Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hampton, Lionel

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton brought his brand-new instrument into jazz lovers' ears for the first time when he recorded with Louis Armstrong in October of 1930. A member of clarinetist Benny Goodman’s groundbreaking integrated quartet, he became a star in his own right with the radio hit "Flying Home" in 1942. In career of over eighty years, he achieved unprecedented commercial success and nurtured several generations of young talent.

Lionel Hampton was born on April 20th, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky. Hampton spent his early years near Kenosha, Wisconsin. When his father Charles was listed as missing in action during the First World War, the boy moved with his mother Gertrude to be closer to family in Birmingham, Alabama, then settled in Chicago. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, primarily by his grandmother.

Hampton’s first musical experiences came at the Holy Rosary Academy in Wisconsin, where one of the Dominican sisters who ran the school gave him drum lessons. Once in Chicago, he attended Saint Monica's School, and took a job with the Chicago Defender, the city's leading African-American newspaper, selling newspapers, so he could join their popular Newsboys' band. At first he carried bass drum, then graduated to playing the snare.

While in high school, Hampton worked for saxophonist and bandleader Les Hite, and upon graduating at age fifteen he moved to Los Angeles to work for Reb Spikes’ Sharps and Flats, and Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders. Hite eventually moved to California as well, and Hampton rejoined his band.

When Louis Armstrong came to Los Angeles in 1930, he hired Hite’s band to back him at the Cotton Club. He took the band into the studio to record on October 16, and there happened to be a vibraphone standing by. Eager to impress, Hampton demonstrated to Armstrong that he knew his way around the newfangled instrument, which had only been invented in 1928, and Armstrong decided to use him on one number, "Memories of You." The song became a hit and Hampton had a new career.

He returned to the studio with Armstrong in March of 1931 to record "Shine." In the early 1930s, Hampton also studied music at the University of Southern California, and began a fruitful film career that lasted the better part of twenty years. His first film was in the 1933 musical comedy Girl Without a Room. Hampton can also be seen in the 1936 Bing Crosby movie Pennies from Heaven, playing drums in a musical scene with Louis Armstrong.

Hampton began his affiliation with clarinetist Benny Goodman in 1936. Goodman was in town with his orchestra and at the insistence of Columbia Records producer John Hammond they went to see Hampton. Goodman, eager to surround himself by the era's best talent, was impressed by Hampton's abilities, and hired him to perform with his band at the Palomar Ballroom.

Hampton stayed with Benny Goodman through 1940. With Gene Krupa on drums and with the addition of pianist Teddy Wilson, their quartet became one of the era's most popular acts, and broke boundaries by performing live at Carnegie Hall in 1938, a first for jazz musicians at that historic venue, as well as a first for an - intentionally - racially integrated group. Among their many hits were “Avalon" and “Moonglow," both recorded in Los Angeles in 1936. In 1939, the quartet added guitarist Charlie Christian to reprise Hampton's earlier hit with Armstrong, “Memories of You," and “Seven Come Eleven."

Hampton left Goodman in 1940, and with the help of his wife Gladys, whom he married in 1936, put together the money to form his own big band. In 1942, the band scored a hit with the song “Flying Home," which featured a blazing solo by tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and introduced a generation to rhythm and blues. The song was so successful that Hampton recorded a second version of it in 1944, and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald recorded her own version in 1945. Also in 1944, Hampton participated in the famed jam session with bassist Slam Stewart which resulted in the “Star Dust” sessions for Verve Records.

In the 1950s, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra became a finishing school, where many young jazz musicians, who went on to their own great accomplishments, polished their talents. Trumpeter Clifford Brown and bassist Charles Mingus both had stints in Hampton’s band. In 1953, the orchestra toured Europe with young trumpeter Quincy Jones, fresh out of the newly created Berklee School of Music. In 1954, Hampton released the album The Lionel Hampton Quintet on Verve Records. It boasted a line-up of drummer Buddy Rich, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, pianist Oscar Peterson, and bassist Ray Brown. Among other numbers, the group reprised the song which had now become Hamp's signature theme, "Flying Home."

In 1955 Hampton released an album with saxophonist Stan Getz, Hamp and Getz, for Verve. Hampton was working on the Benny Goodman movie and he ended up hooking up with Getz while in Los Angeles for this occasion. In 1958, Hampton was on Columbia Records and released an album with an all-reed cast entitled The Golden Vibes. In 1963, Hampton re-joined forces with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson to record the Columbia release Together Again! For the rest of the 1960s, with big bands in sharp decline, Hampton performed less, although he did record a memorable album in 1963 for Impulse! called You Better Know It!! which demonstrated his ability to keep up with the era's best musicians. Featured on the album were Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Hank Jones, and Milt Hinton.

Hampton maintained an active if subdued profile through the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1980s, Hampton’s band performed at the University of Idaho Jazz Festival, which subsequently renamed the festival and their music department after him. In 1991, Hampton suffered a stroke while performing in Paris, France and given his frail age was never able to fully recover. He died on August 31st, 2002 from congestive heart failure in Manhattan.

Hampton received many honors over the course of his career which included an Israeli Statehood Award in 1954, a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1982, and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States' highest honor for jazz musicians. Hampton was also honored by President Bill Clinton in 1996 with a National Medal of Arts award and performed in 2001 at the Smithsonian Museum.

Hampton’s career was one of unfailing musicianship and many firsts, breaking both racial taboos and record sales, and creating an orchestra which nurtured a generation of young talent. Personally, Hampton was very interested in Judaism and had a fondness for the state having performed his original King David Suite there in 1953.

Select Discography

as Lionel Hampton

Star Dust (Verve, 1944)-single

The Lionel Hampton Quintet (Verve, 1954)

Hamp and Getz (Verve, 1955)

The Golden Vibes (Columbia, 1958)

The Silver Vibes (Columbia, 1959)

Contributor: Jared Pauley