The King of Swing, clarinetist Benny Goodman, was a driving force in breaking down racial barriers in the jazz world, not so much from a crusade for equality but because he wanted to work only with the best musicians, regardless of race. One of those great musicians he discovered was percussionist Lionel Hampton.
In 1954, Lionel Hampton told Post readers about how his relationship with Benny Goodman started and how it grew, both professionally and personally. The result is an intimate homage to a man who was both musical mentor and dear friend.
This post was published to mark National Jazz Appreciation Month. You can read more of the Post’s historical stories from and about jazz legends in “Jazz History by Men Who Made It.”
Me and Benny Goodman
By Lionel Hampton as told to Bernard Seeman
Originally published on December 18, 1954
The Benny Goodman Quartet — and an enduring friendship in the frantic world of jazz — began when Benny found an unknown Negro musician, brought him across the color line into the big time. Lionel Hampton went on to the top, but he’s never forgotten his debt, which he here explains.
This past summer, at Basin Street in New York, I saw something that really stopped the clock for me. Benny Goodman was standing up there with his eyes closed, blowing the sweetest, swingingest riffs you ever heard come out of a clarinet. I sat there listening, and it brought back a lot of things — especially that bouncy, happy feeling that goes with youth.
I wasn’t the only one who felt it. There were people in the audience in their 40s and 50s, and you could tell they were feeling it, too, the way they swayed with their eyes shut or pounded out the beat on the table. You didn’t need any imagination to see that they were back in 1936 or ’37, listening to the King of Swing blow his licorice stick and make everyone swing along with him. That night in Basin Street we were all young again.
Benny was always my favorite musician, long before I joined his band. I was pretty young then myself and, even though I was a drummer and vibraharp player, I tried to do like Benny. I’d listen to all his records and then try to play the vibes the way Benny played his clarinet. 1 even tried his riffs.
The big night camp for me in September, 1936. I had a nine-piece band and we were playing in a little beer garden in Los Angeles, called the Paradise Night Club. It was on 6th and Main, what they called the “Gimmick Street” — a thoroughfare where anything happens.
Benny Goodman was playing in the Palomar Ballroom at the time and, man, it was wonderful to be so close. Well, one night in walks Benny into the Paradise, sits down at a table and starts listening to me. He’d heard about me through his brother-in-law, John Hammond, the jazz critic. I was playing the vibraharp, and Benny was very amused at it because at that time the vibes weren’t very popular or well known. The drummers just used it to play the pretty notes on — the “bing bong” they’d hang on the end of a tune. But I was playing jazz on it, and that night, with Benny there, I was inspired.
He’d been in the house about half an hour, listening, when he came over and said, “Pops.” I’ll never forget it; he called me “Pops.” He said, “Pops, I’ve been hearing a lot about you and I’d like to sit in with you.” So he took out his clarinet and began blowing.
We jammed about two or three hours. The place was supposed to close at three o’clock, but I think the whole house stayed till five that morning. The next night he brought pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Gene Krupa, and several other boys from his band. We jammed till five or six o’clock.
Then Benny said, “Pops, how’d you like to make a record with us?” That thrilled me. Man, I was really gassed. I got home that morning after six, and about eleven Benny called and asked me to come out to the RCA Victor studio. I jumped out of bed right away and rushed down to 6th and Main to pick up my vibes. The records we made were “Moon Glow” and “Dinah” — Benny, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and I. That was the birth of the Goodman Quartet. It lasted till 1941, when Benny took sick.
Not long after we made the records, Benny asked me would I join his band. He had left the Palomar and had gone to New York, where he was playing in the Manhattan Room of the Pennsylvania Hotel — today it’s the Statler. He was also doing the Camel Caravan show on CBS radio every Tuesday.
Man, when Benny asked me that, it was like a dream. But my wife, Gladys, happened to be a modiste at the time. She was working for Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and a lot of other stars as a personal dressmaker. She had a terrific business, but I had to persuade her to give it up and come travel with us. Benny had said, “If you come, I want your wife to come.” I guess I was young and pretty wild, and Benny wanted me to have a stabilizer along. He was real sharp.
Benny talked to Gladys about it. “Come on back with us, Pops,” he told her. He even called her “Pops.” So we went and bought a little trailer, put the trunks, drums, and vibes in it, hitched it to Gladys’ little car, and drove to New York. And we never regretted it.
