Lionel Hampton - Biography



For over sixty years, Lionel Hampton was a jazz star and quadruple threat, as pioneering vibraphonist, boogie-woogie styled pianist, swinging drummer, and disarming vocalist. Touring the world until near the end of his long life, Hampton kept a big band together longer than anyone else of his era. With such smash hits as “Flying Home” and “Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop,” the Hampton band helped to establish the template for the rhythm and blues era.

Lionel Hampton was born on April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky. After his father was reported missing  and later declared killed in World War I, his mother moved the family first to Birmingham, Alabama, then on to Chicago. She sent her son to a Catholic boarding school in Wisconsin, where he got his first music lessons, as a drummer. Back in Chicago, he joined the Chicago Defender Newsboys’ Band, where he eventually got to play the marimba. A major influence was percussionist Jimmy Bertrand, a featured performer in the Erskine Tate orchestra, who tutored Hampton on xylophone. Hampton graduated high school at the age of 15, then left for Los Angeles to play drums, first with Reb Spikes' Sharps and Flats, and later with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders. He’d worked with saxophonist Les Hite in Chicago, and joined his California group to back Louis Armstrong at the Cotton Club in Culver City in 1930. At a recording session with Armstrong that October, the great trumpeter asked Hampton to use a vibraphone that he’d heard him playing during a break. The resulting version of "Shine” is one of the earliest  jazz recordings to feature an improvised solo on the instrument.

Hampton studied music briefly at the University of Southern California during the early Thirties. He continued to play with the Hite organization, appearing in a number of short films made between 1930 and 1933. Hampton also worked as the house drummer at the Cotton Club. Towards the middle of the decade, he formed his own ensemble with musicians that included trombonist Tyree Glenn, saxophonist Herschel Evans, and bassist Johnny Miller. Reunited with Armstrong in the summer of 1936, Hampton played vibes on a Hawaiian-styled session for Decca and was seen in the feature film Pennies From Heaven.

Hampton was leading his own group and functioning as the major domo at the Paradise Café in the summer of 1936 when Benny Goodman and his orchestra arrived in Los Angeles. The Goodman group was in town to appear in The Big Broadcast Of 1937. After the clarinetist heard and then jammed with Hampton, he brought pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa down to play the next night. Just hours later on August 21, 1936, the Goodman quartet with Hampton on vibes recorded the first of their many classics, “Moonglow.” "Dinah," "Exactly Like You," and “Vibraphone Blues” followed days later. The quartet’s chamber sound proved immediately popular. Hampton later recalled in a Nineties-vintage interview with Ed Michel that the audience “would hear us play and we had to wait five minutes before we could go into the next number- they’d just keep applaudin’ and applaudin’.” Hampton's addition to the band also marked the breaking of the color barrier. As Peter Watrous of The New York Times has noted, the importance of this collaboration “cannot be overstated, on both musical and social grounds. Not only did Mr. Hampton and Mr. Goodman make exceptional music, but they, along with the pianist Teddy Wilson, presented a public, integrated face for jazz.”

Hampton joined the Goodman Quartet on a full-time basis in November 1936. He also served briefly as the drummer for the orchestra after Krupa left in 1938. Less than six months after his “discovery” by Benny Goodman in Los Angeles, Hampton was approached by the Victor Company to lead a series of small group recordings. With a large pool of top-drawer musicians to draw upon from the Goodman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington bands (all of whom played in New York for extended stays), Hampton was able to utilize the talents of players like trumpeters Ziggy Elman, Cootie Williams, and Harry James, and pianists Jess Stacy, Clyde Hart, and Nat “King” Cole. There was also a stellar array of saxophonists including Vido Musso, Russell Procope, and Johnny Hodges. On one especially star-studded date from September 1939, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, and Ben Webster all played together, with guitarist Charlie Christian and a young Dizzy Gillespie also in the group. The all-star dates were collected first on LP as The Complete Lionel Hampton, 1937-1941 (RCA Victor 1976), and subsequently on CD as The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 (2007 Mosaic).

Hampton left Goodman in 1940 to form his own band. They hit it big in 1942 with "Flying Home," featuring a classic Illinois Jacquet tenor solo. “One of the more influential recordings in the history of American music,” in the words of Peter Watrous, this Hampton composition is sometimes cited as the first rock and roll record. Tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb reprised Jacquet’s solo on “Flying Home No. 2" in 1944, and it became Hampton’s theme song.

Hampton's extroverted stage presence amidst a rip-roaring orchestra was a big crowd pleaser in the Forties. With the invaluable support of his wife Gladys as manager, Hampton’s career as a leader of bands both big and small lasted many decades beyond that. Some of the luminaries who passed through its ranks were saxmen Dexter Gordon, Earl Bostic, Johnny Griffin, and Thomas Chapin, trumpeters Quincy Jones, Cat Anderson, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Art Farmer, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and bassist Charles Mingus. The band’s vocalists were top-notch as well, including Dinah Washington (a Hampton discovery), Betty Carter, Joe Williams, and Aretha Franklin. Because the Hampton band was well-known for paying the musicians very poorly and for discouraging their individuality, the personnel changed rapidly. As trombonist Slide Hampton (no relation) later told Bob Bernotas, Lionel Hampton “never really inspired people to go to other heights.” Loren Schoenberg has written that “as much good music came out of his bands as it did was due to his indefatigable energy, musical abilities, and a desire to please his audience.”

A hint of bebop crept into the band’s music in the early part of the Fifties, but that slowly disappeared as the group moved in a blues and R’n’B direction later into the decade. Hampton also made some choice recordings during the Fifties when Norman Granz at Verve teamed him in small groups with stars like pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Hampton was reunited with Goodman in the summer of 1955 to record the soundtrack for The Benny Goodman Story, and they recreated past glories that December in a quintet date for Capitol. Goodman and Hampton would get together periodically over the years, including a poignant reunion at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, only a few months before the death of Gene Krupa.

Hampton and his orchestra continued to be a big draw on their world tours in the Eighties and early Nineties, when ill health forced the tireless Hampton to finally slow down a bit. He could still be found at jam sessions, though, as competitive and hard-swinging as ever. A fire in his apartment in January 1997 destroyed many of his awards and personal possessions, but Hampton escaped uninjured.

In addition to his musical endeavors, Hampton was deeply concerned with public housing project. He founded the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation, which built the Lionel Hampton Houses in Harlem, New York in the Sixties. In the 1980s, he developed another housing project called Hampton Hills in Newark, NJ. Long associated with the Republican Party,  Hampton not only donated substantial sums to political campaigns but also served as a delegate to several Republican National Conventions. An autobiography, Hamp (Amistad Press), co-written with James Haskins, appeared in 1989. Hampton was the recipient of many honorary degrees and awards, including The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1988. Lionel Hampton died from congestive heart failure on August 31, 2002 in New York City. He was 94. Along with his many well-loved recordings with Goodman and on his own, The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and The Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho ensure that his musical legacy will endure.

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