Though not widely known or listened to in the 1990s, Tampa Red is one of the seminal figures in blues history. His career spanned the 26 years from 1928 to 1954, the Golden Age of the blues. He cut nearly 230 sides and released more 78s than any other blues artist. He formed a vital link between the country blues of the 1920s and the electric Chicago blues of the postwar era. His songs were popular with the record public and other artists who covered them frequently. His impeccable slide guitar technique influenced blues players like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Robert Nighthawk, and rock-era musicians like Ry Cooder. What’s more, his help and kindness enabled countless musicians to get a foothold in the Chicago clubs and recording studios of the 1930s and 1940s.
Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge in Southville, Georgia. The date of his birth is uncertain. Tampa himself gave dates varying from 1900 to 1908. The birth date given on his death certificate is January 8, 1904. Just as little is known about his parents, John and Elizabeth Woodbridge. They passed away while Tampa was a child, and he and his brother Eddie were given over to the care of their grandmother, Annie Whittaker. Tampa took her last name as his own and was raised by her in Tampa, Florida.
Tampa’s first musical inspiration was his brother, Eddie, who played guitar around the Tampa area. For a while, according to William Barlow’s Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Tampa followed a musician named Piccolo Pete through the streets of the city. Pete eventually showed Tampa some rudimentary blues licks. Apparently, Tampa also picked up some knowledge from early recordings of women blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox. “That  record of “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith, it was one of the first blues records ever made,” Tampa told Martin Williams in an interview quoted in the liner notes to Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t know any music, but I can play that.’”
By 1925, Tampa had moved to Chicago and taken to playing the blues in the street. He had also adopted the name Tampa Red, after his Florida home and either his red hair or his light complexion, depending on who one believes. In Chicago, Tampa met Thomas Dorsey. It was an encounter that changed Tampa’s life. Dorsey was an accomplished pianist, composer, and arranger who had performed and recorded with the leading female blues singers of the era, in particular the great Ma Rainey. Dorsey introduced Tampa to J. Mayo Williams, the front man for Paramount Records in Chicago. Williams arranged a session at Paramount for Tampa.
His first 78, “Through Train Blues,” didn’t shake up the world. He had to share the record with Paramount’s big star, Blind Lemon Jefferson. But his second record, released in 1928, caused a sensation. The song was called “It’s Tight Like That.” The song’s sexual suggestiveness and infectious rhythm caught the public’s fancy in a big way—it sold nearly one million copies. Tampa would later recall people lined up outside record stores waiting to buy it. The song was composed and performed by Tampa and Dorsey, who played blues under the name Georgia Tom. The success of “It’s Tight Like That” surprised both men—and delighted them as well--they shared some $4,000 in royalties! “It was just a little old song but they really went for it,” Tampa told Jim O’Neal, in an interview quoted in The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936. “‘Tight Like That’ wasn’t no original tune,” Dorsey is quoted by William Barlow, “It was just something that popped up at the right time to make some money.” The song came about when Mayo Williams heard them playing with a tune, borrowed from a Papa Charley Jordan song, built around the then-popular catch phrase, “Tight Like That.” Williams loved it and insisted they record it right away.
The song’s popularity spawned a slew of imitators. Even Tampa and Georgia Tom recorded it. Samuel Charters called “It’s Tight Like That” the most over-recorded song of its time. It’s rapping, half-spoken style gave rise to a new musical category called hokum. Tampa and Georgia
Born Hudson Woodbridge in Southville, G A, January 8, 1904; parents John and Elizabeth Wood-bridge; following their death, raised with brother Eddie by grandmother, Annie Whittaker; adopted her last name; moved to Chicago in early 1920s; adopted the name Tampa Red; married Francis; died March 19, 1981.
