Tampa Red was probably as influential a blues guitarist as ever lived. Given the importance of the blues to all forms of popular music, that puts him among the most important musicians of the twentieth century. He was also one of the form’s most prolific composers. Yet how many people can name a Tampa Red song, identify his image—have even heard of him? There has been no cult of Tampa Red, no mythical tales surround his name. Even among blues fans he is unlikely to crop up too early in the conversation. He remains a shadowy figure, the eternal footnote to someone else’s story. Unfair as this is, it is somehow fitting. He was always the man in the background. If there is a patron saint of session musicians it might be this Georgia-born, Florida-raised, red-headed craftsman whose unassuming genius stands behind many more celebrated acts.
This relative lack of renown cannot be because of a dearth of available material. His complete output takes up 15 lengthy CDs. Except for the most obsessive, that is a rather daunting prospect so this selection is very welcome—despite its annoying lack of information as to dates and personnel. Covering, in no particular order, the late 1920s to 1950, the two discs offer a fair cross section of the many styles that Tampa Red tackled in his role as Chicago’s own troubadour. Bawdy romps in the “Hokum” style he practically invented, topical ballads, grim tales of cheating and revenge, love songs, sparse instrumentals and rent-party anthems—they are all here and all feature that crisp, clear guitar sound that kept him so in demand in the 1930s.
Tampa Red first made his name playing with pianist Georgia Tom. Together they formed the Hokum Boys, churning out risqué blues such as “Tight Like That” (amazingly, not included), “You Can’t Get The Stuff No More” and “My Daddy Rocks Me” (which are on the album). These immensely popular records were characterised by humour, an amused detachment and more sophisticated playing than was usual for this rather under-the-counter genre. One reason was that by 1928 Red was using a National Resonator guitar. This expensive instrument had a powerful, rich tone and allowed the artist to develop a bottleneck style that was to be both his trademark and his gift to future musicians. He did not play block chords but pioneered nimble, single string runs that can now be recognised as the precursor of much electric guitar soloing in both blues and rock. Clear as a bell, the notes still leap from the speakers 70 years on.
By 1932 Georgia Tom had departed to become the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, the founder of modern gospel (he wrote “Precious Lord” and many other tunes). No such righteous path for Red, who continued to chronicle the hard-drinking, hard-loving, after-hours world of sections of the Black working-class at play. He also, along with Bill Broonzy, Big Maceo and Jazz Gillum, established the “Bluebird sound”—a blues style (named after the record label) that was definitely more Chicago than Mississippi. Generally disparaged by critics as lacking both the authenticity and poetry of its rural counterpart, it was in fact the crucial transitional phase in the development of modern blues. It should be regarded as the musical equivalent of the Great Migration itself, adapting southern forms to an urban setting in the same way that African-Americans were having to adapt from a world of sharecropping and Jim Crow to one of stockyards, steelworks and city slums. “Stockyard Blues”, “Someday I’m Bound to Win”, “Deceitful Friend Blues” and many others all told of new troubles but did it in an urgent, slicker, more percussive manner—wholly appropriate to the new setting. You hear the southern roots in Red’s voice and playing but the singer is street-wise, world-weary—even a little cynical—and his guitar has an urbane, sharp-suitedness about it.
Tampa Red was never the most intensely personal of singers. This may account for the lack of cult adulation. There is none of the anguish of Robert Johnson, or the inimitability of Son House or Willie Johnson about his vocals. He could be vengeful (“Grievin’ and Worryin’”) or tender (he did after all give the world the poignant lines “When things go wrong, go wrong with you, it hurts me too”) but he is mostly an observer rather than the tortured central character in the drama. This, second only to his guitar work is his great achievement. Chicago has been blessed with many great storytellers and reporters. I place Tampa Red on equal footing with Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel as a man who held a mirror up to the city’s harsh realities. “No-one knows Chicago like I do,” he announced with some justification. In songs like “Chicago Moan” and “Love With a Feeling”, he succeeded in capturing the perils, travails, wisdom and humour of the daily struggle to survive as well as anyone ever has. He turned an uncompromising gaze upon his fellow citizen’s but a wink and a wry smile were never far away.
Take “Dead Cat on the Line”—a scurrilous tale of Chicago women, who according to this version spend their days (and nights) cheating on their husbands—with both male and female partners—while continually high on drink or drugs. The tone is sardonic and instead of moral outrage there is almost an admiration—and certainly great relish—in recounting the lives of these fast-living women. A gamut of taboo subjects is packed into three minutes of witty slander. Couplets such as “You come home talking out your head, you have to take a bath before you go to bed” and “You brown-skin and your husband ain’t fair. Your children high yeller and got curly hair” have rarely been bettered.
There is a feast of fine music and trenchant lyrics on The Essential Tampa Red. The sound quality is not great—I am suspicious of the sleevenotes’ claim about digital remastering—but the big sound of the National always triumphs. The instrumentals are still models of economy and logic. The Hokum numbers evoke a world of pleasures taken in the midst of hardship better than most could dream of doing while the terrors of life at the harsher end of the scale are never ignored. Tampa Red went into steep decline in the 1950s and the story of his later years makes for sad reading. In his prime he was a consummate master of his trade and a model of the professional musician in the best sense. He should not simply be remembered as the man who preceded this or that post-war guitarist but as a considerable figure in his own right. The evidence is here in abundance and well worth an hour or so of anyone’s time.