Tampa Red, born Hudson Woodbridge was a Florida based bluesman. Born in 1904, he was a virtuoso guitarist, his unrivalled ‘bottleneck’ playing would go on to inspire other artists from Big Bill Broonzy to Muddy Waters.
Originally born in Smithville, Georgia, Tampa Red relocated to Tampa, Florida at an early age after his parents died. Here he was raised by his aunt and grandmother, taking their surname Whittaker. Red was inspired to play guitar at a young age by his brother as well as by a local street musician named, Piccolo Pete. Pete would teach a young Red blues licks on the guitar and it was here that he started his path as a musician. It’s easy to imagine Red as a child, sat next to a mangrove tree picking at his guitar. The mangroves large roots surrounding him as he practiced the licks he’d been taught. The trees and vegetation native to Florida is unique in many ways.
By the 1920s Red had perfected his trademark slide technique and decided to move to Chicago to peruse a career as a musician. He adopted the name ‘Tampa Red’ after his childhood home and the color of his hair. Red was invited to accompany blues legend, Ma Rainey and in 1928 he began recording ‘hokum’ songs. Red’s early recordings were made predominantly with Thomas A. Dorsey (known as Georgia Tom) and they would often play under the name ‘The Hokum Boys’, recording almost 90 sides together.
Tampa Red was the first black musician to play a National steel-bodied resonator guitar, the loudest guitar available before amplification. This guitar helped cement Red’s distinctive sound, shying away from block chords he would often play single string runs and earned the nickname, ‘The Blues Wizard’. Red’s partnership with Dorsey would end in 1932 but he continued working as a high demand session musician, working with artists such as Memphis Minnie and his friend, Big Maceo.
In 1934 Red signed to Victor Records and would also form a band of session musicians known as the Chicago Five, creating what was known as the ‘Bluebird sound’. Red enjoyed commercial success and was generally financially stable throughout his working life. He became a key player in the blues community and would informally provide rehearsal spaces and lodgings for touring musicians arriving in Chicago from the Mississippi Delta.
By the 1940s Tampa Red had traded in his National steel for an electric guitar and in 1942 scored a #4 hit with ‘Let Me Play With Your Poodle’. Red enjoyed a renewed interest in his music during the 1950s like many other blues artists of the time, taking his music to a whole new generation of listeners, many across the Atlantic.
Unfortunately after his wife’s passing in 1953, Red became and alcoholic and his health gradually deteriorated. Tampa Red recorded his last session in 1960 and died in Chicago in 1981. During his recording career he not only received commercial success but also influenced a slew of artists that would go on themselves to shape the way music sounds the way it does today.