“Li’l Darlin’” was written in 1957 by composer/arranger/trumpeter Neal Hefti who arranged it for the Count Basie band which introduced the song. Gary Giddins, in Visions of Jazz: The First Century, says, “In the enduring ‘Li’l Darlin’,” he [Hefti] tested the band’s temporal mastery with a slow and simple theme that dies if it isn’t played at exactly the right tempo. Basie never flinched.”
Hefti also wrote and arranged “Splanky” for the Basie band. Both songs appear on the album now called Atomic Basie. Hefti, who had previously arranged for Woody Herman also wrote “Girl Talk” with Bobby Troup and created the theme song for The Odd Couple.
Jon Hendricks penned a lyric for “Li’l Darlin’” which Lambert, Hendricks & Ross recorded with Basie in 1958. Hendricks & Company recorded it in 1982, and vocalists Mark Murphy (1961) and Kurt Elling (2001) also recorded Hendricks’ lyric.
In 1959 Bart Howard, who wrote “Fly Me to the Moon,” copyrighted a new lyric for the Hefti tune, calling it “Don’t Dream of Anybody But Me,” a title which often appends “Li’l Darlin’” in parentheses. Mel Torme sang this version with the Basie band on Judy Garland’s television show. Both Bobby Darin and Mabel Mercer recorded Howard’s lyric in 1960, and Ella Fitzgerald sang it on a 1971 release.
The two lyrics vary in sentiment. Hendricks expresses security in his love relationship, saying “My li’l darlin’ only loves me.”
Don’t need no palace paved with gold.
Don’t need more cash than banks could hold.
When I get to feelin’ a feelin’
For something there ain’t too much of
My sweet l’il darlin’ gives me her love.
Howard’s lyric expresses insecurity in the love relationship, urging his lover to dream only of him when they’re apart:
Though you vacation in Hawaii
Or go to Switzerland to ski
When you’re scanning the snow covered mountain
Or fanning yourself by the sea
Don’t dream of anybody but me.
“Li’l Darlin’” is another of those songs that, without ever charting, moved right into the jazz lexicon and became a favorite of instrumentalists--especially guitarists, among them Charlie Byrd, Howard Alden, George Van Eps, Martin Taylor, Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, George Benson, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, and Kenny Burrell. It’s also been covered by pianists Ray Bryant, Monty Alexander, and Oscar Peterson with Coleman Hawkins; organists Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff; the big band of Frank Capp; bassist Ray Brown; trombonists Kai Winding and Al Grey; saxophonists Frank Wess and Johnny Hodges; vibist Milt Jackson; and trumpeters Jon Faddis and Warren Vache.