June 29, 2015
Today is the release date for Ace Records' double CD set, Dynamite! The Unsung King of the Blues. I wrote the main liner notes for this set and John Broven contributed the introductory notes. This is the fourth Tampa Red album I have annotated and I am working on putting all my Tampa Red research together for a book.
By request I am posting the liner notes from the 1975 double LP on RCA Bluebird to complement the new notes (which deal mostly with other facets of Tampa's career, focusing mostly on his postwar recordings with Little Johnnie Jones on piano.). I have not altered the original text but at the end I have added footnotes with updated information.
Tampa Red: Guitar Wizard , RCA AXM2-5501
Liner notes by Jim O'Neal (1974-75)
Few figures have been as important in blues history as Tampa Red; yet no bluesman of such stature has been so ignored or misunderstood by today's blues audience. As composer, recording artist, musical trendsetter and one of the premier urban blues guitarists of his day, Tampa Red remained popular with black record buyers for more than 20 years and exerted considerable influence on many post-World War II blues stars who earned greater acclaim for playing Tampa's songs than Tampa himself often did.
But more than two decades have passed since Tampa played an active role on the Chicago blues scene. Personal tragedies and a desire to stay in a somewhat secluded retirement have long kept him out of sight. To the general music public, he's a forgotten man. Several magazines and newspapers have reported him dead, and many of the musicians who knew him also assume he's either dead or hopelessly insane. Only a few of his closest friends, like pianists Sunnyland Slim, Blind John Davis and Little Brother Montgomery, have stayed in touch with him over the years. They still know him as the quiet, polite, easy-going little man he always was. But because he was at times in a mental hospital and because of other musicians' stories of Tampa jumping out of a window, threatening to leap from a rooftop and setting fire to his bed, a distorted image of Tampa as a mindlessly belligerent hermit has emerged. To top it off, the most widely circulated description of Tampa during his playing days— Brother John Sellers' assertion that Tampa was "ready to fight...he used to be a mess in his day" published in Paul Oliver's Conversation with the Blues book and again in Mike Rowe's Chicago Breakdown— seems completely at odds with all recent statements by Tampa's other musical associates.
Blind John Davis, pianist on many of Tampa's recording sessions in the '30s and '40s, admits that when it came to music, "Tampa was a very temperamental person. Whatever he wanted done, it had to be done just like he did it or else you didn't work with Tampa. And I could do anything he wanted, and we got along." Tampa had to be particular about his musical accompaniment, Davis says, because "at that time Tampa Red wrote the most difficult stuff of those blues players." But personally, he says, "he was a great person. And I love him today."
Far from being "ready to fight," according to Mississippi guitarist Big Joe Williams, Tampa "was about the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. No argument he didn't believe in nothin' like that. He used to keep the peace all the time." In fact, Big Joe is convinced to this day that he would have murdered Big Bill Broonzy during an argument in Chicago in the 1940s had not Tampa interceded. "Couldn't nobody stop me but Tampa," he recalls. "I never would have stopped. Couldn't nobody talk to me but him."
"Tampa was a very quiet man," agrees drummer Odie Payne, Jr., who recorded on all of Tampa's last sessions. "He didn't raise his voice." Letha Jones*, widow of Tampa's last pianist, Johnnie Jones, adds, "Tampa was always a nice, sweet person. Always was nice to everybody. He was devoted to his wife. He never did like to see people argue or fight, you know. He was a good-goin' fellow." Tampa's original piano-playing partner, Thomas Dorsey (Georgia Tom), reiterates, "He was a good-hearted fellow. Never was in any trouble as I know of.... He was very calm at all times.... He never fought about money." In his autobiography Big Bill Blues, Bill Broonzy described Tampa in much the same way.
As for Tampa himself, he is succinct as usual when questioned: "No, I didn't like to see all the arguin' and fightin'."
