Pete Hampton (and Laura Bowman): In Dahomey and Beyond

Pete Hampton (1871-1916) was a ground-breaking African American singer, actor, harmonica player and banjoist from Bowling Green, Kentucky. After several years with medicine shows, all-black minstrel troupes and vaudeville, he became connected with the seminal team of George Walker and Bert Williams. In 1903 he was third billed in their classic show In Dahomey, with music by Will Marion Cook. It was while he was performing with this company that he met and hitched up with Laura Bowman (1881-1957), who became his common-law wife and performance partner.

With this company he toured the UK. He then formed a quartet known as The Darktown Entertainers with Bowman, Will Garland and Fred Douglas which toured throughout Europe. Starting in 1910 he made his home in London but was compelled by World War One to return to the States. He took sick on the return voyage; the illness took his life in 1916.

Hampton was the first African American to play harmonica on a recording, in 1904. While in Europe he made over 150 records. He is credited with pioneering the bending of notes on harmonica, a technique later employed by players of the blues harp. You can hear many of his recordings on Youtube.

Bowman went on to a film career, appearing in numerous films by Oscar Micheaux between 1920 and 1940. Her last part was a walk-on in Miss Susie Slagle’s (1946) with Veronica Lake and Sonny Tufts.

To learn more about vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.