Learned guitar as a boy; performed as a street musician in Tampa and Chicago; met pianist and composer Thomas Dorsey in Chicago around 1927-28; introduced by Dorsey to Paramount’s J. Mayo Smith; first recording “Through Train Blues,” 1928; with Thomas Dorsey (aka Georgia Tom), released a series of recordings beginning with million-seller “It’s Tight Like That;” played on records by Ma Rainey, Madilyn Davis, Lil Johnson, and Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, 1928-30; last Paramount session, May 7, 1932; signed by RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, 1934; remained with label until 1954, releasing hits like “Give It Up Buddy And Get Going,” “Mean Mistreater Blues,” “Anna Lee Blues,” “Don’t You Lie To Me,” “Give Me Mine Now,” “Cryin’ Won’t Help You,” and “Love Her With A Feeling;” “When Things Go Wrong With You (It Hurts Me Too)” last big hit, 1949; dropped by RCA, 1954.
Tom recorded for a while under the name “The Hokum Boys.” Their collaboration did much to establish the piano-guitar combo in blues. More important, it sealed Tampa’s future as a blues artist. He was in demand. In 1928 and 1929, besides making their own records, he and Georgia Tom appeared on recordings by Ma Rainey, Madilyn Davis, Lil Johnson, and female impersonator Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon.
In 1932 Dorsey abandoned blues for gospel music. The Depression was bottoming out too. It looked like Tampa’s career might be over. After the frantic recording of 1928-32, he did not have a single session between May 7, 1932 and March 22, 1934. Three events contributed to his resurrection: the repeal of Prohibition, the rise of the jukebox, and Lester Melrose taking over RCA Victor’s new Bluebird label. Jukeboxes provided cheap entertainment in the newly legal bars. Lester Melrose recognized their importance for record companies and made sure his artists were well represented in Chicago jukeboxes.
Melrose signed Tampa to a Bluebird contract in 1934. Bluebird was the RCA Victor budget line—its 78s cost only 35 cents, not seventy five cents like most others—and was affordable for the black blues audience. Before long, Tampa was one of Bluebird’s leading artists. He helped develop the smooth Bluebird sound, built on a stable of in-house musicians who played on most of the company’s releases. During a 20-year association with the label, Tampa recorded a variety of music standards (like “Nobody’s Sweetheart,”) boogie woogie (“Shake It Up A Little”), swing-flavored tunes (“Mr. Rhythm Man”), and, of course, blues (“Anna Mae Blues”).
Tampa became Lester Melrose’s right-hand man in Chicago. Tampa’s apartment on 35th and State became a meeting point for blues musicians visiting or living in Chicago, a kind of combination rehearsal hall and boarding house. “Melrose’d pay [Tampa] for the lodging,” Blind John Davis is quoted in Nothing But The Blues, “and Mrs. Tampa would cook for’em.” According to Muddy Waters, later the only way to a contract with Melrose was through Tampa Red.
By the 1940s Tampa’s sound had evolved a long way from the hokum of 1928. Cuts like “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” and “Mercy Mama Blues” have a much rougher, urban sound, that looks ahead to the blues of Sunnyland Slim and Muddy Waters. In fact, strains of Muddy can already be heard in 1934’s “King-fish Blues.” Only the smooth tunefulness of Tampa’s singing keeps some of these records from being as raw as any postwar blues. Twenty years after “It’s Tight Like That,” Tampa had another huge hit. 1949’s “When Things Go Wrong With You (It Hurts Me Too)” broke into the new Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart. The song’s insistent beat, the harmony singing in the chorus, the interplay of the guitar and piano, Tampa’s exquisite phrasing, the “dog” growls, the way the band abruptly cuts out in the last chorus, all combine to make a perfect blues record, as moving as Elmore James’s more famous cover version.
In 1954, Tampa’s wife Francis passed away. The loss devastated him. Afterwards, he was overcome by a drinking problem which, in William Barlow’s words, “left him virtually incapacitated.” Except for a brief “rediscovery,” he lived out the rest of his days in seclusion on the South Side of Chicago. He died in Chicago’s Central Nursing Home on March 19, 1981. He was buried—without a headstone—in Mt. Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, Illinois.
