Remembering Virtue Hampton Whitted
Last Wednesday, when Virtue Hampton Whitted died, I felt an era’s last notes — as defined by this city’s living performing legends, the Hampton Sisters — had been played.
Three words represent Virtue and Aletra Hampton’s love of music and their ability to communicate to the public: gifted, committed and passionate.
I recall many conversations with Virtue and Aletra and introduced them at many performances with their quartet. When they were on stage it was amazing to see the physical transformation that rolled back the clock, and the physical inconveniences that seemed to disappear.
No one knew that better than drummer Lawrence Clark III and saxophonist Russell Webster, who performed for years with Virtue’s booming, swinging bass and Aletra’s piano and heartfelt vocals.
Virtue’s rhythm-mate on drums, Clark has sustained his family’s legacy of working with the Hampton Sisters. His father, Lawrence Clark II, also served as their drummer. Clark said of Virtue, “She came up in a period and time where you had to really commit to what you were doing. Virtue was a humble woman. Some people can talk to express themselves; Virtue’s actions were her way of expression. She was one of the strongest beings I ever had the honor of performing with. I witnessed a lot of things over the years. There was a basic philosophy Virtue and Aletra lived by and they taught me to appreciate it. When you go into that performance, it’s all about that performance. If you are sick you don’t let it affect you. If you die, you die after the gig. We were in the studio one time for a couple of hours. Virtue went into a state of unconsciousness for about 30 minutes. We were all terrified. When she came out of it she looked up and said, ‘OK, let’s finish up.’ All of them — Virtue, Aletra and ‘Pookie’ on sax — gave off a spirit that said, ‘I will not deny this gift to the people.’”
Saxophonist Russell “Whistling Postman” Webster started out with the Hampton Sisters and returned after his replacement, Alonso “Pookie” Johnson, died. “I have always respected those girls. I felt they were doing justice to the jazz that’s always been. I tried to give as much as I could to it. I thought they helped jazz and I always respected them as good musicians. We all tried to work together to make the music sound good in a public way that didn’t hurt anybody.”
Virtue was soft-spoken, even about the adversity and difficult times in their career. She told me why the sisters formed their own group with Aletra, Carmelita and Dawn. “The Andrews Sisters and the King Sisters were our inspiration to form our own group. When Carmelita passed and Dawn moved to New York, we got away from earlier influences and developed our own style.” That style, with Virtue’s bass acting as the time-keeping heartbeat to Aletra’s storytelling piano and vocals, made them jazz icons for over six generations.
Aletra, Clark and Webster all agree that with the passing of 85-year-old Virtue the Hampton Sisters’ era is over. They have lost their heartbeat. n
Services for Virtue Hampton Whitted will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 24 at Crown Hill Funeral Home, with calling from noon.
The Hampton family legacy
Laura and Clarke “Deacon” Hampton raised 12 children, taught them how to play musical instruments and set out with them as a family band. Named Deacon Hampton & The Cottonpickers, they traveled a rough vaudeville circuit in the ’20s before settling in Indianapolis in the 1930s.
Life on the road in those days of racism and segregation was hard on the family as they traveled in a converted panel delivery truck, barnstorming in the Midwest and South. Clarke “Deacon” Hampton instilled in his family a strong work ethic and adherence to a strict discipline, which both sisters fearlessly maintained.
World War II caused the breakup of the Hampton family band because four of the brothers were in the service. The girls banded together to perform at local USO sites, entertaining the troops.
Duke, the oldest brother, resurrected the family band after the war and they toured throughout the Midwest and East gathering a name for quality entertainment. Times were better as they played the hot spots of New York: the Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom.
Returning to Indy, the Hampton band got steady work performing as the house band at the Sunset Terrace on Indiana Avenue before becoming the house band at Cincinnati’s Cotton Club. It was there they recorded “Lonesome Women Blues” by Aletra, and she sang “Baby Please Be Good To Me” and “The Push,” written by Lucky Hampton.
When modern jazz or bebop became the new trend, several of the brothers went off to study music and the new jazz. In the ’50s, the Hampton home on West Vermont Street became a hotbed of learning and rehearsals for young and upcoming musicians. Names like Jimmy Spaulding, Willis Kirk, Benny Barth, Sonny Johnson and David Baker were just a few of the fledgling jazz players that crowded in the family home for rehearsals, development and a career in jazz.
Aletra and Virtue continued to play gigs at schools, festivals and concerts through 2006 and gathered numerous honors along the way. They were honored by the State of Indiana with the Governor’s Arts Award in 1991 for their contribution to Indiana’s musical heritage and received honorary doctorates in music from the University of Indianapolis in 2004. In 2006, NUVO honored the Hampton Sisters with a Cultural Vision Lifetime Achievement Award.