Lionel Lee Hampton, born April 30, 1908, is the third in my series on African American musicians in honor of Black History Month.
When I saw him perform at The Blue Note* in Chicago in the late 50's, he was widely regarded as this country's premier vibraphonist**. He didn't start out playing the vibraphone, however. He started out on drums. When he was still in his teens and performing with Les Hite's band at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, CA, Hampton began experimenting with the vibraphone.
One article I read reported Hampton as saying that Sebastian got tired of this band after a few years, and brought in Louis Armstrong - who was living in the area at the time - to front for Les Hite. Hampton recalled Sebastian's introduction as, "The world's greatest trumpet player, Louis Armstrong, with the world's fastest drummer, Lionel Hampton."
It was while they were both performing at the Cotton Club that Armstrong, having heard Hampton practicing on the vibraphone, asked him if he would play vibes on two songs. And thus was launched his career as a vibraphonist.
Hampton continued to distinguish himself on the vibraphone, and in 1937 was invited by Benny Goodman - who had heard him perform in November just a few months prior - to join Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and himself in what would become known as the Benny Goodman Quartet.
In the early 1930's, black and white musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In fact, segregation was enforced by Jim Crow laws in the southern states. Benny Goodman had broken with tradition in 1935 by inviting pianist Teddy Wilson to join him and Gene Krupa, forming the Benny Goodman Trio. Hampton later said, "As far as I'm concerned, what he did in those days - and they were hard days, in 1937 - made it possible for Negroes to have their chance in baseball and other fields."
The recipient of more than twenty-five honorary degrees and awards, Hampton also appeared as himself in ten films. One, A Song is Born (1948), was a musical remake of a 1941 film starring Gary Cooper. In the musical version, such legends as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong were featured (along with many others). Here's a still photo from that movie ...
Wiki has an extensive writeup on Lionel Hampton, and you can peruse it as you wish here. As is usual with this series, I have consulted many different sources for background information, and I found some inconsistencies. Not a whole lot, but a few. Where what I have written differs from what you might find in Wiki is the result of my going with my best instincts as to the ultimate truth.
**It has occurred to me that you might not know what a vibraphone is. Here's a photo of one such ...
... and you can find a very nice writeup about the instrument here.
*The Blue Note, which closed in 1960, hosted many illustrious musicians, not the least of which was Duke Ellington, whose orchestra performed there seventeen times between 1947 and 1960. The last LP album recorded at The Blue Note was on April 30, 1960, with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. I had no idea at the time how lucky I was. None at all!
And finally - for your listening enjoyment - here is Lionel Hampton, much as I remember him performing Flying Home, one of his more famous compositions. Hope you like it!