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My music, my life.


A lifetime of music making well-known to listeners has been brought now to readers in Hamp: An Autobiography, by Lionel Hampton with James Haskins. The Post takes great pleasure in sharing these excerpted observations from a man who first wrote for us in 1954.

I was born on April 20, 1908, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Charles Edward and Gertrude Morgan Hampton. My father was away a lot. My mother didn't want to be alone with a baby, so she moved back to Birmingham, Alabama, her hometown. I don't remember anything about my father. When America entered World War I, he went into the army and was shipped to France. Within a few weeks he was declared missing in action.

Years later, we were giving concerts in Dayton, Ohio. A boy named Johnny Lyttle used to hang around the bandstand whenever we played. One day, Johnny said, "Why don't you ever visit your father when you are in Dayton?" I said, "I don't have a father. My father died in the war."

Then Johnny told me about the old gentleman in the VA hospital who said he was the father of Lionel Hampton, the vibraharpist. His name was Charles Edward Hampton, and he'd been exposed to mustard gas in France. He'd come home blind and spent many years in the hospital. So I went to see him.

We walked into the room and they took me over to this distinguished-looking man. I had never seen a picture of my father, but when I looked at that man I knew he was my father. There was no shadow of a doubt. He looked just like me.

I spent a whole day with my father. He talked about the years of darkness and loneliness. He said he started hearing about me being a big musician and was proud to tell people, "That is my son."

The only "father" I knew in my early life was my grandfather, Richard Morgan. He had a job working as a fireman on the railroad. When the train came through the black part of Birmingham, we all lined up beside the track. The porters would throw out food to us, and my grandfather would shovel out some coal on the side of the road so the people could keep warm. He was kind of a hero.

My mother remarried a couple of years after we moved to Birmingham. She left me with Grandma and Grandpa. I never call my mother "Mama." That was what I called my grandmother, but that's what all Southerners did in those days. When the grandmother raised you, she became your mama.

My grandmother lived and breathed religion. She left the Baptist Church when she decided it was getting too worldly. She then joined the Holiness Church. I was happy she made that choice, because the Holiness Church was more fun.

They had a big band ... with rhythem instruments. My favorite was the big bass drum. The sister who played it was pretty big, too. One Sunday, I picked up a mallet she had dropped, and started hitting the bass drum with it. My grandmother let me continue. So from then on, I was a drummer. I drummed on pots and pans, chair seats, the front porch railing, the front porch steps. The rest of the family complained, but Mama Louvenia though I showed real talent.

A big change came for the family around 1919. Mama Louvenia decided it was time to leave Steel City and move north. She picked Chicago, probably because it was one of the most progressive places for the black population.


I'll never forget the day that Mama and I left Birmingham. Seemed as if half the city had turned out to see us off. When the train pulled into Chicago the next day, I wasn't impressed with my first views of the city. From the train, you saw the backsides of cities even then.

Uncle Richard (who had preceded us to Chicago) didn't go in for a manual labor job when he got to the North. A much better opportunity presented itself in the form of Prohibition. The Volstead Act was passed in 1919, and Richard Morgan saw right away how he could make the much older law of supply and demand work for him by bootlegging.

The bootleg liquor business was really disorganized. Every petty thief was making bathtub gin or passing wood alcohol off as home brew. Richard had the idea of bringing up some real Southern moonshiners to Chicago, guys who knew what they were doing and took pride in their work.

My uncle also had sense enough to look around and see who ran the Chicago underworld businesses. It didn't take him long to figure out that he needed a mob connection, and that was none other than Al Capone. Capone was young then, and not the major kingpin that he later became.

By the time Mama Louvenia and I arrived in Chicago, Uncle Richard had a brownstone house at 2837 Wabash Avenue. It had four floors. There was not much furniture in the main public rooms. There wasn't room for it. Most of the space was taken up by barrels bubbling away with bootleg liquor.

History has proved that Al Capone was the savior of the black musician in those days. His nightclubs alone employed hundreds. I'm proud of that connection, because even though he was a booze peddler, he set the standard that a lot of big clubs run on today.

When I was in the second year of high school, I was with Les Hite's all-teenage band. I was sorry when he went out to California and the band broke up. He promised me and the other guys that he would send for us once he got himself established.

After a while, Les wrote back and told me, "If you come out here, I'll get you a job in a big band." So I got ready the next day, but there were a few details to take care of first. I had to get my grandmother's permission. She didn't give me a hard time. She knew I had to follow my talent.


