The song “Red Top” was composed by Lionel Hampton in 1947, and was first recorded the same year by The Lionel Hampton Orchestra.
A famous jazz standard, “Red Top” is also infamous for the controversy swirling around the creation of the song. That controversy centers around two musicians: Lionel Hampton and Ben Kynard.
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Hampton’s musical career sprouted from humble beginnings in a little town called Carlos, Wisconsin. He studied music at a private school under the direction of Dominican sisters, where he learned rudimental drumming and the foundations of music.
“I did [my lessons] right, because I knew down the road that I would need this type of training to be professional—which I knew I wanted to be,” reflected Hampton.
A year later, Hampton moved to Chicago and joined a newspaper boy’s band for a local paper, The Chicago Defender.
“If you would sell papers, the Editor, Mr. Abbott, would let you join the band—and you’d get a uniform, an instrument of your choice, that you wanted to learn how to play, and he had someone there to teach you this instrument. There were about ninety of us kids, you understand—and a lot of notable musicians came out of that band.”
Hampton’s career took off when he moved to California, where he worked with jazz legends including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. Hampton’s wife, Gladys, proved a brilliant businesswoman. Gladys managed Hampton’s finances, ultimately allowing him to create two record labels, a publishing company, and the Lionel Hampton Development Corporation, which built low-income housing.
Hampton worked for Benny Goodman until 1940, when he left to form his own big band, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Ben Kynard, a saxophonist from Kansas City, joined Hampton’s ensemble in 1946. Kynard’s older brother initiated his musical instruction on a saxophone purchased from Sears.
Kynard said he penned “Red Top” the same year that he joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, naming it after his red-haired wife, though Hampton shared the writing credit. Due to a take-it-or-leave-it style agreement with Hampton, Kynard received little money, or credit, for his work with “Red Top.”
The Gene Ammons “Red Top” cover swept the nation in 1947 forever identified Ammons with the hit, further obscuring Kynard’s involvement.
Kynard was reputed in the jazz scene, both for his musical genius and unassuming, gentle manner. He left the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1953 and worked as a U.S. Postal Carrier in Kansas City for 32 years, playing in jazz clubs at night and assisted fellow musicians on hundreds of arrangements and compositions.
“I didn’t get what I earned on [“Red Top”]. But I am happy to know … that it’s still in everybody’s repertoire,” reflects Kynard.
The original recording is an instrumental arrangement, though later versions feature the lyrics penned by Hampton. “Red Top” is more commonly performed in its instrumental form, but versions recorded with strong vocalists, such as Eva Cassidy’s rendition, add an interesting dynamic to the tune.
Hampton’s lyrics paint the image of a narrator who is blissfully in love, using a top as a metaphor. The repetition in phrases such as “You’ve got me so if I don’t go around/Well I’m sure gonna drop gonna drop gonna drop,” emphasize the accents and rolling phrases in the composition.
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