I made my debut on the Camel Caravan — I’ll never forget it — on a Tuesday night in November. It was like playing in heaven. Then, one day, I discovered that “heaven” could have a little trouble in it too.
Teddy Wilson and I, you should remember, were the first Negroes to be integrated into a white band. Well, one day during rehearsal I was standing behind Benny, and the producer of the show came over and asked, “Are you going to have the trio and quartet on again?”
Benny said, “Sure; that’s a prominent part of our show.”
“Well, Benny,” the producer told him, “you know we’ve been getting a lot of letters protesting Hampton and Wilson on the show.”
“Nuts to them,” Benny answered. “Either they want my band or they don’t want it. And Hampton and Wilson are part of my band.”
That didn’t end it, of course. They kept on hammering at him, asking Benny to drop us from the show. But Benny went further than just keeping us on. Each week he would have some other Negro guest star.
Ella Fitzgerald was coming out then with a record called A-Tisket, A-Tasket, that she made with the great Chick Webb band. Benny had her on as a guest, and he brought the great blues singer Joe Turner, from Kansas City, and those great boogie-woogie pianists, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade (Lux) Lewis to play with us.
When John Hammond told Benny about Count Basie’s band in Kansas City, Benny was so sold on letting people hear how good Basie was that he pushed the Count’s band along with his own. The radio announcers used to publicize our names on the air, but they never said anything about color. So, when we went on the road, lots of people didn’t expect us to be Negroes. We’d get into a town and someone would ask me, “Are you Mr. Goodman’s valet?”
I’d take it good-naturedly and say, “Sure,” because just to be Mr. Goodman’s valet was enough, because he was my idol.
Another time we were playing a concert in Richmond, Virginia. and the stagehands called me the “water boy.” Benny happened to hear them and he got furious. He called them aside and bawled them out. “This man is a member of my band,” he told them. “He’s a gentleman and I want you to respect him as such. Don’t bring your personal feelings on the stage. If you tear him down, he won’t give a good performance and we’ll all suffer — you included.”
This Is Why He’s the King of Swing
To tell the truth, we didn’t have too much trouble over the race question. That was because Benny would always try to pave the way in advance, so that nothing would happen to embarrass us. He would have the promoters of the tour take all the necessary precautions. Like when we played in the Texas Centennial in Dallas, Benny had us a reservation in the same hotel where he stayed. The only thing was that when we rode the elevator we were supposed to ride with the company manager, so that no one would bother us.
In the band, Benny was a strict disciplinarian, in general behavior as well as music. If the ball was supposed to be snapped on “17,” you snapped the ball on “17.” Benny always insisted on his program, and the men backed him. Harry James is a good example. He comes from Beaumont, Texas, and he used to say to me, “Man, we’re all together, and if anyone bothers you, he bothers us.” Harry knew the score.
What Benny wanted was good music, and he didn’t care whether a man was white, green, black, yellow, or blue, so long as he could play. Some people say he’s hard. I say no. He just has high principles and he doesn’t pussyfoot around with them. As far as I’m concerned, what he did in those days — and they were hard days, in 1937 — made it possible for Negroes to have their chance in baseball and other fields. He was a real pioneer and he didn’t grandstand about it. He used to tell me, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”
Benny was and is a musician — one of the greatest. He was the man who brought out Negro music as a true art form. In my tour of Europe last year, the Europeans all seemed to think the same thing — that the most important art form developed in the United States is Negro jazz. Well, it took a guy like Benny to bring it out. That why he’s the King of Swing.
Lots of people talk about swing, but it’s a hard thing to put into words. You’ve got to hear it to know it. Negro music is rhythmic; it’s got a beat to it — a beat you can feel inside you as well as hear with your ears. Well, we Negroes never did push our music like we should have; we kept it too much to ourselves. Maybe we were ashamed of it, thought it wouldn’t stand up. But Benny saw how good it was. He brought it out, made the music swing by giving it that beat, that happy lift. And the people who heard it, they would swing right along with him.
