Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tampa Red: The Guitar Wizard

During the Roaring Twenties, a dazzling array of slide players made it onto records. The first was Sylvester Weaver, a Kentucky bluesman who recorded 1923’s “Guitar Blues” lap-style in open D, using a knife to gliss the strings. Louisiana’s Lead Belly and the Mississippi Delta’s Charley Patton also used this old, Hawaiian-inspired technique, but most sliders held their guitars in standard playing position and used a true bottleneck sawed or chipped from a liquor bottle.

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.

With his warm, sweet tone and dead-on intonation, Tampa Red was a master of single-string melodies and streamlined chords – so much so that he came to be known as “The Guitar Wizard.” He was also a terrific singer, with a keen, sensitive voice and streetwise delivery reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, his favorite guitarist. Tampa Red’s early ensembles were crucial to the development of Chicago blues bands, and several of the songs he composed or popularized – “Love Her With a Feeling,” “Crying Won’t Help You,” “Sweet Little Angel,” and “It Hurts Me Too” among them – have become blues standards.

“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.”

Arriving in Chicago in his early teens, the diminutive redhead became known around town as Tampa Red. He sharpened his skills busking on the street, sometimes in the company of Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon. He played a flashy, gold-plated National Style 4 roundneck resophonic in open D and open E, sometimes using a capo to change keys. Bob Brozman, an authority on National guitars, explains how Tampa’s model choice affected his sound: “The tri-cones, which Tampa Red and all the Hawaiians used, have a very liquid, smooth, long-sustaining tone, whereas the single-cones, like Bukka White used, are really powerful and snappy, with a strong attack but a very quick decay.”

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”

This instant hit became one of the era’s best-selling blues records. “It went just about to the four corners of the United States,” Big Joe Williams insisted. “Went through both races, white and black. You’d hear little kids mumblin’ it everywhere you went.” The duo rapidly recorded new versions for a variety of labels, with Vocalion’s “It’s Tight Like That, No. 2” being the first release to proclaim Tampa Red “The Guitar Wizard.” Another version by Tampa Red’s Hokum Jazz Band framed Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon’s campy vocals with piano, guitar, “jazz horn” (kazoo), washboard, and jug. Before year’s end, Dorsey and Whittaker had played sessions with singers Madlyn Davis, Octavia Dick, Papa Too Sweet, and Bertha “Chippie” Hill, and recorded for Paramount as the Hokum Boys. On his own, Tampa cut a 78 with a jazzy four-piece studio band called the State Street Stompers.

“It’s Tight Like That” sparked a fad for hokum, a zany musical style that set double-entendre-laden lyrics to jumping good-time arrangements. The duo’s success sent other artists scurrying into studios to wax what W.C. Handy referred to as “a flock of lowdown dirty blues.” Tampa Red and Georgia Tom co-wrote dozens of songs, with both men supplying lyrics and Dorsey doing most of the arranging. (To hear and legally download many fine Tampa Red recordings from the 1920s, visit

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’.”

The duo toured the black vaudeville circuit. During their October ’29 stop in Memphis, they played sessions with Jim Jackson, one of the most popular musicians in town, and Jenny Pope, who’d sung with the Memphis Jug Band. “We traveled by automobile all down South through there,” Dorsey recalled. “We played Memphis, Louisville, down to Nashville . . . . We recorded in Memphis, and we went over about ten or fifteen miles across the line down in Mississippi. We’d go down in those cotton fields, lookin’ for talent. We brought some of ’em up there and recorded ’em. When we were down in Memphis, Tampa got another week’s play at the Palace Theater. They liked him so well they hired him there with just he and the guitar.”

Back in Chicago, Dorsey commenced recording with Big Bill Broonzy and others as the Famous Hokum Boys, explained to Living Blues, “Tampa and me were a steady team, but if I wasn’t working tomorrow night and Bill wanted me, I’d go with Bill, see. Not only Bill, anybody. Frankie Jaxon or any of ’em. You’d work with anybody you could get to where they gon’ get paid.”

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 Red, meanwhile, continued to thrive in the blues. He concluded his tenure at Vocalion in March’34 with the original version of “Black Angel Blues” (which eventually became known as “Sweet Little Angel”) and the poignant slide instrumentals “Things ’Bout Coming My Way” and “Denver Blues.” His new association with producer Lester Melrose and the budget-priced Bluebird label resulted in some two hundred titles. Tampa’s initial releases, cut with pianist Black Bob, featured a few slide gems, but he was beginning to recast himself as a crooner and kazoo soloist. By 1936, he was playing Leroy Carr-influenced piano on record, with Willie B. James sitting in on guitar. “I can play some piano, you know – ragtime, a little blues,” he told O’Neal. “But guitar was my main thing, playin’ ‘Tight Like That’ and ‘Sell My Monkey.’ I could do more with the guitar than I could with the piano because there was plenty of piano players who could play the real thing.” Following the pop trends of the day, releases by Tampa Red and The Chicago Five, a studio band with guitar, piano, string bass, and clarinet and kazoo (later replaced by sax and trumpet), were aimed at tavern jukeboxes.

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.

Although he was slowing down, Tampa Red stayed current, delving into horn-driven big-band jump a la Louis Jordan, powerhouse boogie-woogie, and as-yet-unnamed rock and roll. “When Things Go Wrong For You (It Hurts Me Too),” from 1949, was his last release in the national R&B charts. Tampa Red added piano and drums to his club lineup and cut his final Victor sides in 1953 with a younger-generation band that included harmonicist Walter “Shakey” Horton, Johnnie Jones, and drummer Odie Payne. By then Tampa’s uptown blues had been supplanted by the muscular rumblings of Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters.

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.

After Effie Tolbert’s death in ’74, Tampa spent his final years in Chicago’s Central Nursing Home, where Blind John Davis looked after him. “I bring him to my home about two or three times a month,” Davis told me in 1979. “I give him cigarettes, and he can have a couple cans of beer a day. So everything is beautiful that way. He’s in beautiful shape, but he’s senile, and he don’t remember too much, you know.”

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.”

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