Regional styles soon emerged. Memphis and Mississippi guitarists such as Crying Sam Collins, Charlie Patton, and Furry Lewis applied slides to styles ranging from propulsive dance music to stark personal laments. In Atlanta, fleet-fingered Barbecue Bob, his brother Charley Lincoln, their pal Curley Weaver, and the great Blind Willie McTell plied driving, dexterous bottleneck on booming 12-strings. In Texas, the sublime gospel guitarist Blind Willie Johnson reached for spiritual redemption with some of the most harrowing and haunting slide ever recorded.
Among the galaxy of prewar slide guitar stars, none shone brighter than Chicago’s Tampa Red. Bridging blues, jazz, folk, and jive, his urbane, light-hearted records drew listeners from coast to coast. He was popular among record buyers – especially Southern blacks – for more than twenty years and released more 78s than any other artist in blues history. His influence stretched from Mississippi-bred bluesmen such as Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Earl Hooker, and Elmore James to western swing bands and prescient rock and rollers.
“Tampa Red ironed out all the kinks,” says Ry Cooder. “He made it more accessible and played it with more of a modern big band feeling – like a soloist, almost. He changed it from rural music to commercial music, and he was very popular as a result. He made hundreds of records, and they’re all good. Some of them are incredibly good. You gotta say, okay, that’s where it all starts to become almost pop. And he had a great guitar technique, for sure. He put it all together, as far as I’m concerned. He got the songs, he had the vocal styling, he had the beat. It’s a straight line from Tampa Red to Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia, sometime between 1900 and 1904. Orphaned in his youth, he moved to his grandmother’s house in Tampa, Florida, and assumed her last name, Whittaker. A boyhood bicycling accident permanently injured his foot, causing him pain as he got older. He took up guitar after hearing Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues,” the first blues hit. “I didn’t have no special teacher,” he once said. “It was just a gift.” Inspiration came from a local musician named Piccolo Pete, as well as from his older brother, Eddie Whittaker. “Eddie didn’t play the type of guitar I play,” Tampa explained to Living Blues editor Jim O’Neal. “He played fingerwork, just straight guitar. He played Spanish-style, just natural chords.”
Unlike Hawaiian guitarists, whom he’d seen, Tampa learned to play slide with his guitar held in standard position, using a thumbpick to strike the strings. “Instead of all that finger doublin’ and crossin’, I got me a bottleneck,” he explained. “I used two, three, maybe four strings sometime. It’s got a Hawaiian effect. I couldn’t play as many strings as a fella playin’ a regular Hawaiian guitar, but I got the same effect. I was the champ of that style with the bottleneck on my finger.”
Tampa Red made his first recording, “Through Train Blues,” for Chicago’s Paramount label in May 1928. In a feat he’d repeat countless times, he announced his unmistakable presence with his opening slide flourish – few players have ever achieved such an instantly recognizable sound. Set to tuba accompaniment, Tampa’s debut was released paired with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “How Long How Long.”
Paramount called Tampa Red back to the studio in September to back Ma Rainey, the South’s most beloved blues diva. His partner on the session was Georgia Tom Dorsey, a self-effacing, schooled pianist and the musical director of Rainey’s ensemble. Tampa Red held his resophonic close to the recording source, his smooth, bittersweet tone perfectly complementing Rainey’s powerful contralto. Their four Paramount 78s together were among her last releases.
Within a few weeks, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, who’d met around 1925, began recording on their own under the direction of J. Mayo “Ink” Williams. The duo struck pay dirt with one of their first efforts, the sexy and irresistible “It’s Tight Like That.” Accompanied by easy-rolling piano and bottleneck guitar, Tampa sang on the Vocalion release:
“Now the gal I love, she’s long and slim,
When she whip it, it’s too bad, Jim.
You know, it’s tight like that, beedle um bum,
Oh, it’s tight like that, beedle um bum,
Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you, I mean it’s tight like that”
Dorsey, who acted as the duo’s business manager, had fond memories of their time together, telling Living Blues, “Tampa used to come by my house to rehearse. I had me some nieces or cousins, and he’d sit down and play for them, have a lot of fun. He was a good-hearted fellow. Never was in any trouble as I know of. Was never arrested or anything like that while I was with him, or never got in any fusses or any brawls or fights or anything like that. He was very calm at all times. He was a very nice fellow. So am I. He’d come to my house, eat, stay all night if he wanted to. My wife fix a bed for him, and we got along like that.”
Georgia Tom Dorsey in his heyday as a bluesman.
During 1929, Tampa Red made stacks of 78s under his own name and accompanying Georgia Tom (billed as Memphis Mose), Lil Johnson, Cow Cow Davenport, James “Stump” Johnson, Sam Theard, Romeo Nelson, and the Gospel Camp Meeting Singers. The uptown Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band continued to set the template for combos to come with swinging, jazzy records like the raucous “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll),” with its saucy slide and orgasmic moans. Lil Johnson’s “House Rent Scuffle” was another forward-looking track, presaging rock and roll with its driving boogie-woogie piano and hepped-up slide. On other records, Tampa delved into folk, country blues, and slideless ragtime.
