Lionel Hampton is known to be responsible for popularizing the vibraphone in the jazz genre. Hampton grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to the Chicago area in 1916, where learned snare drum from a nun at the Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He first performed as a member of the Chicago Defender Newsboys Band and later studied xylophone with Jimmy Bertrand and drums with Clifford Jones.
After making his debut on drums in 1923 with Louis Armstrong’s backup band (Les Hite) in Culver City, California, Hampton moved to Los Angeles in 1927 and worked with the Spikes Brothers, Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, and the Louis Armstrong/Les Hite Band (1930-34), making what is regarded as the first recorded vibraphone solo, on Memories of you, with Armstrong in 1930. Legend has it that Armstrong saw a set of vibes in a room and asked Hampton if he knew how to play them; Hampton immediately responded by playing Armstrong’s entire trumpet solo from Big butter and egg man as an audition!
Jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Hampton’s musicianship also criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players while getting the audience to clap along. As Hampton explained in a 1987 interview, “I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the handclapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience. When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church–guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums–and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”
Hampton formed his first big band in 1940, toured throughout the world in the 1950s, and introduced new talent to U.S. audiences including Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, and Joe Williams. It is also believed that he was the first to incorporate the electric organ and electric bass in a jazz group. Due to financial issues, he dissolved the big band in the 1960s and established a touring sextet in 1965. His long career also included several film appearances, including A song is born (1948), The Benny Goodman story (1955), and Rooftops of New York (1960).
Read on in an entry on Lionel Hampton in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002]).
Listen to Hampton on vibraphone on a recording of Buzzin’ around with the bee below.