Rick Mattingly’s biography of Hampton, written for the The Percussive Society Hall of Fame, covers most of the basics.

“Lionel Hampton inspired me to play the vibraphone,” said Milt Jackson, the innovative vibraphonist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. “He was the first one of note to play it, but more important, I liked how dynamic he was. And the way he blended with groups and the way he played in front of a band were inspirational.” Although Lionel Hampton wasn’t the first to play the vibraphone — that honor goes to Red Norvo — “Hamp” is generally credited as the one who brought vibes to the public’s attention through a combination of musicianship and showmanship. “I always think of Hamp as the guy who really got us established,” said vibist Gary Burton in a 1999 Percussive Notes interview.

Hampton was born on April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky. After his father was killed in World War I, Lionel and his mother moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where Hampton first played drums in a Holiness church. The Hamptons then moved north, and Lionel played drums in a fife-and-drum band while attending Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which was a school for black and Native American children. Later, in Chicago, Lionel played drums in the Chicago Defender Newspaper Boys Band, which is where he began playing xylophone and marimba. “I worked hard learning harmony and theory when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1920s,” Hampton once recalled in an interview.


During a 1930 recording session with (Louis) Armstrong, Hampton first played vibraphone. “There was a set of vibes in the corner,” Hampton recalled. “Louis said, ‘Do you know how to play it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can play it.’ It had the same keyboard as the xylophone, and I was familiar with that.” Lionel proceeded to play vibes behind Armstrong on the tune “Memories of You.” Armstrong encouraged Hampton to pursue vibes playing.

The National Endowment for the Arts made Hampton a Jazz Master in 1988. At the time, music historian Ted Gioia wrote:

Hampton made his recorded debut on an Armstrong version of “Memories of You” in 1930. By 1934, Hampton had become leader of his own band, performing at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Los Angeles. Benny Goodman saw Hampton perform at one of his gigs and recruited him to augment his trio, with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, for a 1936 recording date. Hampton remained in Goodman’s band through 1940, occasionally replacing Krupa on the drums. Hampton became well known with the Goodman band, and started his own big band, achieving his biggest recorded hit with “Flying Home” in May 1942, driven by Illinois Jacquet’s unforgettable tenor saxophone solo.

Hampton’s popular big band boasted such potent musicians as Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Johnny Griffin, Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Wes Montgomery, and singers Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Betty Carter, and Aretha Franklin. He toured the globe and continued to nurture young talent, often providing some of the earliest band experiences to musicians who went on to become leaders in their own right. His band became the longest established orchestra in jazz history.

Lionel Hampton received numerous awards of merit, including several honorary doctoral degrees, the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honors. His diligent work with the jazz festival at the University of Idaho in Moscow led to it being renamed the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in 1985. The university’s music department shortly followed suit and became the Lionel Hampton School of Music. Winner of numerous polls, Hampton had been an honored soloist into the 1990s, performing in numerous festivals as part of all-star assemblages. In 2001, he donated his vibraphone to the Smithsonian Institution.

Here’s Hamp on the vibes with Armstrong, on the 1930 version of “Memories of You,” which NPR describes as “the first known jazz recording to incorporate the vibraphone.

We often overlook the fact that jazz musicians helped integrate the silver screen.

African American musician Fletcher Henderson had been playing “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” in Harlem since 1933, but it wasn’t until five years later, in white musician Benny Goodman‘s hands, that the whole country started hearing it.

Goodman became a national sensation, and he capitalized on stardom fearlessly. He made vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson, both black musicians, part of his quartet because they were unique. A decade before Jackie Robinson would integrate Major League baseball, Hampton and Wilson integrated American popular music.

Hamp was featured in A Song is Born in 1948.

A lightweight musical “romcom” (in today’s parlance), the wacky Hollywood plot starred the popular Danny Kaye. He played an earnest musical professor, writing a book on the history of music, who ventures out of his academy into the big bad world to learn about swing, jive, blues, boogie-woogie, Dixieland and pop. He encounters and invites back some top practitioners of the day, who can be seen and heard in the film – predominantly Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton and Mel Powell.

Once Hamp got exposure in the movies, audiences didn’t have to buy records or attend concerts to hear his music.

The year I was born, 1947, Hamp and Sonny Burke composed “Midnight Sun,” which has since become a jazz standard.

In 1954, songwriter and arranger Johnny Mercer added lyrics; he heard the tune played on the radio while driving in the desert in California. 

My all-time favorite vocal version of Hamp’s tune was sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

Though the sound quality is not the best, this compilation—featuring clips of 10 songs—creates a real feel for the dynamics of his early big band.

Always an innovator, Hampton was not afraid to step outside of the box. Check him out with Charlie Mingus in 1947.

Hamp was also frequently featured on television. Here he performs his hit, “Flying Home,” on the weekly Patti Page Big Record show on CBS in 1957.

This clip from Hudson Music’s documentary, Lionel Hampton: King of the Vibes, illustrates his impact on jazz.