The arrangements Benny played with our band were the same ones that Fletcher Henderson made and played with his own band back in 1922 or ’24. They are just as fresh today as the day they were written. I caught Benny’s sneak preview out in New Haven last year when he started his concert tour after his Columbia Jazz at Carnegie Hall records proved so popular. The ovation he got was tremendous, and the younger generation was hollering, “Go, go, go, Benny! Go, go, go!” And he was playing the same arrangements Henderson wrote about 30 years before. The way Benny feels about it is, he says, that in their way the Henderson arrangements will stand up like the work of Mozart, Debussy, or any of those guys. They are real classics.
Benny believed that a man had to have a calling to be a musician. He could pick out the greatness in a musician and know whether he was a “school musician” or had a great soul — something of God that he was born with. If a man had that, Benny wouldn’t care if he couldn’t read a note.
He had strict beliefs about talent. If you were supposed to be a swing musician, swing like mad. If you were supposed to be a concert musician, be the best. He wanted perfection, no matter what you did. “You got to have respect for your audience,” he would tell me. “They’re paying for the best you’ve got —and you’ve got to give it to them.”
Benny didn’t allow any fooling around about rehearsals. He always wanted us on a job an hour ahead of time, so we could get ready. You had to be clear-minded and clear-thinking. No false stimulants. If you did what he said, he wouldn’t cross you. But if you didn’t — well, he was liable to throw the clarinet at you.
You didn’t hit any wrong notes in Benny’s band. If you did, you only had one more time to do it. And he wouldn’t give any two weeks’ notice. He’d pay you off on the spot for the two weeks.
When Benny got engrossed in his music, he kind of got lost and just left this world. But he always knew what the men in the band were doing. If a guy accidentally hit a wrong note, Benny would give him the “ray.” That was an expression we had in the band. Some of the men even used to call Benny “The Ray.”
He’d look over his glasses and stare at you, really nail you down with his eyes. And all the time he’d keep on playing, making some of the most difficult passages on his clarinet. Two minds working with him all the time. He’d be playing with one mind, chastising you with the other. He wouldn’t stop playing and he wouldn’t stop glaring.
And at the end of a piece, Benny would stop playing, but he’d keep on giving you the ray. Then he’d turn around and say, “The next number will be so-and-so.” But if you did something wrong the next time, as I said before, he would pay you off.
Nobody in the band liked to get the ray. I remember Ziggy Elman was picking up a mute off the floor and didn’t get it in his trumpet fast enough. He said later, “The old man give me the ray and it stayed with me four days. I couldn’t sleep.”
Benny was a real fanatic about rehearsals and arrangements. If some idea hit him, he would call a rehearsal at 7:00 in the morning. Sometimes we would get off a train and Benny would say, “Rehearsal.” And you’d be there. Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Chris Griffin would have to hit high F or high G at 7:00 in the morning just as sharp as they hit it at 7:00 at night.
The trumpet players used to say, “Man, my chops are down.” They were talking about the lips. Well, your chops had to be always up, really cooking and smoking with Benny.
Just because Benny was so serious about music doesn’t mean he wasn’t human. He always had a fine sense of humor. Back in the old days he had the slang, like everyone else. I gave him a couple of things when I first came to the band. I was working down on the Gimmick Street and I got a lot of the common talk — the hip jive talk. Like killer-diller. When an arrangement was great, knocked the crowd out, I’d say to Benny, “Pops, call that a killer-diller.” I called him Pops too.
Then we used the term gassin’ in. “That gassed me, man.” Of course, today they say, “It’s a gasser.” That means something is great enough to make you flip. Then we used the word hip. “Man, that’s really hip,” meant it was on the ball.
Once in a while, Benny would say something that passed way over me. Like the time we played in the Paramount Theater in New York. It was January 1937, before we did the Carnegie Hall concert, and it was the first time, I think, that the band and quartet played together in a theater.
It was real wild. The kids lined up at 6:00 in the morning — you just couldn’t stop them. They were dancing in the aisles, on the stage, on one another’s heads — wherever there was room.
Today, a lot of those kids are married and have kids of their own. Benny introduced the quartet, and we went over terrific. When it was over, I asked Benny, sort of kidding, “Pops, how you think we did?”
He said, “Oh, man, we hog-tied the show.”
That got me mad and I sulked all day because I thought he meant something went wrong.
Later on, the Variety reporter came by, and I asked him what Benny meant by “hog-tied.” He told me, “When you hog-tie something, can’t nothing else follow it.”
