Lionel Hampton

One of the best-known orchestra leaders of the Big Band Era, Lionel Hampton (born 1908) formed his own jazz group after first playing vibraphone with bands led by Benny Goodman and Les Hite. Hampton's band played a major role in the shaping of American jazz and was the launching pad for such stellar performers as Dinah Washington, Quincy Jones, and Charlie Parker.

Although there seems to be some question about his actual birthdate, Hampton wrote in his autobiography, Hamp, that he was born on April 20, 1908. The son of Charles Edward and Gertrude Morgan Hampton, he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Not long after his birth, his mother moved the family to Birmingham, Alabama, and later to Chicago. His father joined the U.S. Army shortly after the United States entered World War I and was declared missing only weeks after he was sent to France. He survived the war, however, and was reunited with his son two decades later in a Veterans Administration hospital in Dayton, Ohio.


Musical Talent Surfaced Early

While still quite young, Hampton showed a talent for music, with a particular leaning towards percussion instruments. When his mother could no longer tolerate his incessant drumming on whatever household object was handy, she invested in a set of drums for her son. In no time, he had worn it out and was ready for a new one. For awhile Hampton attended Holy Rosary Academy in Collins, Wisconsin, not far from Kenosha, where he was tutored on the drums by Sister Petra, one of the academy's Dominican nuns. Years later, in his autobiography, Hampton wrote of that experience: "She taught me the 26 rudiments on drums—drums have a scale just like the horn. She taught me the flammercue and 'Mama-Daddy,' and all that stuff on the drums." During his high school years in Chicago, Hampton worked as a news carrier for the Chicago Defender, mostly so that he could join the newsboys' jazz band as drummer. The jazz band's director was Major N. Clark Smith, who Hampton later praised in his autobiography as "about the greatest musician I guess I have ever known." Smith was a mentor for Hampton, schooling him in the basics of music theory, harmony, and sight-reading.

Hampton's maternal uncle, Richard Morgan, was an avid jazz fan and friendly with a number of the leading jazz musicians of the period, many of whom attended parties at Morgan's home in Chicago. This gave young Hampton an opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of Bix Biederbecke, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Rose Morton. During his final years in high school, Hampton began playing drums in the band of Les Hite. Hite later relocated to Los Angeles and after he'd been on the West Coast for a year or so invited Hampton to come west and rejoin the band. Convincing his mother that he'd finish high school in California, Hampton headed west. For the next four years, he played drums with the Hite organization, earning a reputation as one of the best drummers on the West Coast.


Discovered Vibraphone

It was a recording session with Louis Armstrong in the fall of 1930 that first brought Hampton together with the instrument that would earn him his greatest fame. During a break in recording, Hampton noticed a vibraphone sitting in the corner. He had played the xylophone while he was a member of the newsboys' band in Chicago but had never tried his hand on the vibraphone. Writing about the incident in his autobiography, Hampton wrote: "So Louis asked me, did I know anything about the instrument, and I said, 'Sure.' I had never played the vibes before in my life, but I picked it up and played Louis' solo from his record 'Chinese Chop Suey' note for note." So impressed was Armstrong that he insisted Hampton play the vibes on a recording of Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," marking the first time the instrument had been used on a jazz recording.

Hampton's first encounter with the vibraphone marked a turning point in his career. Although he continued to play the drums, over the next couple of years he devoted progressively more of his time to the vibes until he was concentrating almost exclusively on the new instrument. In 1936, Hampton was invited by Benny Goodman to join a jazz quartet he was forming as a complement to his big band. Other members of the quartet included Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. Joining the Goodman quartet gave Hampton national exposure. It also marked the first time that a well-known band had been racially integrated. Recalling his years with Goodman, Hampton wrote in his autobiography: "With Benny, touring with two black musicians was a pioneering effort. Nobody had ever traveled with an integrated band before, and even though Teddy Wilson and I were only part of the Benny Goodman Quartet, not the whole orchestra, that was still too much for some white folks." Despite occasional racial hostility, the quartet was a smashing success. Among its more memorable hits were "Moonglow" and "Dinah," along with Hampton's own composition, "Flying Home." In addition to playing the vibes in the Goodman quartet, Hampton occasionally sat in on the drums or contributed a vocal. Shortly after joining Goodman's entourage, Hampton married his longtime business manager, Gladys Riddle.


Formed Own Band

After four years of touring with Goodman's quartet— exposure that helped make him one of the major figures of the swing era—Hampton struck out on his own in the summer of 1940. Wife Gladys served as manager for the new band, which was made up largely of young but talented musicians, most of who were unknown. Reflecting Hampton's boundless energy and innate sense of showmanship, the band soon became well known for its extended solos and bravura performances, with Hampton more often than not in the center of the spotlight. He displayed the full range of his musical talents, playing the piano, vibes, and drums.

