Lionel Leo Hampton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1908, and was raised by his grandmother. Shortly after he was born, he and his mother moved to her hometown Birmingham, Alabama. He spent his early childhood in Kenosha, Wisconsin before he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1916. As a youth, Hampton was a member of the Bud Billiken Club, an alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, which was off limits because of racial segregation. During the 1920s—while still a teenager—Hampton took xylophone lessons from Jimmy Bertrand and started playing drums. Hampton was raised Roman Catholic, and started out playing fife and drum at the Holy Rosary Academy near Chicago.he began his career playing drums for the Chicago Defender Newsboys' Band (led by Major N. Clark Smith) while still a teenager in Chicago. He moved to California in 1927 or 1928, playing drums for the Dixieland Blues-Blowers. He made his recording debut with The Quality Serenaders led by Paul Howard, then left for Culver City and drummed for the Les Hite band at Sebastian's Cotton Club. One of his trademarks as a drummer was his ability to do stunts with multiple pairs of sticks such as twirling and juggling without missing a beat. During this period he began practicing on the vibraphone. In 1930 Louis Armstrong came to California and hired the Les Hite band, asking Hampton if he would play vibes on two songs. So began his career as a vibraphonist, popularizing the use of the instrument in the process. Invented ten years earlier, thevibraphone is essentially a xylophone with metal bars, a sustain pedal, and resonators equipped with electric-powered fans that that add vibrato.
While working with the Les Hite band, Hampton also occasionally did some performing with Nat Shilkret and his orchestra. During the early 1930s he studied music at the University of Southern California. In 1934 he led his own orchestra, and then appeared in the Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven (1936) alongside Louis Armstrong (wearing a mask in a scene while playing drums).