Lionel Hampton Biography

African-American jazz great Lionel Hampton popularized the vibraphone and played with the Benny Goodman Quartet before becoming a successful bandleader.


Born on April 20, 1908, in Louisville, Kentucky, Lionel Hampton became a jazz drummer before discovering the vibraphone. He was part of the racially integrated Benny Goodman Quartet in the 1930s, and formed the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1940. Honored by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Hampton continued to perform well into his 90s. He died on August 31, 2002, in New York City.

Early Years

Lionel Leo Hampton was born on April 20, 1908, in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent his early childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. He became enamored with the powerful musical performances of his church congregation, an experience Hampton later said helped him discover "the beat in me."

Following a move to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Hampton took his first drum lessons from a Dominican sister at the Holy Rosary Academy. His music education continued after his family uprooted again and settled in Chicago, where he learned to play the xylophone from percussionist Jimmy Bertrand.

Hampton got a job selling newspapers in order to join the Chicago Defender Newsboys' Band. After a stint in a teenage group organized by bandleader Les Hite, he moved to Los Angeles at age 15 to pursue his musical dreams.

Innovative Sideman to Bandleader

Hampton played drums with Reb Spikes's Sharps and Flats and with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders in Los Angeles, and reunited with Hite as part of a band which backed Louis Armstrong at the Cotton Club.

It was during a 1930 recording session with Armstrong that Hampton began experimenting with the vibraphone, and their subsequent renditions of "Memories of You" and "Shine" were the first jazz recordings to feature the instrument on improvised solos. Although Hampton wasn't the first jazz musician to play the vibraphone, he was the first to use it so dynamically, and it became a vital part of his musical identity.

In 1936, Hampton joined forces with Benny Goodman to become a member of the first racially integrated jazz group. His four years with the Benny Goodman Quartet were among the most celebrated of his career, as he took memorable solos on such songs as "Dizzy Spells" and "Moonglow." He also held recording sessions with such legendary musicians as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Nat Cole, creating some of the best jazz of the era.

Hampton formed his own big band in 1940, and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra rose to prominence on the strength of such hits as "Flying Home," "Hamp's Boogie Woogie," and "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop." The energetic bandleader made sure he was surrounded by strong supporting talent, with such notables as Illinois Jacquet, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin passing through his orchestra over the years.

Ambassador and Legacy

Beginning in the 1950s, Hampton toured Europe, Japan, Australia, Africa and the Middle East as a goodwill ambassador, and frequently appeared on television.

He expanded the reach of his brand with the help of his wife, Gladys, founding two record labels, a music publishing business, and a company that built low-income housing in inner cities.

Hampton forged a strong relationship with the University of Idaho in the 1980s. The University added his name to its jazz festival in 1985, and two years later its music department became the Lionel Hampton School of Music.

President George H.W. Bush appointed Hampton to the Board of the Kennedy Center in 1992, and President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 1997. Meanwhile, the jazz legend continued to deliver enthralling performances well into his 90s. He died on August 31, 2002, in New York City.

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