Tampa's mental problems, his friends agree, were brought on mainly by the death of his wife Frances some 19 years ago.** Frances—or "Mrs. Tampa" as many knew her—played a much larger part in Tampa's life and musical career than outsiders realize, and when she died and left him with no one the loss was too much for Tampa to handle. Today, however Tampa lives quietly with his 81-year-old companion Effie Tolbert on Chicago's South Side, and seems as calm and gracious as he apparently has been for most of his life. Still, music is a thing of the past to him. He enjoys hearing his old records, but his memory is vague when it comes to specific details of his career and events of the past 20 years or so literally mean almost nothing to him. Gradually he has told bits and pieces of his story, and his friends have helped fill in the rest.
Tampa Red, whose real name was Hudson Woodbridge, was born in Smithville, Georgia, but his exact age is uncertain as he has given at least four different birth dates at various times: Dec. 25,1900; Jan. 8, 1903 and 1904; and his present claim of Dec. 25,1908. Birth records were not kept during those years in Georgia's Lee County, either, but Georgia Tom Dorsey, who was born in 1899 and knew Tampa long before most musicians did, believes Tampa to be about five years his junior. Tampa's parents, John and Elizabeth Woodbridge, died when he was young, and he was raised mainly in Tampa Florida, with his grandmother's family, the Whittakers. He has used the name Hudson Whittaker ever since, but was already known as Tampa Red well before his recording debut in 1928.
Some of his early musical inspiration came from his older brother Eddie, who kept a guitar around the house, and a local musician named Piccolo Pete, but Tampa says he learned and developed his own style by himself. Hawaiian steel guitar music was in vogue then, and by using the neck of a bottle to fret the strings, he came up with his own clean, clear ringing blues sound, which later earned him the title "The Guitar Wizard." "Eddie didn't play the type that I play, "Tampa recalls. "He played fingerwork, just straight guitar. He played Spanish style, just natural chords."
Tampa injured his foot in a boyhood bicycling accident, and still complains about his foot today. But that apparently didn't hamper his travels much, as various bluesmen have recalled seeing him in St. Augustine, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, Clarksdale, Mississippi; Forrest City, Arkansas; East St. Louis, Illinois, and other towns during the '20s and '30s. Arriving in Chicago in his early teens, Tampa met Georgia Tom around 1925, and a few years later they had become one of the most popular black recording teams of that era. They traveled the old Theater Owners Booking Association theater circuit, Tom remembers: "We played Memphis, I think Louisville, down to Nashville; we was down in Tennessee, or in Mississippi just across the line. We recorded in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel (in 1929), and I left him down in Memphis and he got another week's play at the Palace Theater there. They liked him so well they hired him there with just he and the guitar." The T.O.B.A. shows and the other places they played weren't "big time," however, according to Tom. They often played around Chicago for just two, three or four dollars a night. "We played just anywhere," Tom says. "Party, theater, dance hall, juke joint. All black. See, we wasn't high-powered enough. Other fellows who were in the high music echelon got those jobs with the whites. The money was bigger up there."
Tampa also enjoyed playing on the streets for spare change, but Dorsey, as a pianist wanted nothing to do with that. Tampa worked the streets by himself with his famed National steel guitar, occasionally joined by other street musicians like Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, who hoboed in and out of Chicago on the freight trains. Tampa had an electric guitar early in the game, too, as Estes remembers: "Me and Hammie were goin' down the street here at 51st & State, and we were drunk, and we hadn't been used to no electric guitar then. And he opened that thing up!" Tampa's electric blues sound was something new at the time, but Hammie adds, "He played blues and he played some kind of love songs, too."
Tampa in fact could play many types of music, as his records demonstrated over the years from the "Hokum Jug Band" style of his early days with Vocalion Records to the pop, ballad and jive tunes he later waxed for Bluebird, in addition to numerous blues numbers, most of which he wrote himself. "I could play church songs, too," Tampa says, "I could do that now. But I never did no recordings of church songs, because I was playing the blues and that's what the companies wanted. I can play some piano, you know—ragtime, a little blues. But guitar was my main thing, playin' Tight Like That and Sell My Monkey. I could do more with the guitar than I could with the piano because there was plenty of piano players, you know what I mean, who could really play the thing."