Tampa Red’s importance to the development of the blues is only now being recognized. RCA’s decision to release his complete Bluebird recording is contributing a great deal to this recognition. Tampa melded country blues with pop music and in doing so helped create the urban blues. He was one of the first bluesmen to use an electric guitar. He influenced most of the blues players who followed him. In an interview quoted in The Bluebird Recordings, Ry Cooder expressed the thought that Tampa’s influence went far beyond the blues: “I really think that it’s a straight line from Tampa Red to Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry, without a doubt.... Tampa Red changed it from rural music to commercial music.”
Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936, RCA, 1997.
Tampa Red: Bottleneck Guitar 1928-1937, Yazoo 1039, 1992.
Barlow, William, Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, 1989.
Charters, Samuel, The Country Blues, Da Capo, 1975.
Cohn, Lawrence, editor, Nothing But The Blues, Abbeville Press, 1993.
Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues, 1995.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Addtional information obtained from MarkHumphrey, Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936, liner notes.
—Gerald E. Brennan
Blues vocalist, musician
Although his name is rarely mentioned today among the pantheon of blues greats, Tampa Red was one of the most influential musicians in the history of the blues. He was one of the first bluesmen to migrate to Chicago, and he played a key role in the city's blues music scene for many years. "It's Tight Like That" and his other entertaining "hokum"-style hits recorded with pianist "Georgia Tom" Dorsey were important milestones in the transformation of the blues from a rural folk music to a form of modern urban entertainment. And he was the first African-American musician to record using a resonator-type Hawaiian steel guitar, introducing a new musical vocabulary to blues instrumental work. Tampa Red's importance was recognized by African-American audiences in his own time—he recorded some 335 78 rpm records, more than any other blues artist. Reissues have helped illuminate his recorded legacy, but he remains a blues artist ripe for rediscovery.
Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia, probably on January 8, 1904; he himself gave various birthdates to investigators. His parents, John and Elizabeth Woodbridge, died when he was young, and he and his brother Eddie were sent to live with a grandmother with a surname of Whittaker in Tampa, Florida. He took her family name for official purposes. The nickname that stuck once he went on the road came from the city of his upbringing combined with his light skin or the red hair some recalled (surviving black-and-white photographs seem to show him with dark hair). Tampa Red had his first lessons on the guitar from his brother, a local performer, and he picked up some pointers from a street musician named Piccolo Pete.
When blues recordings by Mamie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey began to hit the market in the early 1920s, Tampa Red, who could play guitar, piano, and kazoo, added more licks to his style and began to play in honky-tonks around Florida, going as far afield as St. Augustine. By the mid-1920s he had moved north to Chicago, anticipating a massive migration of blues musicians to the city's South Side. Soon he was performing on the streets and in the new bars that were springing up to serve blacks who had found work in Chicago's rail yards, slaughterhouses, and steel mills. He met another musician from the Southeast, pianist Tom Dorsey (unconnected with bandleader Tommy Dorsey), who called himself Georgia Tom. Dorsey had begun accompanying Rainey and other female blues artists on recordings, and he steered similar work toward Tampa Red.
In 1928 the pair was signed to the Paramount label by its canny talent scout, J. Mayo Williams, and the two immediately hit paydirt with the 78 rpm single "It's Tight Like That." The sound of the recording was something new in the world of the blues, distinct from either the raw emotion of the rural Southern guitar blues or the regal power of Bessie Smith and the other queens of the urban stage. Tampa Red's vocals were smooth, sly, and almost half-spoken as he rendered the song's mildly raunchy lyrics, put together from a slang expression of the day and bits of various earlier blues songs.
The record reputedly sold five million copies, and between 1928 and 1932 Tampa Red and Georgia Tom frequently toured and reentered the studio to record similar material such as "Sellin' That Stuff" and "No Matter How She Done It." The upbeat new style soon had its own name, hokum, and the pair sometimes recorded under the name of the Hokum Boys. Tampa Red himself enjoyed a varied performing and recording career, sometimes using other names such as Jimmy Eager or Honey Boy Smith. Some called him, "the guitar wizard," and blues historian Gérard Herzhaft opined in the Encyclopedia of the Blues that "when one listens again to his best recordings of 1928, their modernism is striking." His National-brand steel guitar was as influential as his vocals, and a host of other bluesmen, including Son House, Bukka (Booker) White, Bo Carter, Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen), Peetie Wheatstraw, and Scrapper (Francis Hillman) Blackwell, took up the instrument in the wake of his success.