Benny really taught me something with that quartet. We played about 1,000 shows, and we sure stopped them. “Once you stop a show,” Benny told me, “get off that stage and don’t come back on. You might do lots of encores, but hit one bad note and you spoil it all. So get off.”
Sometimes you hear people say Benny is absent-minded. I say he is just unexpected. Every once in a while, when you think you have him all figured out, he might do something that throws you off.
Once we were riding in a train together, and Benny was eating bacon and eggs in the dining car. He asked the waiter for some catchup. Benny didn’t see the top on the bottle, so he started to pour it and the top fell off right in the middle of his eggs.
I looked at Benny and waited for him to pick the top off. I was wrong. He just put the bottle back on the table and ate all around the top, ate all the eggs and left the top sitting there in the middle of the plate.
Another time we were on a train and the steward poked a pad and pencil into the compartment so Benny could write his breakfast order. Benny looked at it, signed it, and said, “All right, there’s my autograph.”
Another thing about Benny, he left the business end of his band to his sister, Ethel, but he was no fool about money.
Once — I think it was in Pittsburgh — we went to a spot called the Harlem Club. The audience was throwing money at the performers, and a coin happened to roll down by Benny’s foot. Benny saw it and said, “Gee, Abraham Lincoln is smiling at me. Abe is winking at me.” He picked it up and put it in his pocket. We were all amused by this because we’d been sitting around that table feeling too good to pick up a penny.
Benny knew the value of a penny and a dollar, but he sure was no tightwad. When he took sick in 1941 and had to go to the Mayo Clinic, I got his blessing to start a band of my own. I felt so grateful and indebted to him because he really gave me my start that I made a deal with Joe Glaser, who became my booker and manager, to set aside 5 percent of my earnings for Benny and call it the Benny Goodman Fund.
Around 1942 and ’43, business got real good, and up to 1946 my band was one of the top-grossing outfits in the country. So the 5 percent kept adding up and I’d be telling Benny, “Pops, I’ve got that fund set up because I figured that if I had a band you should profit in it.”
He would say, “Sure, sure, Popsy. Just go ahead. I’ll see you later.”
By 1946 that 5 percent came to over $130,000, so I decided to bring Benny to a showdown.
“Go ahead and take that money,” I told him. “Take it because it keeps piling up.”
Benny, he smiled and he said, “You made a great name for yourself and I feel proud of you. You earned that money; go ahead and keep it.”
Every once in a while, when Benny and I have a reunion, we naturally get around to talking about the old days. The other night we were talking about “Flying Home.” He said he’d heard that I’d made a 28-minute version with Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Buddy De Franco, and Ray Brown for Norman Granz on the Clef label.
“Did we write that song together?” he wanted to know.
I said, “We certainly did. Don’t you remember when we were flying from Los Angeles to Atlantic City? And I was up in the airplane humming this riff and you were sick to the stomach — you were the only one sick on the trip. Then you started humming along with me, and you put the middle to the tune and wrote it all down. Then we both got to singing and, man, we sang it all the way to Atlantic City.”
Then Benny smiled. “Yeah, I remember,” and he remarked how “Flying Home” has gone through all these years, getting bigger and bigger. Les Brown, Ellington, Art Tatum, all have made records of it. Even some rumba band has just made a record of it. That piece of music is a classic already.
Recently I’ve been hearing about this movie Universal is making about Benny. If anyone deserves it, he does, because Benny is a really great man who cemented a wonderful relationship between colored and white. Don’t get the idea Benny was one of those crusaders who are always playing for headlines. A crusader has an ax to grind. Benny had no axes; he’s just interested in music and people, and he wants the best of both to get a chance to come out. I hope they can show that in the picture.
Listening to Benny in Basin Street was a thrill — you can’t imagine how much of a thrill, because it brought back all those wonderful days when we were playing together. The technique he has, the soul and expression are still amazing. He hasn’t lost anything. His new records are sensational. I buy them all.
Yes, Benny’s still my favorite — just like he was when I played the Paradise Night Club.
Admiring Benny as I do, I know it will be sometime along the road that he and I will play together again. We’ve just got to. I fit right in with him, like ham and eggs. When Benny and I used to play together, we never had to sit down and figure out a riff. If Benny started a riff, I could play a third to him, I could play a fifth, just automatically. I don’t care how hard or complicated it was. And he could do the same thing with me. He and I can just play together so good.