Tampa and Georgia Tom began recording for Vocalion in 1928, under the direction of J. Mayo "Ink" Williams, a one-time college All-American football star who for many years was the most important black man in the recording industry. Tampa had recorded one song for Paramount a few months earlier, but it was his first Vocalion record, the Whittaker-Dorsey collaboration It's Tight Like That, which really set his career in motion." Tight Like That went just about to the four corners of the United States," Big Joe Williams testifies. "Went through both races, white and black. You'd hear little kids mumblin' it everywhere you went." Tampa and Tom followed up with dozens more records on Vocalion during the next four years, writing songs together and usually recording as a duo, although up to six people were present at some sessions. Tom says the larger groups were only for recordings, however, not for live performances: "See we'd throw a recording bunch together in 30 minutes." Tampa never learned to read music, so Tom would take care of the musical manuscripts. Though Mayo Williams claims that "Dorsey was the brains of the outfit" the lyrics and music would come from either or both partners. Outside the studio they worked around town either as a team or separately, depending on how tight the money was, seldom joined by their frequent session vocalist Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, a nightclub entertainer who belonged to the "high music echelon," according to Dorsey.
Whatever echelon Tampa Red and Georgia Tom belonged to, they were doing very well by blues standards, as neither had to look for employment outside of music. "The last job I had was about 1917," Dorsey says, "and I never known Tampa to have a job, unless it was playing music somewhere. Every time you see him, he had his guitar. He got along somehow. Tampa lived a number of places, here and there—that way he'd get a easy livin', free room. We did our work together, and as soon as the work was over we went our different ways, and I never did see him again until he'd come to my house for rehearsal. If Tampa had a girlfriend or somethin', she picked him up, he went on with her. Tampa married all the time—he'd say he'd been married a dozen times! I don't know."
Musicians who knew Tampa in his Bluebird/Victor days recall him as a much more settled man, and they only remember one wife, Frances. But Tampa concurs with Dorsey about the earlier years. He never held a regular job—"Well, not to amount to anything," he says. "I was just what you'd call a playboy. I'd get out and get all the drink I wanted, and I'd play a tune on the piano and if there was a guitar there I'd play a few tunes on that. And they just wanted me to go with 'em to a lot of places. I've been around."
The early 1930s brought several changes in Tampa's career. Georgia Tom, feeling that blues was on the wane, quite accurately saw that the gospel songwriting and publishing fields were ripe for exploitation, and dropped out of the more strenuous blues circuit to go on to a lucrative worldwide gospel fame. Today Thomas A. Dorsey is perhaps best known as the composer of Precious Lord, and in between accepting honorary degrees from various colleges and speaking before audiences around the world, he still preaches and leads a choral group in his Chicago church.
Tampa launched a 20-year career with Biuebird/Victor in 1934, in the company of a new pianist, Black Bob. With Dorsey gone and with Mayo Williams employed by another label, Frances took charge of much of Tampa's financial and musical management, and Tampa developed close ties with Bluebird producer Lester Melrose as well. Tampa's cross-country musical junkets virtually ceased***, and he never even recorded outside of the Chicago area again after a 1932 trip to New York. In the late '30s he found steady work playing at a club called the H&T just across the street from his home at 3432 S. State St. Blind John Davis, who met Tampa in 1936, remembers, "Tampa's the onliest man I know could close his eyes and run across the street and run right into his job. And he worked there for about eight or nine years."
At the H&T Tampa usually worked solo, accompanying himself on guitar and "jazz horn" (kazoo). His kazoo appeared much more often on records from '34 on than on the earlier sessions with Dorsey, who'd always tried to discourage Tampa from using the odd instrument. Without doubt, however, Tampa became the most popular blues kazooist of all time—for what that's worth—and he did inspire a number of other musicians to blow their own "jazz horns." Sometimes a second guitarist, Willie B. James, played with Tampa at the H&T and other clubs, and occasionally there were piano players, like Joshua Altheimer and someone called "Forty Five," **** followed in the 1940s by Big Maceo, Sunnyland Slim and Johnnie Jones. But, as before, the larger bands which appeared on many of Tampa's Bluebird records were strictly session groups, called together by Lester Melrose. Even Blind John Davis, who was Tampa's steady studio pianist for many years, rarely worked on Tampa's club dates, as he had a touring band of his own.
