Tampa Red

Talented master of pre-War bottleneck blues guitar, often billed as "The Guitar Wizard."

Hudson Woodbridge aka Whittaker, b. January 8, 1904 in Smithville, GA, d. March 19, 1981 in Chicago, IL, was a Chicago blues musician known as Tampa Red. He was raised in Tampa, Florida, by his grandmother Whittaker's family, hence his nickname. By the time of his 1928 recording debut for Vocalion Records, he had developed the clear, precise bottleneck blues guitar style that earned him his billing, 'The Guitar Wizard'. He teamed with Thomas A. Dorsey in Chicago in 1925, and they were soon popular, touring the black theatre circuit. 'It's Tight Like That', recorded in late 1928, was a huge hit, fuelling the hokum craze. They recorded extensively, often in a double entendre vein, until 1932, when Dorsey finally moved over to gospel. Tampa also recorded with his Hokum Jug Band, featuring Frankie Jaxon, and alone, in which capacity he cut a number of exquisite guitar solos.

By 1934, when Tampa signed with Victor Records, he had ceased live work outside Chicago. He was with Victor for nearly 20 years, recording a great many titles. During the 30s, many of them were pop songs with his Chicago Five, often featuring his kazoo. Usually a live solo act, he worked on record with various piano players. He was also an accomplished pianist, in a style anticipating that of Big Maceo, who became his regular recording partner in 1941. In the late 40s, Tampa was still keeping up with trends, leading a recording band whose rhythmic force foreshadows the post-war Chicago sound. His wife Frances was his business manager, and ran their home as a lodging house and rehearsal centre for blues singers. Her death in the mid-50s had a devastating effect on Tampa, leading to excessive drinking and a mental collapse. In 1960, he recorded two under-produced solo albums for Bluesville, also making a few appearances. However, he had no real wish to make a comeback, and lived quietly with a woman friend, and from 1974 in a nursing home. In a career that ranged from accompanying Ma Rainey to being backed by Walter Horton, he was widely admired and imitated, most notably by Robert Nighthawk, and wrote many blues standards, including 'Sweet Black Angel', 'Love Her With A Feeling', 'Don't You Lie To Me' and 'It Hurts Me Too' (covered, respectively, by B.B. King, Freddie King, Fats Domino and Elmore James, among others).

Tampa Red Biography by Barry Lee Pearson

Out of the dozens of fine slide guitarists who recorded blues, only a handful -- Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, for example -- left a clear imprint on tradition by creating a recognizable and widely imitated instrumental style. Tampa Red was another influential musical model. During his heyday in the '20s and '30s, he was billed as "The Guitar Wizard," and his stunning slide work on electric or National steel guitar shows why he earned the title. His 30-year recording career produced hundreds of sides: hokum, pop, and jive, but mostly blues (including classic compositions "Anna Lou Blues," "Black Angel Blues," "Crying Won't Help You," "It Hurts Me Too," and "Love Her with a Feeling"). Early in Red's career, he teamed up with pianist, songwriter, and latter-day gospel composer Georgia Tom Dorsey, collaborating on double-entendre classics like "Tight Like That."

Listeners who only know Tampa Red's hokum material are missing the deeper side of one of the mainstays of Chicago blues. His peers included Big Bill Broonzy, with whom he shared a special friendship. Members of Lester Melrose's musical mafia and drinking buddies, they once managed to sleep through both games of a Chicago White Sox doubleheader. Eventually alcohol caught up with Red, and he blamed his latter-day health problems on an inability to refuse a drink.

During Red's prime, his musical venues ran the gamut of blues institutions: down-home jukes, the streets, the vaudeville theater circuit, and the Chicago club scene. Due to his polish and theater experience, he is often described as a city musician or urban artist in contrast to many of his more limited musical contemporaries. Furthermore, his house served as the blues community's rehearsal hall and an informal booking agency. According to the testimony of Broonzy and Big Joe Williams, Red cared for other musicians by offering them a meal and a place to stay and generally easing their transition from country to city life.

Today's listener will enjoy Tampa Red's expressive vocals and perhaps be taken aback by his kazoo solos. His songwriting has stood the test of time, and any serious slide guitar student had better be familiar with Red's guitar wizardry.