It was a recording session with Louis Armstrong in the fall of 1930 that first brought Lionel Hampton together with the instrument that would earn him his greatest fame. During a break in recording, Hampton noticed a vibraphone sitting in the corner. He had played the xylophone while he was a member of the newsboys' band in Chicago but had never tried his hand on the vibraphone. Writing about the incident in his autobiography, Hampton wrote: "So Louis asked me, did I know anything about the instrument, and I said, 'Sure.' I had never played the vibes before in my life, but I picked it up and played Louis' solo from his record 'Chinese Chop Suey' note for note." So impressed was Armstrong that he insisted Hampton play the vibes on a recording of Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," marking the first time the instrument had been used on a jazz recording.
Hampton's first encounter with the vibraphone marked a turning point in his career. Although he continued to play the drums, over the next couple of years he devoted progressively more of his time to the vibes until he was concentrating almost exclusively on the new instrument. In 1936, Hampton was invited by Benny Goodman to join a jazz quartet he was forming as a complement to his big band. Other members of the quartet included Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. Joining the Goodman quartet gave Hampton national exposure. It also marked the first time that a well-known band had been racially integrated. Recalling his years with Goodman, Hampton wrote in his autobiography: "With Benny, touring with two black musicians was a pioneering effort. Nobody had ever traveled with an integrated band before, and even though Teddy Wilson and I were only part of the Benny Goodman Quartet, not the whole orchestra, that was still too much for some white folks." Despite occasional racial hostility, the quartet was a smashing success. Among its more memorable hits were "Moonglow" and "Dinah," along with Hampton's own composition, "Flying Home." In addition to playing the vibes in the Goodman quartet, Hampton occasionally sat in on the drums or contributed a vocal. Shortly after joining Goodman's entourage, Hampton married his longtime business manager, Gladys Riddle.
Lionel Hampton is one of the most extraordinary musicians of the 20th century and his artistic achievements symbolize the impact that jazz music has had on our culture in the 21st century.
He was born April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father, Charles Hampton, a promising pianist and singer, was reported missing and later declared killed in World War I. Lionel and his mother, Gertrude, first moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to be with her family, then settled in Chicago.
He attended the Holy Rosary Academy, near Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a Dominican sister give him his first drum lessons.
Later, while attending St. Monica's School in Chicago, Lionel got a job selling papers in order to join the Chicago Defender's Newsboys Band. At first, he helped carry the bass drum, and later played the snare drum.
While in high school, Les Hite gave Lionel a job in a teenage band. Later, the 15-year-old Lionel, who had just graduated from high school, promised his grandmother he would continue to say his daily prayers and left for Los Angeles to join Reb Spikes's Sharps and Flats. He also played with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders and a new band organized by Hite, which backed Louis Armstrong at the Cotton Club.
In 1930, Hampton was called in to a recording session with Armstrong, and during a break Hampton walked over to a vibraphone and started to play. He ended up playing the vibes on one song. The song became a hit; Hampton had introduced a new voice to jazz and he became “King of the Vibes.”