But Blind John and all the rest were at Tampa's house incessantly, for the Whittaker residence had become THE blues center of Chicago—not just a rehearsal room but a blues hostel, where Bluebird would send artists from St. Louis Indianapolis or elsewhere. In fact, nearly every blues artist who recorded in Chicago for Bluebird or Victor during the '30s and '40s must have either stayed at Tampa's or at least rehearsed there. "The house went all the way from the front to the alley," Blind John says. "He had a big rehearsal room, and he had two rooms for the different artists that come in from out of town to record. Melrose'd pay him for the lodging, and Mrs. Tampa would cook for 'em."
Tampa is modest about his role as blues host. "It was kind of a home for'em," he says. "I'd get around with 'em, take 'em little places until they finally learn to get about theirself and know where to come on back. And they was all right. They was some good fellows."
Big Joe Williams is more emphatic: "Every blues artist who come to Chicago stayed at Tampa's! And if one say he didn't, tell him he's lyin'! Every one from Big Bill to Memphis Slim. Me and Charley Jordan sent a many one up here from St. Louis. Even Walter Davis come to Tampa's, and Willie Dixon. I sent Doctor Clayton up here, him and Robert Jr. Lockwood. I booked 'em on a freight train to Tampa's house. Tampa was good about it. He'd sit down and talk with you, nice. He tried to give you the right advice about anything. If you didn't have no money, his wife'd cook a pot and you'd eat right at home. It's a many a one got on record from Tampa Red. I don't know whether they give him credit, but I always will."
Some of the other bluesmen who stayed or rehearsed at Tampa's included John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Washboard Sam, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Romeo Nelson, Big Maceo Merriweather, Bill Gaither (Leroy's Buddy), Johnnie Jones, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Red Mike Bailey, Jazz Gillum, and the man who more than anyone else carried on Tampa's bottleneck guitar sound, Robert Nighthawk. Despite the continual presence of scores of such musicians over the years, Tampa wasn't one for joining in and jamming, according to Big Joe. "Sometime he and Big Bill'd get to drinkin' and playin' after they'd have a record date," he says. "Otherwise Tampa didn't do nothin' but sit back and watch people and have fun and drink, or stay up in his room and drink. He'd sit around and sleep all day and then go play at the H&T." In the daytime Tampa also liked to ride his bicycle or go fishing with Big Bill or other friends.
"Him and Blind John and Big Bill, they was three buddies, you understand," Big Joe points out. "You'd never get in on their rehearsals, though No, no. Nobody'd get in on their rehearsal."
Some musicians who did get in on Tampa's rehearsals were those he recorded with as "Tampa Red and The Chicago Five"—Charlie Idsen, Arnett Nelson, Bill Settles, Willie B. James and various others. While the Chicago Five sessions were apparently Melrose's idea,-the songs themselves—blues or otherwise—were Tampa's own. "You don't tell Tampa what to do on his songs," Blind John insists. "He'd write 'em out his way and then Mrs. Tampa would write 'em over. I used to be in his house every day the Lord sent, and sometimes he'd be up to three or four o'clock in the morning, writin'. He wrote quite a few things. Well, I tell you, if you want the truth: Tampa was writin' some stuff back in those days that the people call rock 'n' roll now. Yeah."
The number of pop songs that Tampa recorded has inspired some speculation that many of the Chicago Five discs may have been aimed at a white audience. Whether they were or not, Tampa remained a big name in the black community, especially when he came up with hits like Let Me Play with Your Poodle and She Want to Sell My Monkey, both recorded at a '42 session with Big Maceo on piano. Tampa, who had accompanied several other singers on Vocalion sessions, rarely worked as a sideman with Bluebird, but he did play guitar on Maceo's classic Worried Life Blues in 1941. That Melrose recognized Tampa's versatility and adaptability is clear from the variety of settings Tampa recorded in. Half a session might be pop tunes with the Chicago Five, the other half might be straight blues with just one or two accompanists. Tampa recorded on piano, he did guitar duets with Willie B., he did a whole session by himself in 1940, and his Chicago Five performed blues as well as ballads, dance tunes and good-time jive. Bluebird obviously saw possibilities for Tampa in markets other than blues, since occasionally one of Tampa's songs would be issued with material by groups like Boots and His Buddies or Jimmy Gunn's Orchestra on the flip side. On other records Tampa might have one side and a fellow bluesman like Walter Davis or Little Brother Montgomery would appear on the reverse.