Recording companies slashed their release schedules during the economic depression of the early 1930s, putting an end to the high-flying career of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom. Dorsey, in the wake of personal tragedy, renounced secular music and went on to a gospel career as Thomas A. Dorsey, composing "Peace in the Valley," "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," and other classic religious numbers. But Tampa Red bounced back in the blues field, signing with the budget-priced Bluebird label in 1934. With black record buyers suffering the effects of the depression, Tampa Red's 35-cent Bluebird discs (as opposed to 75 cents for a mainline RCA-label release) caught on fast. He branched out from straight blues, such as his standard "Anna Lou Blues," into swing, boogie, and other related styles.
Settling into a durable gig at Chicago's C&T Club in the late 1930s, Tampa Red played in various combinations with guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and pianist Big Maceo (Maceo Merriweather), among other up-and-coming blues musicians. The home of Tampa Red and his wife, Frances (for many years located near the corner of State and 35th streets in the heart of the South Side), was a frequent stop for aspiring blues musicians, especially because of his friendship with key blues producer Lester Melrose; the house also served as temporary lodging and rehearsal space for the up-and-comers who made Chicago blues a household phrase.
Tampa Red's popularity flowered anew after World War II as he worked with a new generation of young players, including pianist Sunnyland Slim (Albert Luandrew), at such clubs as the Purple Cat. In 1945 he signed with the RCA Victor label, an association that lasted through 1953. A new wave of influence from Tampa Red spread through the blues repertory as his 1949 hit "When Things Go Wrong for You (It Hurts Me Too)," a harbinger of a new emotional complexity in the blues, was famously covered by guitarist Elmore James. Other rising stars, including B.B. King and Robert Nighthawk, also covered Tampa Red's songs.
In 1953 Tampa Red's wife, Frances, died. He was hit hard emotionally, and his career suffered—she had also served as his business manager. His struggles with alcohol worsened, and several times in the late 1950s he was hospitalized several times. In the early 1960s he reemerged with a trio of albums on Chicago's Bluesville label, but the polish that had propelled his career for so long worked against him in the authenticity-prizing musical atmosphere of the 1960s. Living on the South Side, he eventually drifted out of music completely, and in 1974 he was placed in Chicago's Sacred Heart Nursing Home. He died penniless on March 19, 1981, in Chicago, and was buried in nearby Glenwood. Posthumous honors included induction into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and reissue of his complete recordings on Austria's Document label, but his contributions to the blues tradition remain imperfectly understood.
At a Glance …
Born Hudson Woodbridge on January 8, 1904 (an approximate date, as Woodbridge offered various dates) in Smithville, GA; married Frances; died on March, 19, 1981, in Chicago, IL.
Career: Street and club musician, Chicago, mid-1920s; teamed with Tom Dorsey as Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, 1928; Paramount label, recording artist, 1928; Vocalion label, recording artist, 1928-32; Bluebird label, recording artist, 1934; RCA Victor label, recording artist, 1945; odds jobs mostly outside of music industry, 1953-60; Bluesville label, recording artist, 1960.
Awards: Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, inducted 1981.
Don't Tampa with the Blues, Bluesville, 1961.
Don't Jive with Me, Bluesville, 1961.
How Long, Bluesville, 1963.
Complete Recorded Works, 15 vols., Document, 1991-93.
Bluebird Recordings, 1934-1936, Bluebird, 1997.
Essential, Classic Blues, 2001.
Blues: Slide Guitar Wizard, Chicago 1931-1946, Fremeaux & Associés, 2004.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 25, Gale, 1999.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, 2nd ed., trans. Brigitte Debord, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
"The History of the Blues Slide Guitar," South Australian Roots and Blues,www.sablues.org/features8.htm (July 15, 2007).
"Tampa Red," All Music Guide,www.allmusic.com (July 15, 2007).
"‘Tampa Red’ Whittaker," Georgia Encyclopedia,www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-1662 (July 15, 2007).