Mobley was born in Eastman, Georgia, but was raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near Newark. Early in his career, he worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. He took part in one of the landmark hard bop sessions, alongside Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Doug Watkins and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. The results of these sessions were released as Horace Silver & The Jazz Messengers. They contrasted with the classical pretensions of Cool Jazz, with Mobley’s rich lyricism being bluesier, alongside the funky approach of Horace Silver. When The Jazz Messengers split in 1956, Mobley continued on with pianist Horace Silver for a short time, although he did work again with Blakey some years later, when the drummer appeared on Mobley’s albums in the early 60s.
During the 1960s, he worked chiefly as a leader, recording 25 albums for Blue Note Records, including Soul Station and Roll Call, between 1955 and 1970. He performed with many of the most important hard bop players, such as Grant Green, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones, and formed a particularly productive partnership with trumpeter Lee Morgan. Mobley is widely recognized as one of the great composers of originals in the hard-bop era, with interesting chord changes and room for soloists to spread out.
His 1961 album, Another Workout, while considered an instant classic, was inexplicably not released until 1985.
Mobley also spent a brief time in 1961 with Miles Davis, during the trumpeter’s search for a replacement for John Coltrane. He is heard on the album Someday My Prince Will Come (alongside Coltrane, who returned for the recording of some tracks), and some live recordings (Miles Davis - In Person Friday And Saturday Nights At The Blackhawk, Complete and At Carnegie Hall). Though considered by some as not having the improvisational fire of Coltrane, Mobley was still a major voice on tenor saxophone, known for his melodic playing.
Mobley was forced to retire in the mid-1970s due to lung problems. He worked briefly with Duke Jordan before his death from pneumonia in 1986.