Born Lionel Leo Hampton, April 20, 1909 (some sources say April 12, 1908, or 1913, or 1914), in Birmingham, AL, raised in Chicago, IL; son of Charles (a pianist and singer) and Gertrude (Whitfield) Hampton; married Gladys Riddle (a seamstress who became his business manager), November 11, 1936 (deceased, 1971). Education: Attended the University of Southern California, 1934. Politics: Republican. Religion: Christian Scientist. Drummer in Chicago Defender newsboys jazz band during high school; drummer and vibraphonist in Les Hite's band, Los Angeles, 1928-32; performed in own jazz group, Los Angeles, 1933-35; vibraphonist with the Benny Goodman Quartet and occasional performer in Goodman's full band, 1936-40; bandleader, vibraphonist, drummer, pianist, and singer for the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, 1940-65; leader and performer in jazz combo The Inner Circle, 1965--. Has appeared in motion pictures, including The Benny Goodman Story, 1955; has appeared on radio and television; musical director of television station WOOK, Washington, D.C., 1962; founder of recording labels Glad-Hamp and Who's Who in Jazz, 1978. Professor of music at Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1981--. Has made numerous international goodwill tours; human rights commissioner of New York City, 1984-86; creator of Lionel Hampton Jazz Endowment Fund, 1984; United Nations ambassador of music, 1985. Addresses: Record company-- Glad-Hamp, 1995 Broadway, New York, NY 10023.

For more than 50 years jazz musician and bandleader Lionel Hampton has captivated world audiences with his rhythmic drive and exuberant showmanship. A pioneering jazz vibraphonist with the Les Hite and Benny Goodman orchestras in the 1930s, Hampton went on to form his own big band, one of the most popular and enduring large jazz ensembles of all time. Specializing in stirring his musicians and fans into a rhythmic frenzy, the bandleader is notorious for letting numbers go on and on until every soloist has improvised into exhaustion; once, in Harlem's Apollo theater, his audience's enthusiastic stomping and jumping cracked the balcony and forced an evacuation.

The temporary base of jazz greats Quincy Jones, Charlie Parker, Fats Novarro, and Dinah Washington over the years, the Hampton band has played an important part in the history of jazz. It was one of the first jazz ensembles to use the electric bass guitar and organ. Yet, for all Hampton's significant contributions to music, the performer wants--according to George T. Simon in The Best of the Music Makers --"to be remembered most for spreading happiness and good will." " Hampton cavorts about the stage like a neophyte trouper trying to impress his first paying customers," wrote Arnold Jay Smith in Down Beat, describing the showman in his fiftieth year of performing, at age sixty-nine. "He is always smiling, enjoying his playing and that of others, expressing that pleasure by 'yeah-ing' whenever the spirit moves him."

Hampton displayed his musical leanings as a child, forever thumping on the rungs of chairs or on his grandmother's pots and pans. Christmas gifts were usually a set of children's drums, which seldom survived his enthusiasm for very long. Wanting to play real drums, Hampton got a job during high school as a newsboy for the Chicago Defender, and within a week realized his wish in the newsboys' jazz band. After graduating from high school in 1928 he headed for Los Angeles to play in the orchestra of family friend Les Hite and remained there for the next four years, developing his skills and acquiring local celebrity as a jazz drummer.

Once, when jazz great Louis Armstrong fronted for Hite's band in a recording session, Hampton discovered an unused vibraphone in the studio and mastered it within the hour; Armstrong's 1930 recording, "Memories of You," features Hampton in the first jazz vibraphone solo ever recorded. The young musician was absolutely smitten with the versatility of his new percussion instrument--its ability to be both animated and lyrical. Other jazz performers had used the vibraphone before, but none had approached Hampton's invention and rhythmic mastery on an instrument used--until that time--decoratively, like chimes. "That watery deposit-bottle sound, redolent of vaudeville, somehow makes his rhythmic force more impressive," judged Kevin Whitehead, discussing Hampton's "Hot Mallets" recordings in Down Beat.

In 1936 "the King of Swing," clarinetist Benny Goodman, heard Hampton performing on vibes and persuaded the percussionist to tour with him, pianist Teddy Wilson, and drummer Gene Krupa as the Benny Goodman Quartet. Much admired, the group became enormously successful with hits like "Dinah" and "Moonglow." Hampton occasionally played drums and sang in Goodman's full band as well. Also recording with pickup bands of celebrated sidemen from other jazz ensembles--the Victor recordings are now coveted collectors' items--Hampton became one of the swing era's premiere figures, prompting him to form his own big band in 1940. Initially comprised of young, unknown, promising musicians from around the country, the Hampton orchestra reflected its leader's ebullient nature, with an emphasis on showmanship, energy, and excitement. Conducting, singing, and playing the vibes and the drums, Hampton also took to entertaining audiences on the piano with his unique "trigger-finger" style: forefingers only, like vibraphone mallets, ripping through single-note passages.

Starting with the 1941 hit "Flying Home," Hampton and his orchestra dominated the big band field for the next two decades. When it became evident--during the early sixties--that the days of the big bands were over, he pared down to The Inner Circle, a jazz combo of eight or so musicians, still assembling the big band for reunions and special occasions. Engaging in a number of goodwill tours since the l950s, Hampton has brought the excitement of jazz to people around the globe; at home, he has worked hard to have America's black musical heritage taught at colleges and universities, and for other social and political concerns.

While observers have noted a tendency in Hampton's groups to emphasize audience-pleasing and past achievements over invention and musicianship, most share the sentiments of Down Beat contributor John McDonough. "He presides over an outstanding all-star band which is never called upon to do much more than huff and puff familiar riffs," allowed McDonough, reviewing a recording of the entertainer's fiftieth anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. "But that's all Hampton's bands have ever had to do." And that, apparently, has been more than enough.

Hampton died on August 31, 2002, in Manhattan, New York, of natural causes. He was 94.

by Nancy Pear

Lionel Hampton's Career

Famous Works

Further Reading



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