Shortly after its formation, Hampton's band released a recording of Hampton's "Flying Home," which soon became an anthem of the swing era, helping to further establish Hampton as a star and also providing a platform for the rhythm and blues saxophone stylings of Illinois Jacquet. Music historians often credit the plaintive wail of Jacquet's sax and Hampton's jump-boogie records of the late 1940s with helping to lay the groundwork for contemporary rhythm and blues. Although music purists and critics have been disdainful of some of Hampton's antics, including playing the piano mallet-style with two fingers and dancing on the drums, his consummate skill as one of swing music's most innovative improvisers has never been in doubt.

Despite a fair amount of criticism from other jazz performers that Hampton and his band expended far too much energy grandstanding, audiences clearly loved the showmanship and flocked to Hampton concerts. Of the criticism from his fellow jazz musicians, Hampton later remarked in an interview for Downbeat: "They used to criticize my band and say, 'Here comes the circus.' And now all of them do it. As soon as they start singing, they're walking around the stage, they're sitting on the steps, they're singing out in the audience. And all that jive came from us."


Spawned Many Jazz Stars

The Hampton band spawned a number of the 20th century's most notable jazz stars, including Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Dexter Gordon, Howard McGhee, Quincy Jones, Betty Carter, Clifford Brown, and Arnett Cobb. For the next 25 years Hampton and his band traveled the world, making a number of foreign goodwill tours to Africa, Australia, Europe, Japan, and the Middle East. The band also was seen frequently on TV, helping to build the group's—and Hampton's—reputation and popularity. In 1957, Hampton led his band in a performance at London's Royal Festival Hall. Two decades later he played for President Jimmy Carter at the White House.

By the mid-1960s changing musical tastes made it financially unfeasible for Hampton to keep the band operating on a regular basis. But Hampton himself was far from through. He continued to lead small groups that he put together and occasionally reassembled the big band for appearances at jazz festivals and concerts. Through the 1970s and 1980s he continued to perform and record with some of America's best jazz performers, including Chick Corea, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Charlie Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and Woody Herman.

Hampton has been widely honored through the years, having received 17 honorary degrees from universities all over the world. In 1968 Pope Paul VI awarded Hampton the Papal Medal. He has been given the keys to the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, and in 1985 he received the Medal of the City of Paris. Among his other honors have been the Ebony Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award of 1989, the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, and the 1996 National Medal of Arts, which was actually awarded in 1997.


Performed at White House

A lifelong Republican, Hampton campaigned actively for a number of GOP politicians through the years, including Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Perhaps as a reward for his political support, he's been invited frequently to perform at the White House. He did make one notable deviation from his straight-Republican allegiances in 1964, when he backed Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. In his autobiography, Hampton explained his political shift in these words: "I may be a Republican, but I'm first of all an American, and I thought what President Johnson was doing was good for the country. So in 1964, when he ran for election as president, I jumped party lines to support him. I had nothing personally against Barry Goldwater—in fact, we were good friends—but Johnson had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and said, 'We shall overcome,' and he was the man I wanted to support."

In 1995 Hampton suffered two mild strokes, only weeks apart. Although he recovered from the strokes, he was left dependent on a cane or wheelchair to get around. Perhaps even more devastating for Hampton was the January 7, 1997, fire at his New York City apartment, which destroyed almost all of his belongings, including his vast collection of vintage recordings, several musical instruments, and other invaluable memorabilia from his years in music.

In February 2001, a couple of months before his 93rd birthday, Hampton donated the vibraphone he'd been playing for the previous 15 years to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. At the ceremonies marking the formal handover of the instrument to the museum, Hampton was hailed as the "vibe president" of the United States by John Edward Hasse, the museum's curator of American music. Rep. John Conyers, a Democratic congressman from Michigan and a big jazz fan, recalled that when President Bill Clinton threw Hampton a birthday party in 1998, the vibraphonist managed to convince the chief executive to play a saxophone solo with Hampton's band. A few months later, at a 93rd birthday celebration in his New York apartment, Hampton told a reporter for Jet that the key to a long life is "the power of prayer and a strong belief in our Almighty God."


Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Research, 1998.

Contemporary Musicians, Gale Research, 1991.

Notable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1998.


Jet, February 26, 2001; May 28, 2001.


"Lionel Hampton: Biography," Down Beat, (November 6, 2001).

"Lionel Hampton: Biography & Early Life," Lionel Hampton's Home Page, (November 6, 2001).