Billed on recordings as “The Guitar Wizard,” blues man Hudson Whittaker a. k. a. “Tampa Red” emerged as one of the most popular African-American performers of the mid-twentieth century. With his musical partner, pianist Thomas “Georgia Tom” Dorsey, he recorded performances in the hokum blues style, an idiom reflecting the influences of vaudeville and folk double entendre songs. By the late 1930s Whittaker assembled quartets which reflected the heavy influence of popular music forms and early jazz. Despite criticism of his hokum style numbers, Whittaker is best remembered by musicians for his impeccable blues slide guitar technique which exhibited a voice-like tonal quality. With a recording career that spanned from 1928 to 1960, Whittaker recorded 335 sides, earning him the title as one of the most recorded bluesmen in the history of blues.
Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge on January 8, 1904, in Smithville Georgia (due to Whittaker’s varying reports concerning the year of his birth some scholars place it from 1900 to 1904). After the death of his parents—Reverend John Woodbridge and Elizabeth Whittaker—he moved to Tampa Florida to live with his maternal grandmother and assumed her surname of Whittaker. Around 1925 Whittaker moved to Chicago, where fellow musicians dubbed him “Tampa Red,” in reference to his reddish hair and former Southern home. As Samuel Charters noted in The Country Blues, “Tampa came to Chicago as an inexperienced but talented guitarist and young singer, playing the guitar with a bottle neck on his little finger and playing superbly.”
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.” The success of “Tight Like That” prompted several other record other versions for Paramount, and initiated the blues genre known as hokum. “Tight Like That” was recorded three months after the hit recording “How Long, How Long Blues” by pianist Leory Carr and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, and helped set into motion a new urban blues exhibiting a refined piano-guitar sound.
Over the next four years, Whittaker and Dorsey recorded over sixty recordings, often under the name “The Famous Hokum Boys.” They also backed several singers including Kansas City singer Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, a vocalist described by John Cowley, in The Blackwell Guide to the Blues, as “the master of hyperbole,” whose “singing with the band produced risque and satirical masterpieces.” The duo’s work with Jaxon is exemplified on the 1929 Vocalion side “Jive Man Blues.” Whittaker and Dorsey recorded for Brunswick in 1929 and in 1932 recorded the Hokum tune “No Matter How She Done It.”
When Dorsey left the blues field in 1932 to take up a career as gospel songwriter and choir director, Whittaker continued his path of fame as blues artist. In 1934 he launched his fruitful career with the Victor/Bluebird label, cutting such sides as “Black Angel Blues,” later covered by B. B. King as the slow blues 1956 number “Sweet Little Angel.” By 1936 Whittaker had embarked on a recording career which placed him in the double role of small dance band leader and blues performer. On several of his 1936 Blue Bird sides Whittaker performed on piano and featured Willie Bee James on guitar. That same year, Whittaker’s recording dates for Blue Bird included sides made under the title Tampa Red and His Chicago Five, a jazz-oriented quintet spotlighting Whittaker’s guitar and kazoo talents, backed by piano, clarinet, second guitar, and a string bass. As Paul Oliver noted in The New Grove: Gospel, Blues and Jazz, “By the mid-1930s the customary Chicago group of guitar, piano, and often string bass had expanded into a five piece band. Tampa Red seems to have pioneered these larger groups.”
During May and October 1937, he attended Bluebird sessions held on the top floor of the Leland Hotel, in Aurora, Illinois. During the late 1930s Whittaker sought the piano accompaniment of “Blind” John Davis. Among
Born Hudson Woodbridge on January 8, 1904, in Smithville, GA; died March 19, 1981, in Glen-wood, IL; son of Reverend John Woodbridge and Elizabeth Whittaker; married, wife’s name Frances (died in 1953).
