Born in 1908 in Louisville, he and his mother bounced around to Alabama and Wisconsin before settling in Chicago in 1916. Originally a drummer, he started playing around with the vibraphone. In 1930, Louis Armstrong asked him to play the vibes on a couple of tracks for an album – and a new career was born.
In 1936, he started playing with Benny Goodman in an integrated trio and quartet. In 1940, he left Goodman to form his own big band. It was with this group that he would appear at Robinson Auditorium. He continued to tour from the 1950s up until the 1980s. Though he had to curtail his performance schedule after suffering a stroke onstage in 1991, he would perform from time to time in the 1990s. His last performance was in 2001 not long before his death.
In his career, he received the 1992 Kennedy Center Honors, 1996 National Medal of the Arts, and numerous honorary degrees.