Tampa Red is best known as an accomplished and influential blues guitarist who had a unique single string slide style. His songwriting and his silky, polished “bottleneck” technique influenced other leading Chicago blues guitarists, such as Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Nighthawk, as well as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Mose Allison and many others. In a career spanning over 30 years he also recorded pop, R&B and hokum records. His best known recordings include the classic compositions ‘Anna Lou Blues’, ‘Black Angel Blues’, ‘Crying Won’t Help You’, ‘It Hurts Me Too’, and ‘Denver Blues’.
Some of the earliest work (1928-1934) by the slide guitar great, ranging from the irresistible hokum he served up with piano-playing partner “Georgia Tom” Dorsey (“Dead Cats on the Line,” “No Matter How She Done It”) to the gorgeous “Black Angel Blues” (eventually known as “Sweet Little Angel”) and the solo guitar masterpieces “Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way” and “Denver Blues.”
In the 1920s having already perfected his slide technique he moved to Chicago, Illinois, and began his career as a musician, adopting the name ‘Tampa Red’ from his childhood home and light colored skin. His big break was being hired to accompany Ma Rainey and he began recording in 1928 with “It’s Tight Like That”, in a bawdy and humorous style that became known as “hokum”. Early recordings were mostly collaborations with Thomas A. Dorsey, known at the time as Georgia Tom. Tampa Red and Georgia Tom recorded almost 90 sides, sometimes as “The Hokum Boys” or, with Frankie Jaxon, as “Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band”.
In 1928, Tampa Red became the first black musician to play a National steel-bodied resonator guitar, the loudest and showiest guitar available before amplification, acquiring one in the first year they were available. This allowed him to develop his trademark bottleneck style, playing single string runs, not block chords, which was a precursor to later blues and rock guitar soloing. The National guitar he used was a gold-plated tricone, which was found in Illinois in the 1990s by music shop owner and guitarist Randy Clemens and later sold to the “Experience Music Project” in Seattle. Tampa Red was known as “The Man With The Gold Guitar”, and, into the 1930s, he was billed as “The Guitar Wizard”.