by Thomas Michalski
In the pop music pantheon, guitar gods are a dime a dozen, ditto great sax-men, drummers, or trumpet players, but if you're looking for someone to sit in on the vibraphone in your ideal, hypothetical all-star band, there's really no other choice than jazz legend Lionel Hampton. In part, that's because he's one of the only widely known musicians to be closely associated with the instrument, that there's just not the same competition for the title as there is with others, the guitar in particular, and in part because he was the first to push the vibraphone's unique, ringing sound to the fore, but it's mostly because when he played it, he did so with the same joyful, unfettered, borderline obsessive love of music and performing that also defined every other aspect of his varied, trail-blazing career.
First, a bit of background on the man: After his birth in Louisville, Kentucky in 1908 (or thereabouts, his birth certificate was lost to the ages), Hampton's family bounced briefly to Birmingham, Alabama before heading north, first to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a Dominican nun at the Holy Rosary Academy gave young Lionel his first training on the drums, and then to Chicago, Illinois, where his bootlegger uncle introduced him to Ma Rainey and a number of other early Chicago blues pioneers. Still in high school, Hampton got his first taste of life as a professional musician, of course, since the gig was with a newsboy band sponsored by the Chicago Defender, he spent most of his time selling papers on the street. They didn't even let him perform at first, merely allowed him carry the bass drum, but, after a promotion to playing the snare, his star rose quickly and he landed a job in Les Hite's band, which in turn gave him the chance to pursue his dreams in the greener pastures of Los Angeles.
Now, a bit of background on the instrument: it's important to remember that when Hampton was making a name for himself on the drums, the vibraphone was a relatively new invention and something of a modern marvel. Already in the business of selling marimbaphones, a variation on the traditional marimba, a type of xylophone, the Leedy Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, Indiana began experimenting with a way to add a tremolo effect to their existing percussive product. They eventually hit upon the idea of installing motor powered butterfly valves on each bar or tube, which warped the sound into that wavy, resonant peal. After it was introduced in 1921, the new vibraphone proved popular with the public, especially after it was heard on a few novelty records, but they still only made 25 of them a year, which may be why the Chicago-based J.C. Deagen Company soon jumped into the market with a slightly improved design, branding their new version as the vibraharp. Both terms endured to the point where the -phone and -harp suffixes are now more or less interchangeable. Besides, all the cool kids just call 'em vibes.
How Hampton and the vibraphone finally came together is a matter of some dispute. The most famous tale, the one Hampton himself recalls, is that he was at a recording session for another Hite band, this one led by Louis Armstrong, when he first laid eyes on the peculiar instrument. "There was a set of vibes in the corner," Hampton reminisced, "Louis said, 'Do you know how to play it?" He confessed that he did not, but 45 minutes later he was ready to back Armstrong on a tune called Memories of You. That's a good story, albeit one with an air of mythology; "Memories of You" was indeed the first jazz recording to feature a vibe solo, but according to Armstrong himself, Hampton hadn't picked it all up that day, noting that when he first made his acquaintance, he was already using "some little bells which he kept beside his drums and he was swinging the hell out of them too." Another story, which is probably bunk but interesting nonetheless, is that Hampton had business at the NBC studios in New York where he happened upon a vibraphone they used to play the iconic chimes that identified the network and was instantly fascinated by the contraption. Wherever the truth lies, once Hampton found his new toy, he stuck with it, single handedly legitimizing its use in "real" music and becoming the de facto poster boy for the sparkling new sound.
Not that the gadget was ever the entirety of his act; on stage, he switched freely to the drums, singing, and playing the piano, which he attacked with an ungraceful, yet effective, two-finger style derived from his method of playing the vibraphone. Whatever he was doing, he simply reveled in performing, which he never did without a giant, blissed-out grin on his face. "Countless anecdotes involve producers struggling to get him off stage" observed the Village Voice in their obituary, "He did not go gently in to the wings - those applause were his sustenance." He continued playing with a variety of orchestras, then moved into leading the house band at the notorious Cotton Club, where he got a break that would not only change his life, but the course of American music itself.
Lured by the rumors of his electric performances, in 1936 Benny Goodman made the trip to see Hampton, who so impressed the swing legend that he immediately asked him to join his new quartet, which was rounded out by Teddy Wilson on Piano and Gene Krupa on drums. What made this new group important, in addition to the sheer level of talent involved, was that Goodman and Krupa were white while Wilson and Hampton were black. At the time, integrated bands were simply unheard of; musicians of different races certainly jammed and swapped ideas after the clubs were closed, but there was an unspoken ban on them performing together in public. The implications of breaking this color line, over ten years before Jackie Robinson would do the same in Baseball, cannot be overstated. Beyond being a bold, controversial statement about the potential for racial harmony, one that prevented the group from being booked in the south (no small sacrifice for the penny-pinching Goodman), it set the stage for African American musicians to burst out of the "race record" ghetto and onto the national stage, and not just metaphorically. A mere decade or so later, Hampton and his band would be the first black act to entertain a president, Harry Truman, at the White House.
Hampton continued to collaborate with Goodman even after this particular group disbanded, notably on the composition Flying Home, which, when recorded by Hampton and his orchestra with a skronking solo from tenor sax player Illinois Jacquet, became a smash hit that would be retroactively recognized as an early example of rock 'n' roll. It was, however, just one instance of Hampton being on the cutting edge by showcasing a hot new voice. After he graduated to leading his own bands, Hampton, who was always a strong proponent of music education for kids, displayed a keen eye for young talent, guiding the careers of a number of artist who would forge the future of the idiom, including bassist Charles Mingus, guitarist Charlie Christian and singer Dinah Washington, among many others.
As the trends Hampton helped bring to the surface continued to evolve, Hampton was, inevitably, left behind by the times. He never really went away though, just transitioned into an elder statesman kind of role, still playing every chance he got for the sheer love of it until the 1990s, when his health began to fail him. Before he finally passed in 2002, he had received just about every award or token of recognition possible: numerous honorary degrees and hall of fame inductions, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a National Medal of Arts just to name a few. Hell, he even agreed to donate his most cherished Vibraphone to the Smithsonian museum, a meaningful affirmation of the way in which he and his favorite instrument were almost synonymous. Had he stuck only to the drums, Hampton would still probably be remembered as one of the greats, he was just that kind of exuberant, uncontainable performer, but it was his decision to embrace something new and different, to experiment and explore, that set him apart. He could have been one masterful drummer among many, but he took a chance and ended up with a much more unique title, the undisputed "King of the Vibes".