2006 Lifetime Achievement: The Hampton Sisters

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The Hampton Sisters

We are not what you call musicians, we are musical entertainers, and there is a difference. — Aletra Hampton

The tune It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing is a credo for The Hampton Sisters, Aletra, piano and Virtue, bass.

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.

We had no formal music training. Pop taught us everything by his own method. We didn't have to read music, Aletra Hampton recalls. 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 maintain today.

Aletra Hampton, whom some musicians have nicknamed The Warrior, is known among musicians for her no-nonsense approach and sharp business demeanor about music and performance. She's never expressed any regrets that she had no childhood growing up being the oldest; her fathers values are what she adheres to today.

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. We broke into three or four groups when we left Pops band, Virtue says. The Andrew Sisters and The King Sisters were our inspiration to form our own group.

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. The most memorable and best musical experience we had was when we played Carnegie Hall in the late 40s when Duke led the band, Aletra remembers.

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 Cincinnatis 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.

The girls Aletra, Virtue, Dawn (on vocals) and Carmalita (saxophone) regrouped and became locally renowned. They played all over the city for two decades as the Hampton Sisters with a long engagement of 15 years at Steins on North Meridian Street. Everyone liked what we were playing, which was rhythm and blues and swing. We were the only ones playing that style in town and the public learned to dance to our music, Aletra recalled.

When Carmalita died in 1987 it changed the group sound.

When Carmelita passed and Dawn moved to New York, we got away from the earlier influences and we developed our own particular style, Virtue says. Alonzo Pookie Johnson was brought in on sax. Now Russell Whistling Postman Webster holds that chair and Larry Clark is the groups drummer.

In spite of all of the adjustments, Aletra proudly proclaims, Pop used to say you play for the public. We are not what you call musicians, we are musical entertainers, and there is a difference.

Aletra, 90, and Virtue, 84, continue to play gigs at schools, festivals and concerts and have gathered up numerous honors along the way. They were honored by the State of Indiana with the Governors Arts Award in 1991 for their contribution to Indiana's musical heritage. In 2004, both sisters received honorary doctorates in music from the University of Indianapolis.

The Hampton Sisters are in big demand for performances and they show no inclination of slowing down.

One of their big passions is teaching children and passing on their love and knowledge of music. You don't talk to kids and talk down to them, Aletra says. Find out what they want to know and be sincere when you talk to them. If it is something they don't like to hear, you tell them anyway because you have been there.

Both Hampton Sisters still proudly proclaim, We always give our best to give the public what they want.

— Chuck Workman

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