Hampton, Lionel Leo

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Hampton, Lionel Leo

April 12, 1908
August 31, 2002

Jazz vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, then in Chicago. Most sources list his birth year as 1909; his autobiography, however, states that he was born in 1908. Hampton introduced the vibraphone to jazz and was widely regarded as a virtuoso performer. Like many jazz musicians, he received his first musical experiences in the black church, learning to play drums in his grandmother's Birmingham Holiness congregation. He received his first formal lessons on percussion while in elementary school. Hampton later joined the Chicago Defender Youth Band, directed by Major N. Clark Smith, an influential educator who nurtured many famous jazz musicians, among them Milt Hinton and Nat "King" Cole. By his second year of high school, Hampton was playing drums regularly with local musicians, including Les Hite and Detroit Shannon.

In the mid-1920s Hampton moved to Culver City, California., where he joined Reb's Legion Club Forty-Fives and made some of his first recordings. On the West Coast he met Gladys Riddle, who later became his wife and business partner until her death in 1971. In 1930 he began a series of recordings with Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian's Cotton Club Orchestra, his first recordings on vibraphone. During this time, he also made appearances in movies with Les Hite (the Columbia film Depths Below ) and Louis Armstrong (Pennies from Heaven ).

In the mid-1930s Hampton formed his own group and worked regularly along the West Coast. In 1936 he joined Benny Goodman's Quartet, which included Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and later guitarist Charlie Christian. The series of Goodman engagements (such as the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert) and recordings catapulted him to stardom as jazz's most influential vibraphonist. Through Hampton's performances the vibraphone became a jazz instrument of recognition. During this same period he also continued to record as the leader of his own sessions until leaving Goodman in 1940. Hampton performed and recorded continuously with great commercial success for the next forty-five years in the United States and abroad with various groups, one of the jazz world's most popular and highly regarded musicians.

Throughout his long career Hampton recognized and nurtured young talent. A partial list of musicians who have played in his groups over the years reads like a who's who of jazz history: Howard McGhee, Dexter Gordon, Fletcher Henderson, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Nat "King" Cole, and Joe Williams, among others. Hampton is perhaps best known for his showy, energetic stage presence and his hard-driving swing style, which can be heard in such compositions as "Flying Home," "Stompology," and "Down Home Stomp." Over the years he joined Goodman and Wilson for reunion concerts and remained actively engaged in philanthropic and civic activities.

Hampton suffered personal tragedy when his New York apartment was destroyed by fire in January 1997. However, he continued to perform, and in 1998 he was the star of a gala concert on his ninetieth birthday. After suffering a series of strokes and being in ill health for a number of years, Hampton died at the age of ninety-four in 2002.

See also Armstrong, Louis; Jazz


Hampton, Lionel, with James Haskins. Hamp: An Autobiography. New York: Amistad, 1993.

guthrie p. ramsey jr. (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005