Ammons formed his own band in 1934, and in 1938 performed in the Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, which among other achievements launched the boogie-woogie craze. He and two other performers at the concert, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, became the leading boogie-woogie pianists of the day. The three worked together at Café Society and also toured and recorded as a trio.
He worked steadily till his death in 1949; he played at Harry S. Truman's inauguration that year.
He was the father of tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons.