This trumpeter appeared on close to 200 records between 1932 and 1959, but one song title in particular is brought up when jazz buffs are trying to make a point. That little number is "Li'l Darlin'," a melodically simple ballad in which Culley is allowed to linger over an especially sweet improvised passage utilizing his mute. Ironically, this was one of the few solo spots the trumpeter was given during his lengthy tenure with the Count Basie band, an event that both leader and soloist seems to have gotten their money's worth from.
The piece began life as a medium-tempo bounce and it was Basie's decision to change it that is held up as an example of this bandleader's great genius: letting someone else write the arrangement, then creating something priceless from that via a few simple but musically astute decisions. As for the fine art of swinging at a ballad tempo, the Culley solo is regarded as something of a testament. Perhaps the trumpeter's ease with all tempos was developed early on through his relationship with his brother Ray Culley, a drummer. Both were members of various local bands in Worcester, Massachusetts in the second half of the '20s.
In the following decade, Wendell Culley moved to New York, performing alongside Bill Brown, Horace Henderson, and Cab Calloway before establishing the first of his long collaborations, an 11-year stretch with the orchestra of Noble Sissle. The trumpeter then joined up with the raving Lionel Hampton for five years, leaving in 1949. Culley spent most of the '50s in the Basie organization, "Lil' Darlin'" becoming one of the group's biggest hits during its years with the Roulette label. It is possible the trumpeter felt he had hit a peak, as after counting himself out of the Basie band he moved to the west coast and got into the insurance business. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi