Airmail Special // Lionel Hampton, with Oscar Peterson & Buddy DeFranco (Verve MG V-8106)

After a string of West Coast jazz musicians, I figured I should probably spotlight some of my other albums.  Go east, young man!

The Music

Tune:  ‘The Way You Look Tonight’

Recorded 1953 or 1954 in New York City


  • Lionel Hampton- Vibraharp
  • Buddy DeFranco- Clarinet
  • Oscar Peterson- Piano
  • Ray Brown- Bass
  • Buddy Rich- Drums

This was an all-star group, with the Founding Father of jazz vibes himself, Lionel Hampton and the solid support of the Oscar Peterson Trio circa 1954, minus Herb Ellis and plus Buddy Rich.  This quartet jams through side one, but on the second side, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco joins the fun.  Normally, I’m not a big fan of Buddy DeFranco’s playing.  He seems to sound the exact same on every song, using the same phrases repeatedly and going into double-time, which can sound rather boring after a while.  On this album, though, particularly on the above track, DeFranco restrains himself (well, almost.  He just can’t resist double-timing his solos) and puts down a solid effort that sounds like he’s really listening to the rest of the fellas in the group.  I had a tough time choosing a track to use, but I eventually chose this track because it has a lazy, head-bobbing groove that simmers along for eleven minutes.  Everybody seems to be more relaxed on this song, and despite both Peterson and Hampton being grunters, both are rather quiet.  This was one of many albums that this group, named the Lionel Hampton Quartet/Quintet, recorded for Norman Granz’s Clef label, which turned into Verve in the late 1950’s.  Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, Granz took full advantage of the longer playing time of the new LP format and often let his recording stars go and go at length.  Granz’s in-studio jam sessions from the early 1950’s spanned numerous albums, with single takes lasting 20 minutes.  A raucous version of ‘Flying Home’ recorded by the Lionel Hampton Quintet clocks in at over 17 minutes.  As a result, there were quite a few albums that Granz released with only four tunes on the record, and this is one of them.  This album swings hard though, so you don’t really feel like you were short-shifted.

The Cover

FullSizeRender (73)College Jazz Collector Rating:  F-

I absolutely hate the cover.  It reminds me of a minstrel from some show circa 1892.  I know, it was the 1950’s and all, but the fact that somebody thought it would be funny to get Lionel to shuck and jive for the cover photo makes me cringe.  What on earth does it have to do with an airmail special?!  As my friends would say, it’s not a good look.  At all.  Maybe there was some cultural joke that was relevant and immediately known back in the 50’s that’s lost on me.

Yet again, the cover has the wrong type of autograph, which probably contributed to the $5.00-price tag stuck directly on the cover.  I don’t understand why some record store owners insist on putting the price stickers directly on the album cover itself, as opposed to inside the album jacket.  Trying to remove one once it’s been put on the cover can often result in either part of the cover coming off with the sticker or the sticker ripping, leaving some of it still on the jacket.  It’s a real drag.  I’m almost positive they wouldn’t put a sticker on an original Beatles album like ‘Abbey Road’.

The Back

FullSizeRender (74)The album jacket has definitely seen better days.  The force (from being packed in a shelf with other records) is strong with this one.  Norman Granz’s liner notes are somewhat infamous for their paucity of information, kinda like another record label out on the West Coast (cough cough Fantasy cough).  Well, lack of info relevant to the record.  We get a lovely bio on Lionel and a plug for the movie he appeared in (alongside Steve Allen), but no date of the recording sessions.  I also find the redundancy of the last paragraph funny.

The Vinyl

The record has early Verve labels, with the trumpeter still on the labels from the Clef and Norgran labels and an absence of the little ‘r’ after ‘Verve’, in addition to the ‘records’ in Verve Records being in print as opposed to cursive.  The vinyl is deep-groove and pretty heavy.  It looks like an original first pressing, but the runnout matrices tell a different story.  In the runnout area, it reads ‘MGV -8106’ followed by either A or B depending on the side, but beside it, crossed out, reads ‘MGC -727’ with A or B.  Putting my Sherlock hat on, I figured that if the ‘V’ in ‘MGV’ stands for Verve, then the ‘C’ in ‘MGC’ probably stands for Clef.  The cover of the album says it’s part of the Clef series, and after a quick Google, I saw that this album was initially released in 1957 under the catalog number ‘MGC-727’.  Interestingly, according to a 27 February, 1957 issue of Billboard, in the mid-1950’s Clef, Norgran, and Verve were all being simultaneously released on their own labels.  Clef’s catalog numbers only ran into the hundreds, while Norgran and Verve had catalog numbers ranging from 1000 to 2000, then jumping up to the 8000’s.  In the late 50’s, Granz finally lumped all his different labels together under the Verve label, and I think this album is one of the transition albums.  It’s not a first pressing technically, but it’s an original pressing of what was once a Clef album into a new Verve album.  Which kinda makes it a ‘first’, right?  Records rarely are as cut and dry as they appear.  Each record has a story, which makes record collecting fun and interesting.

Norman Granz once admitted that he used to make up different names to imply his hi-fi sound was something grand.  It wasn’t.  As quoted in a 1979 Down Beat magazine interview, “It was a complete put-on>  I’ve always been skeptical of a lot of stuff I read about sound production…Well, back in the ’50s high fidelity was the big thing, but I considered it something of a con by the record companies, especially when they began putting ‘high fidelity’ stickers on LPs that had been in their catalogues for years.  Moreover, there were all kinds of strange, technical sounding names for this system or that”.  It is with this insight that I look at this record, touting ‘panoramic true hi-fi’.  Lionel’s vibes occasionally have a bit of distortion in them, and it’s not from my record player.  The remastered digital recordings have the same distortion.  The vinyl sounds clean and quiet in spite of the less-than-stellar sound engineering.

The Place of Acquisition

In his Allmusic review of this album, Scott Yanow calls this album hard to find.  I don’t know about that.  eBay and Discogs have numerous copies for sale at inexpensive prices.  I found mine at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, where I also found a few other albums, one of which I already profiled.  It was a surprising find, and I quickly grabbed it.  I didn’t like the album cover, but the Lionel Hampton/Oscar Peterson partnership coupled with the lengthy tracks won me over (as did the $5.00 price).  I’m glad record stores are out here selling jazz records at such reasonable prices.  It’ll be a while before I can start buying mint albums online!

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