J14: Worcester’s Lil’ Darlin’ Wendell Culley

Some time just before he died in 1988, I had the good fortune to interview trumpeter Elwood “Barney” Price. In addition to being a fine player, consummate professional, exciting entertainer, he was quite the storyteller. In our conversation, he told me this cool little story about how, at 13, he had received his first trumpet for Christmas. Guess who broke it in?

“My mother bought that trumpet for me,” Price recalled. “The best thing about it is Wendell Culley, one of the best trumpet players around, playing with the Count Basie Band, a black cat who came from Worcester, came home for the holiday and came to my house on Christmas night wanting to borrow that horn of mine and I’m glad he did, cause I’ve been playing one ever since.”

Price was born in Worcester on February 17, 1913. Wendell Phillips Culley was Price’s senior by seven years. He was born in the same Laurel/Clayton neighborhood on January 8, 1906. He died in June 1983.

Culley is responsible for some of the most memorable solos in all of jazz. His best known offering is the brilliantly rendered muted solo on Neal Hefti’s Lil’ Darlin’ recorded with Basie in the 1950s. He can also be heard soloing on such seminal recordings as Lionel Hampton’s “Airmail Special” and “Midnight Sun” and Dinah Washington’s 1944 classic reading of Leonard Feather’s “Evil Gal Blues.”

Culley came from a family of two sisters and a brother. One of his sisters, Zora or better known as Zara Cully (sic) Brown was a character actress who played a variety of TV shows in her long career, such as “Days of Our Lives,” “The Mod Squad,” and “Night Gallery.” She also played the voodoo queen in the film, Sugar Hill. She will always be remembered however for her role as Mother Olivia in the “Jeffersons.” Wendell’s brother Ray was a noteable drummer around town.

Wendell went to Commerce High School. He graduated in 1925. There’s a picture of him in the 1924 yearbook playing cornet in Orchestra A. He is also pictured in the 1925 class playing in the Concert Band, where he is dressed in full uniform. Barney Price’s younger brother, Milton, remembers the Culley family from the neighborhood.

“I knew the whole family,” he says. “They were Worcesterites. They were a very musical family. He had another sister who sang. You’re talking a few years ago. It kind of gets by you. Yeah, in those days they taught themselves and made their own entertainment. A black family in those days, the first thing you have is piano in the house. That’s the way you were brought up – to learn the art of music. ”

Now a month shy of 87, Milton says he remembers Wendell in the school bands. He also says Wendell played in Boots Ward’s Nitehawks, a band that also featured Jaki Byard’s father John Sr.

“That’s where they all started out,” Milton says. “Then my brother took over. My brother kind of idolized him as a trumpeter. I played a little too. I didn’t make it a profession, but still I have the love of music.”

According to the 1930 Worcester Directory, where Culley is listed as a musician, it says he moved that year to New York City. His last known address was at 31 Laurel Street, which is now Plumley Village. It may be interesting to note that the Byard family is listed at 39 Laurel Street. Reggie Walley lived on nearby Carroll Street. Howie Jefferson resided at 87 Clayton Street and the Price family lived at 53 Clayton.

“We had our own black community back then,” Milton Price recalls. “When I was a kid, I remember seeing Major Taylor up George Street Hill. You can’t fool me cause I was there,” he adds, referring to champion cyclist.”

Price says after high school, Culley branched out and hooked up with Noble Sissle. “He finally settled in California,” he says. “You know the last time I saw Wendell, he played the Auditorium with Count Basie. I must have been 16-17 at the time. Knowing the family, his mother told me that Wendell was going to be playing. So we went down there. They stopped at Al and Martha’s Chicken Coop on Summer Street. They were the Moffits.”

The Moffits were descendants of Miriam “Mamie” Moffit, a pianist and bandleader of one of Worcester’s first bands. According to WPI Jazz Studies Director Rich Falco, sometime before 1922, Moffitt “assembled the very first professional jazz ensemble in Worcester, Mamie Moffitt and Her Five Jazz Hounds. Members of this group included Mamie Moffitt on piano, her husband Wallace Moffitt on cornet, Wallace’s brother Alfred Moffitt on saxophone, Alfred’s nephew Harold Black on violin and banjo, John Byard on trombone (father of Jaki Byard) and “Boots” Ward on drums. Occasionally Wendell Culley (trumpet) played with this group. Unfortunately, no recordings exist of this earliest of Central MA jazz groups.”

Falco says it is assumed that through Moffitt’s New York connections, where she lived and worked before coming to Worcester, “opened some opportunities for nationally acclaimed Worcester natives, including Wendell Culley (trumpet) with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. In fact, Wendell Culley visited Mamie Moffitt shortly before her death in 1954. Miriam Seals Moffitt died October 17, 1954.”

Milton’s nephew, Elwood “Bunny” Price Jr., remembers Wendell as well. “He was before my dad’s time,” he says. “Milton Price is ten years older than I am. He’s the only one left of my Dad’s family. He’s the baby. I met Wendell at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was ’55 or 1956. He was with Basie at the time. Me and my dad and my uncle Billy went down to see him. Uncle Billy knew him. I drove down. There was also Judy Wade and Danny Hampton. We went down in one of my big ol’ Buicks. I had a 1949 Buick at the time.

“It was a great night. When the band took a break – I can’t remember all the details – but we went over to talk to Wendell. My dad wanted to see him. You know how hectic them festivals are. They were taking a break. There must have been thousands of people there.”

Price says his dad in many ways followed in Culley’s footsteps. “He played in church. My dad played in church. Then I was the next one to play in church. The black churches always had somebody playing. AME Zion on Belmont Street. If I’m not mistaken, I think Wendell was a relative of Grace Brown. She taught piano lessons to everybody in the neighborhood.”

According to John Chilton’s article on Culley in Who’s Who of Jazz (1998), he played with local Worcester bands, before moving to New York where he hooked up with Bill Brown’s Brownies, Horace Henderson, then joined Cab Calloway.

In his book The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 by Gunther Schuller mentions Culley with Calloway. “Wendell Culley was at this time the band’s “straight” player. His almost classical concert band style and his clean trills can be heard on the intro and coda of “St. Louis Blues” and “Doin the Rumba,” respectively.”

Chilton says Culley left Calloway in the summer of 1931. He then joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra and remained with that outfit for 11 years. You can see Culley with the band in the 1933 film That’s the Spirit. Originally released by Vitaphone Corp., this fictional short features Noble Sissle and his great band that also consisted of Buster Bailey, Clarence Brereton, Edward “Jelly” Coles, Wilbur De Paris, Cora La Redd and the Washboard Serenaders. The tunes played in the film include “St. Louis Blues,” “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and “Tiger Rag.” Here’s a picture of the band.

Here are a few other snippets from That’s The Spirit. For more on the film, clip here.

According to Eugune Chadbourne in All Music Guide , Culley actually appeared on close to 200 records between 1932 and 1959. He says on one song title in particular is brought up when jazz buffs are trying to make a point about his playing. “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 seem 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.”

Chadbourne continues his piece chronicling Culley’s musical career with aforementioned Brown, Henderson, Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Basie, et al. In summation he says, “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.”

Obviously, there is so much more research to do for a more detailed picture of Mr. Culley. He was somewhat an illusive character. For instance, other than the high school photos, I’ve yet to find a picture of him. If you have any information about him to share, please contact me through the comment page on this site. I would appreciate it.


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