In all, Tampa recorded well over 200 titles for Bluebird and Victor between 1934 and 1953. He was making a good living from music, and looking back, he has no complaints about his dealings with Melrose and Victor: "They was nice to me. I'll say that for 'em. In fact all of 'em I recorded for was nice to me." He continued to supplement his recording income by working steadily in places like the Club Georgia, the Flame Club, Sylvio's,***** the Purple Cat, the 708 Club, the Zanzibar, the Peacock and the C&T Lounge—all black clubs on Chicago's South and West sides; still a solid bluesman above all else, Tampa never did make it into the better-paying black Chicago circuit of big, sophisticated nightclubs, fancy show lounges, ballrooms and theaters. His records were extremely popular with southern blacks, but Tampa never took to the road in later years, preferring to remain with his wife at home and continue with his calm pleasant lifestyle. Tampa explains, "Lots of times they wanted me to go places. I wouldn't go, 'cause I could go along with it so far, you know— only when I get tired, I want to feel just like I'm at home. You can't do that when you're travelin'. Well, that wasn't all of it, but—" and he stops, leaving the sentence unfinished.
Any of Tampa's friends could finish that statement but Tampa doesn't seem to want to dredge up painful memories. From all accounts, Frances Whittaker was Tampa's strength and his life force, and for whatever personal and psychological reasons Tampa had, he couldn't bear to be away from her—as her death so tragically proved in the mid-1950s. "Mrs. Tampa looked over him like a race horse," Big Joe Williams says. "You just couldn't get Tampa and carry him anywhere. She didn't want you to have too much about Tampa's business, you know. A fact of business, she was a mother and a father to him both in a way of speakin'. Now, if you had anything you wanted to know about Tampa, you asked her, because she didn't allow nobody questionin' him too much. I could get along with her' cause she was kinda crabby and then I was too. But she was all right." Guitarist Honeyboy Edwards agrees: "She would mostly handle him just like a baby. She didn't want him associatin' too much, but she was a nice woman." Other descriptions are remarkably similar: she was "his heart and backbone" (Blind John Davis) "his backbone— because she would take care of everything; all he would do was play his guitar, eat and sleep" (Odie Payne, Jr.); "mother and God to him both" (Sunnyland Slim).
Frances had a heart condition; perhaps partly because of that and partly because of his own health, Tampa was slowing down by the mid to late 1940s. His records showed that he was still on top of things—he was right there swinging with horns when big-band jump blues were in fashion, and he had the boogie numbers down, too; even on his last Victor sessions he had adapted to the mainstream '50s Chicago blues sound with featured harmonica backing from Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Big Walter Horton. He was following trends, but setting them too with numbers that many other bluesmen were to re-record in later years. But outside the studio things were changing. Less frequently was Tampa a solo act; Big Maceo teamed with him for a while, and after Maceo suffered a stroke, Sunnyland Slim filled in until Maceo's protege Johnnie Jones took over on piano. By now Tampa also had added support from a drummer, Odie Payne, Jr., and Johnnie would sing about half the numbers when he, Tampa, and Odie worked at the Peacock and the C&T in 1949. Johnnie also sang lead or backup on at least a dozen of Tampa's later records. Odie would drive Tampa and Johnnie to and from the clubs, as Tampa no longer had a car, and, according to Odie, "He walked very slow."
Finally, Letha Jones says, "Tampa stopped having a band. I think he got sick or he got tired, he kept saying he was gonna retire. He quit playing out in the clubs. He'd say he was going fishing and he was tired of the night life." Tampa was still living at 34th & State with Frances and their pet dogs, cats and pigeons, and Odie, Johnnie and bassist Ransom Knowling continued to rehearse for Tampa's sessions there. "Little Odie" and "Little Johnnie," as Tampa called his young accompanists, had since teamed with guitarist L. C. McKinley and later with Elmore James, and in the '50s Tampa was seldom active in the clubs. But Victor kept recording him, probably remembering not only his big hits of the '30s and early '40s, but also his 1949 number When Things Go Wrong with You (It Hurts Me Too), which briefly made the national rhythm-and-blues charts. But Chicago blues had changed since Tampa's heyday, and the blues hits of the early '50s were reserved for relative newcomers like Muddy Waters Little Walter, Eddie Boyd and Willie Mabon.
