Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

HAMPTON, Lionel

(b 20 April 1908, Louisville KY; d 31 August 2002) Vibes, drums, piano, singer, leader. This birth date was in his passport, but he had no birth certificate. His manager said he was born in Birmingham AL. His father was missing in action in WWI; he grew up mostly in Chicago, but was sent to a Catholic boys' school in Kenosha WI where a nun taught him to play snare drum (the school's drum-and-bugle corps came second in a competition at Racine). Back in Chicago he became a newsboy because the newsboy band of the Chicago Defender marched in parades; he learned marimba, and left town playing drums with any band that would have him, first recording on drums and piano '29 with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders. The band also included Les Hite and Lawrence Brown; Hite formed a band soon fronted by Louis Armstrong and Hampton first played vibraphone on 'Memories Of You' '30 with Louis. Leading his own band in L.A. he recorded with Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson '36 and gave up the band to go with Goodman.

The vibraphone is like an amplified marimba or xylophone, but with metal keys, and with vibrato and sustaining capability. Hampton became world-famous, the first vibist in jazz; he recorded with Goodman's small groups '36-40, and with Teddy Wilson also in the group, the quartet was credited with helping to destroy the ban on back and white artists appearing on stage together. Hampton was also contracted by Victor's subsidiary Bluebird to lead small-group pick-up sessions '37-41, intended to compete on juke boxes with Teddy Wilson records on Brunswick: at 23 recording sessions he made nearly 100 sides, many of extremely high quality, using whichever musicians from Goodman, Basie, Ellington or other bands happened to be available: among many masterpieces were 'On The Sunny Side Of The Street' with Johnny Hodges and Hampton's vocal, 'I Know That You Know' from the same session and 'I'm Confessin' ', with a Hampton vocal, all '37; an April '39 session included 'Shufflin' At The Hollywood', one of Chu Berry's best records; later that year a date with Benny Carter yielded Carter's 'When Lights Are Low' and Hampton's 'Hot Mallets', with tenor saxes Berry, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster all on the session, plus one of Dizzy Gillespie's first recorded solos; 'Twelfth Street Rag' featured unique Hampton percussive two-finger piano style at a furious tempo, also in '39; at a Hollywood date '40 with Nat Cole, Hampton played piano on 'Central Avenue Breakdown' and drums on 'Jack The Bellboy'. Hampton's virtues as a swinger with a melodic gift always came out best when somebody else was in charge, hence the quality of the date with Carter; some of the small-group sides are disappointing musically, but nearly all are great fun.

Meanwhile he organized his own big band in '40. He had co-written 'Flying Home', recorded it for Bluebird with ten pieces as well as with Goodman, made it into a screamer with a big-band recording in May '42 that stayed in print for many years, establishing Illinois Jacquet as a honker (unfairly; see his entry) and nowadays named as a precurser of rock'n'roll. The big band was not musically adventurous but it was a crowd-pleaser, maintained until '65 with emphasis on showmanship and excitement. Stars who passed through included Jacquet, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and many others. The big band recorded for Decca (top ten singles 'Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop' '46, 'Rag Mop' '50), for MGM, then Norman Granz's labels from '53; played many festivals and world tours. Reunions with Goodman included film The Benny Goodman Story '55, LP Together Again '63 on RCA with the original quartet, with quartet again at Newport Jazz Festival '73. He led his own small groups after '65 except for special events; led a big band at Newport '78 and another at London's Capitol Jazz Festival taped for TV, made an LP with it in NYC '82. He remained among the best-loved of all jazz musicians, the showmanship not obscuring percussive but pretty improvisation on ballads and never-failing swing. The Bluebird sessions were reissued complete on six LPs, selections later on three Bluebird CDs; compilations, reissues and concerts on many labels testify to his enduring popularity, He once had his own Glad-Hamp label (his wife Gladys was his formidable business manager); the series Lionel Hampton Presents on the Who's Who in Jazz label demonstrated versatility, including LPs of music by Dexter Gordon, Gerry Mulligan, Earl Hines, Mingus etc; Hampton produced and played on all of them. In his eighties he was playing as well as ever; Lionel Hampton And The Golden Men Of Jazz Live At The Blue Note '91 on Telarc included Harry Edison, Clark Terry etc; For The Love Of Music on MoJazz with the youngsters such as Joshua Redman.

Raised a Catholic, Hampton became a Christian Scientist and a Mason, and felt especially close to Israel: he wrote a four-part King David Suite for symphony orchestra in 1953. Gladys died in 1971 after 35 years of marriage (no children). Their philanthropic works included scholarships, housing projects and so on; many honors were showered in Hamp in later life and he played for nearly every President in his lifetime.