He was known as “the man with the gold guitar.” Tampa Red picked up a National Tricone as soon as they hit the market in 1928. And was it ever a guitar—the other Nationals were nickel-silver. His was gold.
And on that guitar Red summoned up a new bottleneck style. Single-string solos with a unique, polished sound. And those solos were loud. With the power of three resonator cones in his National Tricone he cut through the poor recording quality of the day.
Tampa’s playing is on records by Ma Rainey, Lil Johnson and Georgia Tom Dorsey. Big names with big sounds.
And his originals went on to be favorites too. Tampa Red wrote both the bawdy My Black Angel, and the tender It Hurts Me Too, made famous by Elmore James and inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame as a critical track in music history.
Here it is. The first black studio guitarist on his own. Tampa Red from 1938. Check out how modern this sounds. Can’t believe it was recorded before the war. Love Her With a Feeling—
Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge on January 8, 1904 in Smithville, Georgia. After his parents died when he was a young child, he moved to Tampa, Florida with his aunt and took her last name, Whittaker.
Tampa perfected a bottleneck slide technique, and moved to Chicago, Illinois to begin his career as a blues musician. He changed his name to Tampa Red—Tampa after his hometown in Florida, and Red after the light color of his skin.
Tampa was hired to accompany Ma Rainey, and he fell in with a group of hokum players, including gospel guitarist Georgia Tom Dorsey. In 1928, Tampa became the first African-American to record on a National Guitar, a gold-plated Tricone that earned him the nickname “The Man with the Gold Guitar.”
Tampa Red played in juke-joints, vaudeville theaters, street corners and clubs. He cut over 90 sides with Georgia Tom as the Hokum Boys, and with Frankie Jaxon as Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band. When his partnership with Dorsey ended in 1932, he remained in high-demand as a session musician, before hitting it big with Tampa Red and the Chicago Five. Working with Victor records, he and his band developed what is known as “the Bluebird Sound”—a precursor to jump blues and rock n’ roll. While living in Chicago, he formed a lasting friendship with Big Bill Broonzy. According to Broonzy, Tampa Red helped a number of country bluesmen transition to life in Chicago, opening up his home to musicians new to the city.
By 1942, he had begun to play an electric guitar, and had written countless blues standards. He wrote the classics, often attributed to Elmore James, “It Hurts Me Too” and “My Black Angel”—songwriting skills to stand the test of time. He continued to record throughout the forties and early fifties. But then his wife died in 1953, and he was unable to recover from the loss. He slipped into a depression fueled by alcoholism. Though he returned briefly to the stage in the ‘60’s for the folk revival, it was short lived. He died in 1981 in Chicago.