Tampa Red is best known as an accomplished and influential blues guitarist who had a unique single-string bottleneck style. His songwriting and his silky, polished slide 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.
He was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia. 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 red hair. 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 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, and many others. 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. 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 Magazine’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, undistinguished, recordings were in 1960.
Edited by midlifefanclub on 4 Feb 2009, 08:09
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