Renowned musician Lionel Hampton (1908-2002) was perhaps the world's best-known jazz vibraphone player. His career spanned 75 years as a performer, composer, bandleader, actor, mentor, and teacher.
Lionel Hampton was born April 20, 1908, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Charles Edward Hampton and Gertrude M. Morgan. Hampton and his mother relocated to his mother's hometown of Birmingham, Jefferson County, before 1910, where he was raised largely by his maternal grandparents; his mother, who had remarried in 1911, and his stepfather lived just across the street. Hampton's grandmother, Louvenia Morgan (whom he called Mama Louvenia), was a leader in the Holiness Church, where Hampton got his earliest start as a musician. Hampton's father, himself a promising singer and pianist, went missing in action during World War I and later was declared deceased in 1918.
Like many African American families in Alabama at this time, Hampton's relocated to Chicago around 1919 as part of the Great Migration in search of better educational and employment possibilities, although the family was not considered poor in Birmingham. Held together by his strong-willed grandmother, the family thrived in Chicago. Their financial situation was helped greatly by Hampton's uncle Richard Morgan's connections with infamous mobster Al Capone and his bootlegging operation. Morgan also knew many of the musicians then in Chicago, such as blues legend Bessie Smith; Morgan was with Smith when she was fatally injured in a car accident in Mississippi in 1937.
Wishing to see her grandson succeed, Louvenia Morgan sent Hampton to a Catholic school in Wisconsin; he later returned to Chicago to complete his formal education at St. Monica's Catholic School. As a high school student, he became a newsboy for an African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, so that he could play for the school youth band. He took drum and xylophone lessons as a high school student.
Recognizing that he wanted to be a musician and with the support of his family, Hampton left immediately upon high school graduation in the late 1920s for Los Angeles to perform and record as a drummer with Les Hite and others, performing at the Cotton Club in Culver City and working with famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. During a recording session, Armstrong encouraged Hampton to take up the vibraphone, which was at that time a new instrument. The vibraphone (sometimes known as the vibraharp or "vibes"), is an electrified instrument similar to a xylophone and marimba that is played by striking differently tuned aluminum bars with mallets. Hampton made the vibraphone a key instrument in jazz and eventually became known as "King of the Vibraharp."
In 1936, bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman asked Hampton to join his trio, which he did in August of that year. With Goodman, Teddy Wilson (who studied music at Tuskegee) on piano, and Gene Krupa on drums, they became known as the Benny Goodman Quartet. This group was among the first integrated musical groups to perform and record together, breaking down racial barriers. In November 1936, Hampton married Gladys Riddle, with whom he had been living for several years. The couple had no children.
Hampton and Gladys left Los Angeles for New York, and by 1940, he had formed his own band, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, which became one of the most respected and consistently popular large jazz ensembles. Among the well-known musicians who played with the orchestra was Quincy Jones. Part of the band's success also resulted from Gladys Hampton's adept management and business abilities.
Hampton toured the United States and was popular all over the country. Beginning in the 1950s, he also began to tour and give performances at jazz festivals throughout the world, including "goodwill" tours to Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, attracting an international following.
During his career, Hampton recorded albums in many musical styles, including jazz, swing, lounge, and New York blues, and appeared on recordings of countless other musicians. His work with Decca Records may have helped pave the way for arguably the first "rock n' roll" record, also on Decca, by Bill Haley and his Comets. Further, Lionel Hampton worked with and helped build the careers of an array of musicians, including Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, and fellow Alabama native Dinah Washington. Hampton frequently appeared as himself in films, including Pennies from Heaven (1936) starring Bing Crosby, and later appeared on many television shows. As an arranger and composer, Hampton wrote more than 200 works, among them the work considered his theme song, "Flying Home." This Jazz standard was inspired by his first airplane trip in 1939 as a member of the Goodman Quartet. Hampton also established two record labels and founded a development company to build low-income housing in the inner cities across the United States.
In his lifetime he received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. He served as a goodwill ambassador for the United States under Pres. Dwight Eisenhower; Pres. George H. W.Bush awarded him Kennedy Center Honors in 1992; and Pres. Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts. Hampton also performed at the White House for several presidents over the years.
Hampton remained in New York the rest of his life, with his home base in Harlem, and he continued to play until nearly the end of his life. He passed away on August 31, 2002, at the age of 94, after a series of debilitating strokes.
Giddins, Gary. "Lionel Hampton, 1908-2002: After 75 Years on Stage, a Well-Earned Rest." Village Voice, September 24, 2002.
Hampton, Lionel, and J. Haskins. Hamp: An Autobiography. New York: Warner Books, 1989.
Robinson, J. Bradford. Lionel Hampton. Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. [See Related Links]
University of Alabama
Published March 10, 2010
Last updated March 30, 2010