Tampa Red - Biography

Tampa Red, known in his prime as the Guitar Wizard, was a master of the slide guitar and bridged the rural style of delta blues and the electric guitar-driven sound of Chicago. He was a major influence on Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, and Ry Cooder, wrote the standard “When Things Go Wrong with You (It Hurts Me Too),” and made almost 300 recordings in a career that stretched from 1928 to 1961. He died penniless in 1981, the year he was inducted to the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.


Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia in 1901. His parents died when he was just a child and his grandmother, Annie Whittaker, took him in and raised him in Tampa, Florida. He started playing guitar as a boy after his older brother Eddie took up the instrument. Red played on the streets with a guitarist named Piccolo Pete, and was known as Tampa Red from the time he became a teenage guitar prodigy. After playing on the streets of Tampa for many years and developing a signature slide guitar style marked by well-constructed single note solos, he played on the African American theater circuit in the south. In 1925, he moved to Chicago to make it big.


In Chicago, Red had a day job and spent nights and weekends playing on the street for tips until he met Thomas Dorsey, a blues musician at the time. (Dorsey eventually left the blues and became the father of gospel music. He went on to write standards like "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "Peace in the Valley.") Red and Dorsey began recording as a duo for Paramount and their 1928 tune "It's Tight Like That,” a double entendre blues song, became a smash and earned them $4,000 in royalties, which was a huge sum at the time. Its popularity spawned a genre of sexual songs called “hokum,” one of the first blues styles to cross over to the white audience. As The Hokum Boys, Red and Dorsey became hitmakers with "Jive Man Blues" and "No Matter How She Done It." They also played sessions for Paramount backing up Ma Rainey, Madlyn Davis, Lil Johnson, and Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon. Red also recorded as a solo artist and some early tunes are captured on Tampa Red: Bottleneck Guitar 1928-1937 (Yazoo), released in 1992.


When Dorsey stopped playing the blues in 1932, Red signed with Bluebird, RCA’s budget label. They sold records for 35 cents, making them affordable to poor black music fans. Red was soon Bluebird’s major source of income. The rise of the jukebox and the repeal of Prohibition led to a proliferation of clubs that made Chicago a hub for blues musicians. Red stayed at Bluebird for 20 years and made records like "Nobody's Sweetheart," “Shake It Up A Little,” “Mr. Rhythm Man,” and “Anna Mae Blues.” Some of these records appear on the two disc sets Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936 (RCA) and Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1936-1938 (RCA), both released in 1997.


Lester Melrose, head of RCA in Chicago, made Red a de facto A&R man and Red’s apartment became a rehearsal space and boarding house for newly arrived blues musicians. Melrose paid their rent, and Red’s wife Frances cooked for the newcomers and became their business manager and booker. Red started one of the first blues bands, Tampa Red and His Chicago Five, for which Red played guitar and kazoo. They played jazz and jump blues and created what was later referred to as the Bluebird sound


In 1940, Red bought an electric guitar and had hits with "Let Me Play with Your Poodle" and "She Want to Sell My Monkey." He played on Big Maceo Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues,” and in 1949 had another huge hit "When Things Go Wrong With You (It Hurts Me Too),” which topped the newly created R&B chart. Red’s jazzy vocal phrasing reached its apex on this side, influencing a generation of singers. Some of these records are collected on Tampa Red: Keep Jumping 1944-1952 (Wolf Austria), released in 1998.


In 1954, Francis passed away and Red, who had always had an alcohol problem, descended into alcoholism and gradually stopped playing. He was rediscovered during the blues revival of the late ‘50s and signed by the Bluesville Label, a division of Berkeley, California’s Fantasy Records. He made two albums for them — Don't Tampa with the Blues (Bluesville) and Don't Jive with Me (Bluesville) — in 1961. He played a few dates on the newly revived blues circuit before retiring again and slowly drinking himself to death. He died in 1981, the same year he was inducted to the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame


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