Also known as “the Guitar Wizard,” the blues musician Tampa Red was a master of the slide guitar and one of the most prominent figures of the Chicago, Illinois, blues scene during the 1930s and 1940s. Though little known today, he was a popular and influential performer whose recording career extended from 1928 to 1960.
Born Hudson Woodbridge on January 8, 1904, in Smithville, Georgia, he was raised in Tampa, Florida, by his grandmother’s family, the Whittakers, whose name he adopted. He was already known as Tampa Red when he arrived in Chicago in the mid-1920s, fresh from the southern theater circuit. He worked a day job but played guitar on street corners and in clubs, looking for a break.
It came when he was hired to accompany Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, through whom he met pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey. In 1928 Tampa Red and Georgia Tom recorded “It’s Tight Like That.” A jaunty, ragtime-influenced number with whimsically bawdy lyrics, it was a national hit on the Vocalion label. Tampa Red and Dorsey recorded several successful follow-up songs as the Hokum Boys, and the “hokum” style became a depression-era fad.
Such early recordings demonstrate Tampa Red’s already sophisticated slide guitar technique. Playing a metal-bodied National Tricone guitar and sliding a bottleneck along the strings, he created a clear and pure sound, marked by deft single-string solos. His session work appears on many recordings by other artists, including Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Minnie. His urbane musicianship stood in sharp contrast to earlier slide-guitar blues and would help set the direction for the postwar style.
Following the repeal of prohibition in 1933, venues for blues music proliferated in Chicago, and Tampa Red became one of the city’s hottest live acts, often with the backing of his band, the Chicago Five. With his close friends Big Bill Broonzy and Lester Melrose, a producer for Bluebird Records, Tampa Red was a leader of the Chicago scene. His wife, Frances, acted as his business manager, and their home became an informal boarding house, booking agency, and rehearsal space, where many newcomers to the city found encouragement and support.
By 1940 Tampa Red had made the transition to electric guitar, and he reached the top ten on the rhythm-and-blues chart several times in the postwar period. His 1949 song “When Things Go Wrong with You (It Hurts Me Too)” became a signature tune for the artist Elmore James. Robert Nighthawk, Fats Domino, and B. B. King also scored hits with cover versions of his songs.
His wife’s death in 1953 was a blow from which Tampa Red never recovered. He had always been a heavy drinker, and his alcoholism became acute. Like many of his contemporaries, he was “rediscovered” by a new audience in the late 1950s. He went back into the studio in 1960, but his final recordings were undistinguished. He died destitute in Chicago on March 19, 1981, and was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame the same year. He is buried in Glenwood, Illinois.