there is no debating that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the unquestioned founding mother of rock 'n' roll."

Though popular and commercially successful in her day, Tharpe – who died in 1973, and was buried (opens in new tab) in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia – has only recently begun to receive recognition as one of the formative figures in blues and rock electric guitar playing.

In 2018, decades after many of the guitarists whose style she helped shape received the same honor, Tharpe was finally inducted (opens in new tab) into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in the "Early Influences" category.

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Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player (opens in new tab). Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder (opens in new tab) and Unrecorded (opens in new tab). Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.