Whittaker taught himself guitar as a youth and performed juke joints in Tampa, Florida, during the 1920s; moved to Chicago in 1925 and performed in local clubs; performed and recorded with Georgia Tom and Hokum Jug Band in 1928, and backed artists like Ma Rainey on the Paramount label; recorded on the Brunswick label and with Vocalion label, 1929; recorded for the Blue Bird label as a solo artist and with the Chicago Five, 1934-38; performed in local clubs with various bluesmen such as Big Maceo and Sunnyland Slim, mid-1940s; recorded for the Victor label, 1945-53; primarily inactive musically from 1953 until 1960 when he briefly returned to recording for the Bluesville Label; Whittaker worked San Francisco’s Sugar Hill Club with Barbara Dane, 1961.
the many numbers recorded with Davis was the 1940 side “Anna Lou Blues,” revealing as W. K. McNeil observed in the liner notes to The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers, “considerable skill on kazoo, getting a trumpet-like sound from the jazz horn. This novelty instrument appeared more frequently on Red’s post-1934 recordings than before.” As McNeil added, “The main distinctive instrumental feature of the recording is Red’s bottleneck guitar playing, which combines perfectly with Davis’ piano work.” In June 1941 Whittaker accompanied pianist Big Maceo Merri-weather for a Blue Bird session that produced Maceo’s 1941 hit “Worried Life Blues.” Afterward, Merriweather accompanied Whittaker on numerous recordings.
During the 1940s Whittaker continued his path of popularity by scoring the 1942 hits “Let Me Play with Your Poodle” and “She Want to Sell My Monkey.” At this time, he lived with his wife and business manager, Frances, in a Southside flat which served as a boarding house for out-of-town musicians recording on the Bluebird label. 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.” In the early postwar years, before the recording debut of younger artists like Muddy Waters, Whittaker remained at the center of the local blues scene. Though his popularity soon waned with the aggressive electrified sounds of transplanted bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta region, Whittaker made national rhythm and blues charts in 1949 with the eight bar blues ballad “When Things Go Wrong with You (It Hurts MeToo),” anumber that later becameamodem blues standard in a rendition recorded by slide guitarist Elmore James.
With the death of his wife in 1953, Whittaker soon fell into musical inactivity and resorted to the chronic use of alcohol. When French blues researchers Demetre and Chauvard visited Whittaker in 1959 they found him living alone in a small kitchenette apartment. 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.”
In 1960 Whittaker returned to the recording studio and cut two albums for Prestige/Bluesville label and, in the following year, worked with Barbara Dane at the Sugar Hill Club in San Francisco. These would prove the last efforts by Whittaker to reestablish his career. As Jim O’Neal explained in Living Blues, “Later attempts to get him back in the recording studios and onto concert stages were fruitless.” Thus, during the folk and blues revivals of the 1960s Whittaker, unlike many earlier bluesmen, remained an obscure figure. After several years of musical inactivity, Whittaker moved into a nursing home in 1974. Though the public knew little of the former blues great, elder Chicago musicians did not forget Whittaker’s generosity. Interviewed in the late 1970s, pianist “Blind” John Davis, remembered in Lost Highway, “all the guys [Whittaker] fed and gave shelter to. You see, Tampa gave me my first break in making records, way back in 1937… and we was buddy-buddies ever since.” Whittaker died at the Central Nursing Home in Chicago on March 19, 1981, and was buried at Glenwood Memory Gardens, in Glenwood, Illinois.
(With Thomas Dorsey), Georgia Tom Dorsey, Yazoo, 1992.
Tampa Red: Guitar Wizard, Columbia, 1994.
Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1936-1938, RCA, 1997.
Tampa Red Vol. I, RCA.
(With Frankie Jaxon) Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon (1927-1940), Story of the Blues.
(With Frankie Jaxon), Saturday Night Scrontch, Collectors Items.
(With Victoria Spivey), Recorded Legacy of the Blues, Spivey Records.
(With Big Maceo Merriweather), Big Maceo: The Bluebird Recordings 1941-1942.
The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers, Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1993.
Do That Guitar Rag (1928-1935), Yazoo.
Bottleneck Guitar (1929-1937), Yazoo.
It’s Tight Like That (1928-1942), Story of the Blues.
Guitar Wizards (1927-1940), Yazoo.
Charters, Samuel B., The Country Blues, Da Capo, 1959.
Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway: Journey and Arrivals of American Musicians, David R. Godine Pub., 1979.
Oliver, Paul, Max Harrison, and William Bolcom, The New Grove: Gospel, Blues and Jazz.
Living Blues, Winter 1980-81.
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