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Tampa Red: Dynamite! The Unsung King Of The Blues

The influential electric blues pioneer, adept in slide guitar and kazoo.

One of the most successful, influential and prolific artists in his heyday, Hudson Whittaker’s (aka Tampa Red) importance in the development of post-war blues is somewhat forgotten. That he recorded hokum and pop alongside urban blues and favoured the kazoo on many recordings in preference to his slide guitar probably explains modern blues experts’ undervaluing of his catalogue, but this excellent compilation should hopefully lead to a positive reassessment.

Tampa achieved his debut hit in 1928 with the ribald hokum It’s Tight Like That in collaboration with pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey, which sold over half a million copies, and it was followed by several more successes on the Vocalion and Bluebird labels in the ensuing years. This set, however, containing 50 tracks (five of which are previously unreleased), concentrates on his later career at Bluebird and RCA Victor, spanning the years 1941 to 1953, when he continually updated his style, blueprinted several future blues standards and worked with some of Chicago’s finest musicians.

BB King was clearly listening to Tampa in this period as he covered several of the songs here, including the jump blues She’s Dynamite, Tampa’s slide guitar showcase Green And Lucky Blues and the piano-dominated Crying Won’t Help You. Tampa’s update of his earlier Black Angel Blues, entitled Sweet Little Angel, was also tackled by King.

Similarly, Tampa’s superb 1949 remake of his 1940 recording It Hurts Me Too, in a contemporary Chicago blues style with electric guitar and renamed When Things Go Wrong With You, provides the basis for Elmore James’ various famed versions under the original title. While James wisely dropped the kazoo, he worked extensively with Little Johnny Jones, whose piano playing shines on Tampa’s version. Jones, bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Odie Payne are the red-hot trio that back Tampa on the majority of the tracks here and both Jones and Payne went on to join James’ Broomdusters. 1950’s Love Her With A Feelin’, later covered by Freddie King, is another updated Chicago blues remake, this time of Tampa’s 1938 hit Love With A Feeling, and has Tampa playing fine slide.

Tampa had a fruitful relationship with pianists, and the magnificent playing of Big Maceo Merriweather features on 13 tracks including Tampa’s Let Me Play With Your Poodle, covered by Lightnin’ Hopkins among many others, and Big Maceo’s own Texas Stomp, on which Tampa talks and guests on guitar.

Ever willing to adapt to the latest trends, Tampa added horns for two 1947 sessions, the swinging Keep Jumping proving particularly effective. Sonny Boy Williamson II, recording in Chicago for the first time, blows expressive harp on a September 1953 session that reflects the influence of Chess Records’ success, Williamson’s soulful wailing meshing well with Tampa’s vocals. A session from December of the same year features the considerable talent of another harmonica ace, Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton, with a rocking, unissued take of Evalena really cooking.

Tampa Red’s recordings reflect the changing styles of Chicago blues and he deserves to be celebrated as a godfather of the post-war scene.