He was called the King of the Vibes, The Vibes President, Boss of the Backbeat‚ the original Mister Excitement and the artist who set the stage for something that was called rock and roll. 

The University of Idaho has a deep history with Hampton.

Lionel Hampton (came) to the University of Idaho in 1984, making his first appearance at the Jazz Festival. With that appearance, Lionel and Doc Skinner formed a partnership and the creation of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. A partnership that included the dedication of the University of Idaho Lionel Hampton School of Music in Lionel’s honor, (t)he first and only university music school named in honor of a jazz musician.

The university also produced a short documentary of the King of the Vibes, served up on YouTube in two parts.

For a deeper dive into Hampton and his influence, 1989’s HAMP: An Autobiography, written by the man himself with James Haskins, is a delightful read.

It’s also not just about Hampton. Far from it.

Here are Lionel Hampton’s off-the-cuff recollections of contemporaries like Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker. And here are rare glimpses into the early careers of stars nurtured by him, such as Dinah Washington, Joe Williams,Quincy Jones, Dexter Gordon, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gregory Hines.

Robert H. Rossberg reviewed the book for American Music (Vol. 11, Issue 3).

Lionel Hampton’s career has blossomed and grown since he formed his first big band in 1942 and continues to this day with appropriate modifications for the vicissitudes of age and time.  He is an artist capable of brilliant performances on three instruments, the vibraphone, certainly the earliest, he, along with Red Norvo and Milt Jackson, ranks as the leading jazz exponent of that instrument.  In addition, his bands provided a home for scores of young musicians, including Teddy Buckner, Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, Arnett Cobb, Dexter Gordon, Quincy Jones, Charlie Mingus, and Joe Newman, who later went to achieve their own places in the jazz enterprise.  All of this was accomplished during the waning years of the big band era.  With unprecedented longevity Hampton’s organization maintained a successful commercial presence through the years, partly as a result of the forcefullness and skillful management of his wife, Gladys Riddle Hampton.

The autobiography “Hamp” by Lionel Hampton with James Haskins, recites with precision and detail his saga of almost half a century of riotous entertainment and serious achievement.  It is a careful case study of the career of Lionel Hampton, his triumphs and low times, his associations with scores of musicians, his contacts with political figures from Harry Truman to George Bush (and stops along the way with Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon), and his visits to many countries and meetings with world leaders including the Pope.  Hamp also contains personal and musical insights about some of the finest musicians and musical groups in the history of jazz.Hampton’s comments about the famous Benny Goodman Quartet (Goodman, Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa) are particularly gratifying. It is a book for detail, for total recall, for learning about the Swing Era and beyond, but above all for learning about the irrepressible, optimistic, spiritual, creative Lionel Hampton.

In 1992, Hampton received Kennedy Center Honors. Herbie Hancock told the audience Hamp’s story.

As Hamp looked on, an all-star lineup (and some up-and-comers from Howard University) paid tribute to the King of the Vibes. Look at the joy on their faces as they play.

Hamp’s vibraphone was donated to the Smithsonian in 2001.

A year before Hampton’s death, Rep. John Conyers saluted him on the floor of the House.

Monday, September 24, 2001

Mr. Speaker, as the Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, and chairman of its annual Jazz Issue Forum and Concert, I rise to call to this body’s attention the achievements of a distinguished American, Mr. Lionel Hampton. At the age of 92, he continues a career that has brought him international acclaim as a musician, composer, and bandleader. I am extremely honored that he will be my guest here in Washington, DC, on Thursday, September 27, 2001, during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. That evening, my colleagues and I will have the opportunity to thank him for the great pleasure that his life’s work has brought to us, and to millions across this nation and around the world. The Congressional Black Caucus is not alone this year in recognizing the magnificence of what Lionel Hampton has accomplished. On January 31, 2001, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History added “Hamp’s” vibraphone to its collection of “national treasures.” In addition, on February 22, 2001, the University of Idaho dedicated the Lionel Hampton Center for the Study and Performance of Jazz. The University, however, did not just discover and acknowledge Lionel Hampton’s genius, it did so many years ago by launching the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in 1984, It reaffirmed its reverence of Hampton in 1987 by establishing the Lionel Hampton School of Music; the first music school named in honor of a jazz musician.

Hampton died on Aug. 31, 2002. His funeral was held at Riverside Church in New York City, and he was “sent home” in New Orleans style. 

The remains of jazz great Lionel Hampton were carried in a white horse-drawn hearse through the streets of Harlem on Saturday, with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis blowing a dirge to lead the funeral procession.

The 94-year-old showman and bandleader died Aug. 31 of heart failure. Hampton suffered two strokes in 1995 and had been in failing health in recent years.

Starting from the Cotton Club, once an icon of great music, hundreds of mourners walked in a procession to a service at the nearby Riverside Church.

Join me in the comments to hear more Hamp and more stars of the vibe, including Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Bobby Hutcherson, and Stefon Harris.  

After all, we could all use some good vibes these days.