Between sessions, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom made the rounds of South Side night spots. “We’d play just anywhere,” Dorsey reminisced, “the party, theater, dance hall, juke joint. We were playing for all-black audiences.” To augment their sound, Tampa brought a rack-mounted kazoo into the act. “Tampa’d try any kind of thing if he thought he could get some publicity,” Dorsey continued. “I’d tell him, ‘If you gonna get a band, man, let’s get a clarinet or a trumpet or somethin’.’ He’d say, ‘No, we stay like what we are. We get all the money ourselves.’ I said, ‘That’s all right with me.’ He didn’t use kazoo much then. I wouldn’t let him use it much because, well, sometime he’d get too much mind on the kazoo, and let down on the guitar, and that’s the accompaniment, see. Instead of lettin’ down on the kazoo – ‘Woo-oo-woo-oo-woo’ – he’d stop strummin’.”
While the Depression brought a halt to most blues sessions, Tampa Red continued to record for Vocalion through the early 1930s, shifting between hokum, straight blues, and pop tunes. In 1932, he and Georgia Tom journeyed to New York to make their final recordings together. “I don’t know what happen to the blues,” Dorsey told O’Neal, “but they seemed to drop it all at once. It just went down. And so the artists were falling out because they couldn’t get work. I said, ‘I’m gonna get into another thing. I’m goin’.’ And Tampa cried like a baby: ‘No, Tom, don’t go. Now look what we could do.’ I said, ‘Tampa, you go with me, or else I ain’t goin’ no further. I’m losin’ money, and I can’t eat and live with that.’” Dorsey turned to gospel music, and during the ensuing decades, Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, composer of “Precious Lord” and many other classics, came to be known as the “Father of Gospel Music.”
Blues summit, 1934: Tampa Red shakes hands with Leroy Carr.
Tampa’s buddy, Big Bill Broonzy.
Tampa Red turned his business affairs over to his bride, Frances, and their spacious home at 3432 South State Street became a haven for blues musician. Blind John Davis remembered in Living Blues that Tampa’s house “went all the way from the front to the alley. He had a big rehearsal room, and he had two rooms for the different artists that come in from out of town to record. Melrose’d pay him for the lodging, and Mrs. Tampa would cook for them.” Tampa’s drinking buddy Big Bill Broonzy was a frequent guest, and they enjoyed fishing and going to baseball games together. The Whittakers also hosted Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Jazz Gillum, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Doc Clayton, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Arthur Crudup, Washboard Sam, Big Maceo Merriweather, Romeo Nelson, Little Walter, Elmore James, and Robert Lee McCullum, who’d record as Robert Nighthawk. Tampa tutored Nighthawk, whose potent postwar electric slide merged his mentor’s facile approach with a sustaining Delta whine. Whittaker rarely jammed with his house guests, though, preferring to relax with a drink and enjoy the goings-on. He worked hard at composing, though, scribbling notes on typewriter paper late into the night.
By the late ’30s Tampa’s traveling days were over. For nine years he gigged just yards from his house at the H&T club, usually playing solo but occasionally in the company of Willie B. James or pianists Big Maceo, Sunnyland Slim, or Johnnie Jones, all of whom accompanied him on sessions. Tampa was one of the first Chicago musicians to acquire an electric guitar, which he played on 1940’s “Anna Lou Blues,” reworked by Nighthawk, Elmore James, and Earl Hooker as “Anna Lee.” The same session yielded “It Hurts Me Too,” later transformed into an Elmore James masterpiece, and “Don’t You Lie to Me,” which was covered by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Tampa appeared on Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues” in’41, and Maceo, in turn, manned the 88s on Tampa’s 1942 hits, “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” and “She Wants to Sell My Monkey.” In 1945, Whittaker moved from Bluebird to its parent’s label, Victor.
Approaching age fifty, Whittaker retired from the night life to care for Frances, who had a serious heart condition. Tampa’s wife was “mother and God to him both,” as Sunnyland Slim put it, and her death in 1954 left Tampa a broken man. He quit performing and escalated his drinking. Rumors of his erratic behavior began to circulate, and for a while he was confined to a mental hospital. “I got sick and had a nervous breakdown,” he explained, citing his inability to refuse a drink as the cause.
He was coaxed out of retirement in 1960 to record two albums for Prestige/Bluesville, but gone were the slide gymnastics. Instead, Tampa blew double-barrel kazoo and picked electric guitar counterpoint to his weary-voiced lyrics. After a few live performances, Tampa Red stowed his guitar beneath his bed. During the early 1970s, when labels began reissuing his old records on LPs, he was living on welfare with his companion, Effie Tolbert, on Chicago’s South Side. He enjoyed sharing a beer and a hand-rolled Bugler cigarette with old friends and the occasional journalist, but his recollections of his music career were few and far between.
On March 19, 1981, Hudson Whittaker passed away. His gold National had been stolen years earlier, and his old Gibson electric went to Blind John Davis. He’s buried in Mt. Glenwood Memory Gardens in Glenwood, Illinois. In his autobiography, Big Bill Broonzy had accurately predicted, “There’s only one Tampa Red, and when he’s dead, that’s all, brother.”