There were no more Victor sessions for Tampa after '53, and his retirement now seemed almost total. But if he had plans for a peaceful retired life with Frances, living off his old record royalties, such plans were doomed. Perhaps Tampa knew what was coming when he recorded a poignant blues called Please Mr. Doctor under a pseudonym for the Sabre label in '53. The lyrics included the lines, "Please, Mr. Doctor, get my baby well again/She's too good a woman to be in the shape she's in;/... I been sittin' here drinkin', tryin' to get her off my mind/But how can a man be happy when the one he love is slowly dyin';/ She's so kind and lovin', sweet as any gal can be/lf I should lose that woman, it's bound to be the death of me."
When Frances did die a couple of years later**, it almost was the death of Tampa. He drank more and more and after various incidents ended up in a mental hospital. "After his wife passed, then he kinda got so he couldn't remember things," Letha Jones explains. "It was a shock to him —he never got out of it really." Tom Dorsey, who has kept in sporadic touch with Tampa through the years, adds, "Tampa let 'em run him down. He wouldn't get his rest like he should. Man, I think of 'way back in them days, Tampa wasn't an excessive drinker but he'd fool around and he'd get in one of them places where they didn't pay you much. All you got was all the liquor you could drink and a good-lookin' woman to fan you. Well, that kinda place they'll keep pourin' it to you, pourin' it to you, if you go in there. I sent him two or three or four or five letters, 'Tamp, you got to take care of yourself a little better.' "
Tampa has his own version, which he feels compelled to tell visitors— in fact it's often hard to get him to talk about anything else. He says that free drinks from well-meaning friends were the problem: "I got sick and had a nervous breakdown. Well, I did it myself. You know, the people's good, and you try to be friends with 'em. You drink some with this one and some with that one, you know. Oh, it was too much of the stuff, see. You can't hold up to 'em. But you try to be nice to 'em. And I just messed around and I overdone it. I drank too much."
By 1960 Tampa was in better shape and was able to record two solo LPs for Prestige/Bluesville, and the next year he traveled to San Francisco to play at Sugar Hill on a bill with folk singer Barbara Dane. But "the blues revival" among white audiences didn't mean much to Tampa. He still had no great interest in returning to music and in fact turned down subsequent offers to record. He had little to say to writers who were able to find him and interview him, and he hardly kept up with music at all. Even now he has a hard time remembering that Big Bill, Johnnie Jones, Lester Melrose and many other friends from the old days are dead. And he seems not at all aware of how often his songs have been recorded by other artists, nor of all the royalty money he should have earned had the various record companies, singers and producers been honest enough to list "Hudson Whittaker" as composer.
Even in his performing days, his songs were getting around. Robert Nighthawk took Tampa's Cryin' Won't Help You, Anna Lou Blues and Black Angel Blues (later to become Sweet Little Angel) south with him to sing on his Helena, Arkansas, KFFA radio program, and later recorded all three numbers himself, changing some of the titles to Annie Lee— which later turned up as Anna Lee on an Elmore James record—and Sweet Black Angel. Nighthawk's cousin Houston Stackhouse, also broadcasting on KFFA, learned these songs as well, and though he had never met Tampa, Stackhouse had been performing a note-for-note rendition of Tampa's 1929 ragtime-blues piece, What's That Tastes Like Gravy? There were probably hundreds of other bluesmen in the South and in Chicago and St. Louis who were singing Tampa's songs in the '30s and '40s, but not until the '50s did many cover versions start appearing on record. Sweet Little Angel (which Tampa claims as his even though an earlier, little-known version was recorded by Lucille Bogan) became a smash, of course, for B. B. King and has since been recorded many times over. B. B. also recorded Cryin' Won't Help You, Elmore James and several others cut It Hurts Me Too, and Tampa's Don't You Lie to Me was waxed by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. In addition, Tampa's Love Her with a Feeling has been reworked by Freddy King, Junior Wells and others, and his You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone was transformed into Oh Baby by Little Walter.
