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BMI Jazz Icon Lionel Hampton Dead at 94

Posted in News on September 4, 2002
Legendary vibraphonist, bandleader, and BMI jazz composer Lionel Hampton died of heart failure on Saturday, August 31 at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. The 94-year-old "King of the Vibes" battled through several major illnesses including a cerebral hemorrhage in 1992 and two strokes in 1995 and was in failing health in recent years. 

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Hamp, as he was affectionately known, made hundreds of recordings and played with some of the greatest jazz figures in history including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Buddy Guy. As a bandleader, he established the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, which served as a launching pad for the careers of such stars as Charles Mingus, Dinah Washington, Quincy Jones, Dexter Gordon and Joe Williams.

A BMI composer during his entire career, Hampton wrote more than 200 songs, including his signature "Flyin' Home," co-written with Goodman. The classic song earned a BMI Pop and a BMI R&B Award, as well as a Million-Air certificate, denoting more than one million radio and television performances. He also received six other BMI R&B Awards for songs such as "Beulah's Boogie" and "Biding my Time."

In 1997, an apartment fire destroyed practically everything Hampton owned including all his clothes and much of his bands' arrangements and other memorabilia two days before has was to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. President Clinton also hosted a 90th birthday party for Hampton at the White House in 1998, at which Hampton invited Clinton to join in on the saxophone. His band also performed at the White House for Presidents Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Eisenhower, who appointed Hampton a goodwill ambassador for the United States. "He was an American music legend and will be sorely missed," said President George W. Bush, whose father, President George Bush Sr., appointed Hampton to the Board of Directors at Kennedy Center in Washington DC.


Lionel Hampton (seated center), whose valuables were lost in a 1997 apartment fire, happily accepts replacement certificates and photos from his friends at BMI. Pictured are (seated) Hampton's manager Bill Titone, Hampton, BMI President and CEO Frances Preston, (standing) Burt Korall, Director of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and Jean Banks, BMI Senior Director of Jazz and Theatre. photo: Chuck Stewart

Hampton did not have a copy of his birth certificate but marked his birth date as April 20, 1908. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised by his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, and Chicago. He attended grade school at the Holy Rosary Academy near Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a Dominican nun give him his first drum lessons. It wasn't until a 1930 recording session with Armstrong that he began playing the vibraphones.

In his role as an educator, Hampton began working with the University of Idaho in the early 1980s to establish his dream for the future of music education. In 1987, the University named its School of Music after him. The Lionel Hampton School of Music is the only such school named after a jazz musician. He made his final public performance on February 23, 2002, at the school's annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, an event that features four days of concerts, clinics, and student competitions.

As a businessman, he established two record labels (Glad Hamp and Who's Who), his own publishing company, and founded the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation to build low-income housing in inner cities. One of his projects in Harlem in New York City is named after his wife, Gladys, who died in 1971 after a 35-year marriage. The couple had no children.