Lionel Hampton Got The Job – And Became A Legend

The first time I ever became aware of vibes legend Lionel Hampton was when he appeared as himself in The Benny Goodman Story. He was one of several real musicians appearing in the movie, although he had more screen time than most of the others. The movie portrayed him as the proprietor of a diner where Benny (played by Steve Allen) and some of the guys stopped one day for chili. Hampton cooked it, served it, and furnished the entertainment while they ate, which led to a job offer from Benny.

It was a fictionalized account of his hiring, which actually occurred when Benny saw him in a club and added him to his quartet and later the full band, but it made a nice movie scene even if Benny himself wasn’t actually in the movie. (Benny and Hamp appeared in other films though — see video below, which includes Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and others.)

Although Goodman was a tough taskmaster who hired mostly on talent, he did gain a lot of credit for helping integrate the big bands, in the process giving a boost to the careers of Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and others. Of course, Hamp was already an established jazzman by then and had even had his own small band for a while, but had not reached the level of musical stardom.

Hampton actually started as a drummer, working his way up through a series of small groups in the late 1920’s. He’d also spent some time with the xylophone and its modern successor, the vibraphone, and in a 1930 recording session with Louis Armstrong he picked up the hammers and changed the course of jazz.

During his years with the Goodman band, Hamp sometimes took up his drumsticks again and even added some vocals. It all worked. Not only was he immensely talented, but his charisma was off the charts and audiences loved him. Even grumpy Benny was known to occasionally crack a smile when Hampton performed.

As his fame grew, he began to lead his own small groups in performances and recordings, but he kept a connection with Goodman, performing with the band and joining in for special events — for example, the landmark 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. By 1940 Hampton was ready for the next stage of his career — he left Goodman and formed his own large swing band.

The Lionel Hampton Orchestra was an immediate success, and had a huge hit with “Flying Home,” a tune that perfectly illustrated the band’s strong points. Not only was Hamp front and center, but it also featured strong sax solos with a definite R&B touch, all backed by a first-class group of musicians.

The band and subsequent groups headed by Hampton generated a lot of memorable pieces, including “Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop,” and “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie” (in which the multi-talented Hampton would often contribute some dazzling two-finger piano play). Some of lesser known recordings were just as good, even if they weren’t heard as often. One of my favorites is “On Green Dolphin Street.”

For the next several decades, Hamp continued to perform and record with just about everybody in the jazz world. Even when failing health took away some of his strength, he continued to do what he could until his death at age 94 in 2002. Beloved by all, he’s generally considered to be the first pure jazz vibraphonist, and one of his instruments now resides in the National Museum of American History, a tribute to one of the best ever — a true legend of jazz.


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