But today Tampa's not concerned with all that. Beer, tobacco and his sore foot are usually his more immediate concerns. He knows he should rightfully be receiving song royalties. But he dismisses it with, "I bet they owe me money. But I ain't been botherin', you know what I mean. I haven't been in touch with none of 'em like I should." And so he settles instead for a monthly $75 check from the Illinois Department of Public Aid. He knows he could sing and play guitar a little, knows he might be able to make a few comeback appearances as a respected and legendary figure to new young audiences who never had a chance to see him. But he just says, "I haven't been foolin' with it for quite a while. I just been settin' up around here, my toes gettin' sore." He knows he could record an LP, as Blind John Davis has been after him to do at the urging of a European record company. And maybe he will.
But Tampa and his friend Effie, who has made it her responsibility to see after him, lead a fairly serene existence on 54th Street now, and they don't want to lose that. Tampa sits around, watches TV if the set happens to work that day, and puts a few records on the old hi-fi set, not worrying about the cockroaches, the dishes which never seem to come clean, or the ghetto street violence just outside his window. His electric guitar rests under a bed—the National steel was stolen some years ago—and his bicycle still stands in a hallway. Even some years after his retirement, Tampa used to dress neatly in suits and ties, but he sees no need to now. His clothes are baggy, a nylon stocking may serve as a cap, his long fingernails are tough and darkened. He rolls another Bugler tobacco cigarette, and he and Effie get into another one of their constant spats over nothing, both breaking into chuckles moments later. Their dog Betty yelps and growls, the phone rings, and Tampa Red slowly answers.
"Oh, I'm a little dry, a little crippled. You think you could bring me some beer and Bugler?"
JIM O'NEAL —Editor, Living Blues Magazine
Editor's Note: Tampa Red's companion Effie Tolbert died two weeks after the above notes were written. ****** Accounts of his past mental problems have discouraged friends from taking Tampa into one of their homes to live, and as of January 1975 Tampa is staying at a state hospital in Chicago.
Thanks to Alan Balfour for scanning the liner notes from the original LP jacket.
* Letha Jones' legal name is Letha Johnson. She and Johnnie Jones lived together as man and wife for years but apparently never legally married.
** From the recollections of musicians and friends who knew Tampa and his wife, Frances died c. 1953-1955. After unsuccessfully searching for Frances Whittaker's death record at ancestry.com, the Chicago Defender online edition, and the Cook County, Illinois, website, I finally found her obituary by looking through microfilm of the Defender's City Edition (not available online). She died on Nov. 21, 1953, ten days before Tampa recorded his final session for RCA Victor.
*** Tampa did play some more out-of-town dates. A tour was reported in the Nov. 21, 1942, Chicago Defender, but he still seems to have played far more in Chicago than on the road. See the Defender article reproduced on this page.
**** Blind John Davis later told me that "Forty-Five" was the nickname of Chicago pianist Henry Scott.
***** Silvio's has often been misspelled as Sylvio's. The club was owned by Silvio Corazza, as his name was spelled on his official death records.
****** Effie Tolbert died on Dec. 10, 1974.
The list of Tampa Red songs covered by other artists is only a sampling. B.B. King was a big fan and also recorded She's Dynamite, Green and Lucky, and She Want to Sell My Monkey. I conducted an interview with B.B. for the Blues Story documentary in which he stomped his feet and laughed when talking about how much he loved Tampa Red. (This segment did not make the final cut in the documentary.)
Tampa Red lived his final years in a nursing home and died on March 19, 1981. He was buried without a headstone in Mt. Glenwood Memorial Garden West, 8301 Kean Ave., in the Chicago suburb of Willow Springs. In 1995, as BMG was instituting a new Bluebird reisssue series, the company coordinated efforts with Living Blues and Barry Dolins of the City of Chicago (producer of the Chicago Blues Festival) to have a headstone dedicated.
-- Jim O'Neal, July 4, 2015