Born Albert C. Ammons in Chicago, Illinois, his parents were pianists, and he had learned to play by the age of ten. He also played percussion in the drum and bugle corps as a teenager and was soon performing with bands on the Chicago club scene. After World War I he became interested in the blues, learning by listening to Chicago pianists Hersal Thomas and the brothers Alonzo and Jimmy Yancey. In the early to mid 1920s Ammons worked as a cab driver for the Silver Taxicab Company. In 1924 he met a fellow taxi driver who also played piano, Meade Lux Lewis. Soon the two players began working as a team, performing at club parties. Ammons started his own band at the Club DeLisa in 1934 and remained at the club for the next two years.
During that time he played with a five piece unit that included Guy Kelly, Dalbert Bright, Jimmy Hoskins, and Israel Crosby. Ammons also recorded as Albert Ammons's Rhythm Kings for Decca Records in 1936. The Rhythm Kings' version of "Swanee River Boogie" sold a million copies. Ammons moved from Chicago to New York, where he teamed up with another pianist, Pete Johnson. The two performed regularly at the Café Society, occasionally joined by Meade Lux Lewis, and performed with other noted jazz artists such as Benny Goodman and Harry James.
In 1938 Ammons appeared at Carnegie Hall with Johnson and Lewis, an event that helped launch the boogie-woogie craze. Record producer Alfred Lion who had attended John H. Hammond's From Spirituals to Swing concert on December 23, 1938, which had introduced Ammons and Lewis, two weeks later started Blue Note Records, recording nine Ammons solos including "The Blues" and "Boogie Woogie Stomp"), eight by Lewis and a pair of duets in a one-day session in a rented studio.
In 1941, Ammon's boogie music was accompanied by drawn-on-film animation in the short film Boogie-Doodle by Norman McLaren. Ammons played himself in the movie Boogie-Woogie Dream (1944), with Lena Horne and Pete Johnson. As a sideman with Sippie Wallace in the 1940s Ammons recorded a session with his son, the tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. Although the boogie-woogie fad began to die down in 1945 Ammons had no difficulty securing work. He continued to tour as a solo artist and between 1946 and 1949 recorded his last sides for Mercury Records with bassist Israel Crosby.
Ammons's played at President Harry S. Truman's inauguration in 1949. He died on December 2, 1949 in Chicago and was interred at the Lincoln Cemetery, at Kedzie Avenue in Blue Island, Worth Township, Cook County, Illinois.