During his heyday in the 1920's and 30's, Tampa Red was billed as "The Guitar Wizard," and his stunning slide work on steel National or electric guitar shows why he earned the title. His 25 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." Tampa's slide playing was widely admired and influential on the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James and Earl Hooker. Jim O'Neal neatly summed up Tampa's place in blues history when he wrote the following in 1975: "Few figures have been as important in blues history as Tampa Red; yet no bluesman of such stature has been so ignored by today's blues audience. As a composer, recording artist, musical trendsetter and one of the premier urban blues guitarists of his day, Tampa Red remained popular with black record buyers for more than 20 years and exerted considerable influence on many post-World War II blues stars who earned greater acclaim for playing Tampa's songs than Tampa himself often did."
Tampa was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia with various birth dates given between 1900 and 1908. 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 1920's, 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 red hair.
In the 1920's, having already perfected his slide technique, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, and began his career as a musician. His big break was being hired to accompany Ma Rainey and he began recording in 1928. In 1928 Whittaker, through the intercession of J. Mayo "Ink" Williams, teamed up with pianist Thomas Dorsey a. k. a. Georgia Tom and recorded the Paramount label hit "Tight Like That"-a number based upon Blind Blake's "Too Tight" and Papa Charlie Jackson's "Shake That Thing." With "It's Tight Like That", in a bawdy and humorous style that became known as "hokum." The success of "Tight Like That" prompted several other record other versions for Paramount, and initiated the blues genre 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 60 sides, sometimes as "The Hokum Boys" or, with Frankie Jaxon, as "Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band". Tampa had actually met Georgia Tom around 1925 and Tom recalled those early years: "We played Memphis, I think Louisville, down to Nashville; we was down in Tennessee, or in Mississippi just across he line. We recorded in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel in 1929), and I left him down in Memphis and he got another week's at the Palace Theater there. They liked him so well they hired him with just he and his guitar. …We played just anywhere. Party, theater, dance hall, juke joint. All black. See we wasn't high-powered enough. Other fellows who were in the high music echelon got those jobs with the whites. The money was bigger up there." Outside the studio Tom and Tampa worked together or separately joined sometime by their frequent studio partner, Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon who primarily played the night clubs.
In 1928, Tampa Red became the one of the first bluesmen 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 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".
When Dorsey left the blues field in 1932 to take up a career as gospel songwriter and choir director, Tampa continued his path of fame as blues artist. In 1934 he launched his fruitful career with the Victor/Bluebird label. Following the repeal of prohibition in 1933, venues for blues music proliferated in Chicago, and Tampa Red became one of the city's hottest live acts, often with the backing of his band, the Chicago Five. With his close friends Big Bill Broonzy and Lester Melrose, a producer for Bluebird Records, Tampa Red was a leader of the Chicago scene. In 1934 he signed for Victor Records. 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. His wife, Frances, acted as his business manager, and Tampa's 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. A frequent visitor to Whittaker's apartment, Willie Dixon recalled, in I Am the Blues, how "Tampa Red's house was a madhouse with old-time musicians. Lester Melrose would be drinking all the time and Tampa Red's wife would be cooking chicken." After the signing with Victor/bluebird Tampa stuck to Chicago and found steady work at a club across the street from his house called the H&T. Blind John Davis, who met Tampa in 1936, recalled: "Tampa's the onliest one I know could could close his eyes and run across the street and run right into his job. And he worked there for about eight or nine years."
Through the 1940's Tampa remained a prime seller among black audiences with hits like "Let Me Play With Your Poodle" and "She Wants To Sell My Monkey." During his Bluebird stint, between 1934 and 1953, he recorded over 200 sides. In addition to recordings he regularly played the clubs such as Club Georgia, the Flame Club, Sylvio's, the Purple Cat , the 708 club, the Zanzibar, the Peacock and the C&T Lounge all of which were black clubs on Chicago's South and West sides. Tampa's music continued to evolve as Jim O'Neal notes: "…He was right there swinging with horns when big band jump blues were in fashion, and he had the boogie numbers down, too; even on his last Victor sessions he had adapted to the mainstream '50's Chicago blues sound with featured harmonica backing from Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Big Walter Horton. He was following trends, but setting them too with numbers that many other bluesmen were to re-record in later years. …Less frequently was Tamap a solo act; Big Maceo teamed up with him for for a while, and after Maceo suffered a stroke, Sunnyland Slim filled in until Maceo's protege Johnnie Jones took over on piano. By now Tampa also had added support from a drummer, Odie Payne Jr., and Johnnie would sing about half the numbers when he, Tampa, and Odie worked the Peacock and the C&T in 1949. Johnnie also sang on at least a dozen of Tampa's later records." His last hit was 1949's "When Things Go Wrong With You (it Hurts Me Too)" which briefly hit the national R&B charts. By the early 1950's Tampa rarely played the clubs anymore and he made his final commercial recording for Victor in 1953.
|Left to right, standing: Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red and Little Bill Gaither. Sitting: Jack Dupree and Big Bill with Tampa's dog which "drank whiskey just like we did and helped us sing."|
His wife's death in 1953 was a blow from which Tampa Red never recovered. He had always been a heavy drinker, and his alcoholism became acute. Like many of his contemporaries, he was "rediscovered" by a new audience in the late 1950s. At this time, Samuel Charters also encountered the once-famed guitarist. In his work Country Blues, Charters recalled Whittaker's life during this period of musical retirement: "He lives quietly, a dignified, gentle little man, usually wearing a buttoned sweater, his shoes carefully polished. He spends his afternoons visiting friends, walking along the rows of brownstone apartments that line the streets of his neighborhood, a scarf carefully folded around his neck and his overcoat collar turned up. He still owns a guitar, but hasn't played much in recent years." He went back into the studio in 1960 [two solo records for Prestige/Bluesville], but his final recordings were undistinguished." He showed little interest in returning to music or talking to interviewers. Tampa passed away in Chicago in 1981.