Tampa Red is best known as an accomplished and influential blues guitarist who had a unique single-string slide style. His songwriting and his silky, polished "bottleneck" technique influenced other leading Chicago blues guitarists, such as Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Nighthawk, as well as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Mose Allison and many others. In a career spanning over 30 years he also recorded pop, R&B and hokum records. His best known recordings include the "classic compositions 'Anna Lou Blues', 'Black Angel Blues', 'Crying Won't Help You', 'It Hurts Me Too', and 'Love Her with a Feeling'".
He was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia, United States. His parents died when he was a child, and he moved to Tampa, Florida, where he was raised by his aunt and grandmother and adopted their surname, Whittaker.He emulated his older brother, Eddie, who played guitar, and he was especially inspired by an old street musician called Piccolo Pete, who first taught him to play blues licks on a guitar.
In the 1920s, having already perfected his slide technique, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, and began his career as a musician, adopting the name 'Tampa Red' from his childhood home and light colored skin. His big break was being hired to accompany Ma Rainey and he began recording in 1928 with "It's Tight Like That", in a bawdy and humorous style that became known as "hokum". Early recordings were mostly collaborations with Thomas A. Dorsey, known at the time as Georgia Tom. Tampa Red and Georgia Tom recorded almost 90 sides, sometimes as "The Hokum Boys" or, with Frankie Jaxon, as "Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band".
In 1928, Tampa Red became the first black musician to play a National steel-bodied resonator guitar, the loudest and showiest guitar available before amplification, acquiring one in the first year they were available. This allowed him to develop his trademark bottleneck style, playing single string runs, not block chords, which was a precursor to later blues and rock guitar soloing. The National guitar he used was a gold-plated tricone, which was found in Illinois in the 1990s by music-shop owner and guitarist Randy Clemens and later sold to the "Experience Music Project" in Seattle. Tampa Red was known as "The Man With The Gold Guitar", and, into the 1930s, he was billed as "The Guitar Wizard".
His partnership with Dorsey ended in 1932, but he remained much in demand as a session musician, working with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Memphis Minnie, Big Maceo, and many others. In 1934 he signed for Victor Records, remaining on their artist roster until 1953. He formed the Chicago Five, a group of session musicians who created what became known as the Bluebird sound, a precursor of the small group style of later jump blues and rock and roll bands. He was a close friend and associate of Big Bill Broonzy and Big Maceo Merriweather. He enjoyed commercial success and reasonable prosperity, and his home became a centre for the blues community, informally providing rehearsal space, bookings, and lodgings for the flow of musicians who arrived in Chicago from the Mississippi Delta as the commercial potential of blues music grew and agricultural employment in the south diminished.
By the 1940s he was playing electric guitar. In 1942 "Let Me Play With Your Poodle" was a # 4 hit on Billboard's new "Harlem Hit Parade", forerunner of the R&B chart, and his 1949 recording "When Things Go Wrong with You (It Hurts Me Too)", another R&B hit, was covered by Elmore James. He was 'rediscovered' in the late 1950s, like many other surviving early recorded blues artists such as Son House and Skip James, as part of the blues revival. His final recordings were in 1960.
He became an alcoholic after his wife's death in 1953. He died destitute in Chicago, aged 77.
Tampa Red was one of the most prolific blues recording artists of his era. It has been estimated that he recorded 335 songs on 78 rpm records, with 251 recorded between 1928 and 1942, making him the blues artist with the most recordings during that period. The bulk of his singles were released before Billboard magazine began tracking blues (and other "race music") in October 1942 and accurate sales records are not available. However, Red had four singles that placed in the R&B top ten between 1942 and 1951.
For some of his earlier songs, Tampa Red recorded additional versions (usually designated "No. 2", "No. 3", etc.) or under a different name with collaborators ("Hokum Boys", "Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band", Papa Too Sweet, et al.). Songs with additional versions are marked with a "+".
|Date||Title||Label & Cat. no.||Comments|
|1928||"It's Tight Like That"||Vocalion1216+||with Georgia Tom aka Tom Dorsey (piano)|
|"How Long, How Long Blues"||Vocalion 1228+||as "Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band"|
|1929||"The Duck's Yas-Yas-Yas"||Vocalion 1277||with Dorsey|
|"You've Got to Reap What You Sow"||Vocalion 1404||slide-guitar instrumental|
|"Corrine Corrina"||Vocalion 1450+||with Dorsey|
|1930||"The Dirty Dozen #2"||Vocalion 1538|
|1931||"Things 'bout Coming My Way"||Vocalion 1637+|
|1932||"You Can't Get That Stuff No More"||Vocalion 1706||with Dorsey|
|1934||"Sugar Mama Blues No. 1"||Vocalion 2720+|
|"Black Angel Blues"||Vocalion 2753|
|"Mean Mistreater Blues"||Bluebird5546|
|1938||"Love with a Feeling"||Bluebird 7822||with Black Bob Hudson (piano) & unknown (bass)|
|1940||"It Hurts Me Too"||Bluebird 8635||with Blind John Davis (piano) & unknown (bass)|
|"Anna Lou Blues"||Bluebird 8654||with Davis & bass|
|"Don't You Lie to Me"||Bluebird 8654||with Davis & bass|
|1942||"Let Me Play with Your Poodle"||Bluebird 0700||reached #4 in Billboard R&B chart, with Big Maceo Merriweather (piano) & Clifford Jones (drums)|
|1945||"Detroit Blues"||Bluebird 0731||R&B #5, with combo (piano, bass, & drums)|
|1946||"Crying Won't Help You"||RCA Victor20-1988||with combo|
|1949||"When Things Go Wrong with You"||RCA Victor 22-0035||R&B #9, remake of "It Hurts Me Too", with combo|
|1950||"Love Her with a Feeling"||RCA Victor 22-0084||remake of "Love with a Feeling", with combo|
|1951||"Sweet Little Angel"||RCA Victor 22-0107||remake of "Black Angel Blues", with combo|
|"Early in the Morning"||RCA Victor 22-0123||with combo|
|"Pretty Baby Blues"||RCA Victor 22-0136||R&B #7, with combo|
Although he was a prolific singles artist, Tampa Red only recorded two albums, which were released late in his career. Various compilation albums have been released since his death by a number of record companies. Often there is significant overlap, but some compilations focus on certain aspects of his style or original record labels.
|1961||Don't Tampa with the Blues||Bluesville||recorded 1960|
|Don't Jive Me||Bluesville||recorded 1961|
|1974||Bottleneck Guitar 1928–1937||Yazoo|
|1991–93||Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Vol. 1–15||Document||recorded 1928–53|
|1993||Keep Jumping 1944–1952||Wolf|
|1994||Tampa Red (1928–1942)||Story of the Blues|
|The Guitar Wizard||Columbia/Legacy||Okeh and Vocalion releases 1928–34|
|It Hurts Me Too – The Essential Recordings||Indigo||various labels 1928–42|
|1997||The Complete Bluebird Recordings 1934–1936||RCA|
|The Bluebird Recordings 1936–1938||RCA|
|2001||The Essential||Classic Blues||recorded 1928–51|
|2002||Slide Guitar Classics||P-Vine|