I arrived in Hollywood with several hundred dollars in my pocket, thanks to Uncle Richard, and the addresses of some Holiness Church families who would let me stay with them, thanks to my grandmother. I went to one of the homes and paid my three dollars a week for room and board for a couple of weeks in advance. Then I got in touch with Les Hite.

His band played every dance and ball and cotillion there was. We did a good ten gigs a week and made the huge sum of $15 a week, plus tips. One night the porter in the men's room at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club was there, and he heard us and liked what he heard. So the porter tells Frank Sebastian, "I heard a band the other night that was real great. If you want to hear them, I'll set up an audition for you."

So he called Les Hite, and we did the audition for Frank Sebastian, and he loved our band. We were a bunch of young cats and we could swing, man. He put on a big show, with beautiful black girls who danced in big production numbers, comedians, and then a big headliner. The Mills Brothers were playing there when we auditioned and got the job in the spring of 1930.

We weren't Les Hite's band any longer. Now we had become Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club Orchestra. He had fancy uniforms made for us, and he decided that the leader and the drummer, Les and I, should wear gray top hats. I thought that was cool.

Louis Armstrong came into the Cotton Club that summer. He really liked me. Right away he took us on a recording session with him at the NBC studio. Sitting in the corner was a set of vibes. Louis said, "What's that instrument over there?" And I said, "Oh, that's a new instrument that they're bringing into percussion, into the drum department. They call it a vibraharp; some call it a vibraphone." I'd never played it, but I'd heard about it, seen it, but just hadn't gotten around to trying it out.

Then the equipment broke down, and Louis noticed the vibraharp again. So he said, "Can you play it?" I said, "Sure." So I looked at it, and it had the same keyboard as the xylophone had. He said, "Pull it out in the middle of the floor and play something on it." So I pulled it out and Louis plugged it in. I played one of his solos, note for note. And boy, he fell for it.

It was after Louis Armstrong left that Gladys stepped in and started acting as a kind of unofficial manager for me. She was taking a real interest in my career. She negotiated such a good salary for me that the other guys at the club asked her to act for them, too. Then Gladys went to work on the issue of billing, and she started urging me to form my own band.

Gladys and I were married in 1936. From the day we met until the day she died from heart failure in 1971 she made all my major decisions.

Life After Gladys

One of the things that kept me going that first year after Gladys died was the plans for the Lionel Hampton Houses. In December 1971, I put on a hard hat and turned over the first spadeful of dirt at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the $13 million complex--355 apartments, 70 percent of them for moderate-income families and the rest for low-income families and the elderly.

The Lionel Hampton Community Development Corporation already had plans for another housing complex down the block. This one was going to be called the Gladys Hampton Houses. I just wish that Gladys had been alive to see the houses built and carrying her name. I had a special inscription placed on the cornerstone, something I had said often about Gladys: "God gave me the talent, but Gladys gave the inspiration."

I turned 80 years old in 1988. I was still playing music. I spent June, July, and August in the U.S. and Europe with a big band, with a small side trip to Tokyo. I didn't ever intend to retire. Marshall Royal says I'm liable to just topple off the bandstand one night while playing the vibes, and everybody will say, "Well, that's the way he wanted to go."

I'm working on the newest incarnation of jazz right now. I call it Synco-Jazz. It's a new expression I'm putting out. It's syncopated jazz. But it's always jazz. You can put a new dress on her, a new hat on her, but no matter what kind of clothes you put on her, she's the same old broad.

PHOTO : The legendary Benny Goodman Sextet spotlighted jazz giants Charlie Christian on guitar,

PHOTO : Gene Krupa on drums, and that most enduring talent, Lionel Hampton, on vibes. The photo is

PHOTO : an inscribed memento from Christian to Hampton.

PHOTO : On September 4, 1986, Lionel was honored as "One of a Kind in World Jazz" at a banquet in

PHOTO : New York City. A future mayor, David Dinkins, was counted among his admirers.

PHOTO : Vive le Lionel! In 1984, Paris saluted the vibrant vibraharpist with a parade, a gold

PHOTO : medal, and a jazz club named for him at the Hotel Meridien. Lionel responded with an

PHOTO : impromptu concert in front of the Eiffel Tower.
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Title Annotation:excerpts from Hamp: An Autobiography; Lionel Hampton
Author:Hampton, Lionel; Haskins, Jim
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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