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Published: Sunday, 9/1/2002

Toledo hopped to swing great's beat

Lionel Hampton's music electrified many a Toledo night - and nightclub - starting in 1942.

Mr. Hampton first appeared in the city at the Trianon Ballroom that year. He continued performing at the Paramount Theater through the 1940s, and his growing popularity took his shows to the Civic Auditorium and the Toledo Sports Arena.

“I remember when I used to play Toledo, all those beautiful theaters and clubs,” he recalled in a 1986 interview.

In January, 1954, Toledo Mayor Ollie Czelusta proclaimed a Lionel Hampton Day. The artist was met at Central Union Station and paraded downtown, where he was given a key to the city.

The same year, Toledo tunesmith Porter Roberts sued Mr. Hampton over rights to “Your Million Dollar Smile,” a song Mr. Hampton's band sometimes played. Mr. Roberts said the musician owed him $50,000, but a Lucas County Common Pleas Court jury decided it was worth only the $800 Mr. Hampton originally paid for it.

“The jury deliberated only 30 minutes before finding for the defendant, after which three jurors asked for and received Mr. Hampton's autograph,” The Blade reported. Apparently, the two men reconciled over time, and the Hampton orchestra later recorded the Roberts tune.

Mr. Hampton's recording career brought him into contact with Toledo jazz piano legend Art Tatum. With drummer Buddy Rich they formed The Hampton-Tatum Rich Trio; their 1955 album still is available.

Toledo was not always a high point in Mr. Hampton's travels. In 1969, he played two nights to an audience of 10 to 20 in a downtown go-go club, only months after playing at President Nixon's inaugural ball in Washington. A woman was heard shouting “Three dollars? I'm not paying $3 just to hear Lionel Hampton!”

The bandleader described the sparse crowd as “small, but enthusiastic.”

But he kept coming back anyway, and his swing and big-band style came back into fashion. In 1980, he played the Toledo Club with a 14-piece orchestra and, in 1986, he entertained at the Labor Day waterfront festival. In 1989, he opened the Toledo Symphony Pops Series with a lively song, dance, drums, and vibraphone performance that packed the Stranahan Theater at the Masonic Complex on Heatherdowns Boulevard.

Gladys Hampton, Mr. Hampton's wife and business manager, had several friends in Toledo.

Weldon Barnet, founder of the newspaper The Toledo Script, said Hampton income helped to finance the enterprise.

“I told her Toledo's Negro community needed a newspaper, and I intended to start one,” he said in 1970. “She gave me $1,000 for the project.”

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