Brenda Duff was the late Don Varner's first wife and she shared his first session for Art Grayson in the mid 60s. Grayson took them to Rick Hall's studio to record and released the split session on his own Downbeat label - both 45s on which are now desperately rare. By far the better side of Brenda's release was the mournful The Army's Got Me Crying on which she sounds ridiculously young. The backing - including the "military" trumpet - is a fine example of the early Fame sound with "pumping" piano well to the fore and a spirited horn section. The flip is more like a girl group track than anything else.
Her one 45 for Bill Haney coupled the rather poppy “My Sweet One” with the drive of “Got To Get To Know You”. Haney leased it to the New Orleans based Casino label and it appeared in 1967. In a similar fashion her Volume release had a pop side - a cover of Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover" and an uptempo side "Midnight Taxi Ride" penned by the great Allen Orange. But her single for Blue Rock a couple of years later was much better. Left In Love Alone showed a confident vocalist with some very nice gospel flourishes. This is a fine unrecognised deep soul track, the chord changes and the "tack" piano are very tasty and the slightly out of tune horns add a nice touch to a down home production from William Crump who worked with Allen Orange for several years. This could have been cut in Birmingham, AL.
Don and Brenda shared further sessions in Muscle Shoals in the early 70s, this time under engineer/producer David Johnson. Her tracks were a revelation when they appeared for the first time on Charly UK’s series of LPs from that source in the late 80s. The quality of the two ballad cuts were acclaimed by fans for their emotional depth and the power and commitment of Brenda's voice. The superb Geroge Soule song Let Me Be A Woman (also cut by Delaney & Bonnie) is perhaps the stronger of the two offerings with a pronounced gospel feel, fine background vocals and concise horns. On Don’t Give Up On Me Brenda sounds rather like Bettye Swann as she interprets the countrified lyrics. A feature of the sensitive and beautifully realised arrangements on both songs are the organ fills, reminiscent of the way Mac Rebennack enhanced Aretha Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem” and Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk”. The piano playing is as good - both are by the outstanding Clayton Ivey. Two sensational southern soul cuts.
I don't know of any further recordings that she made after these - but what way to go out.
Tell me where'er you going / The army's got me crying ~ DOWNBEAT 101 (1965)
My sweet one / Got to get to know you ~ CASINO 500 (1967)
Love ain't never hurt nobody / Left in love alone ~ BLUE ROCK 4083 (1969)
Dream lover / Midnight taxi ride (to nowhere) ~ VOLUME 130 (1970)
Thanks to Davie Gordon for clarifying the dates of Brenda's releases.
UPDATE ~ Pete Nickols helpfully writes that :- "the two Brenda Varner David Johnson sides on the Charly LP also appeared in 1989 on Charly CD 200 (Rare Soul From Alabama - The South Camp/Quinvy CD), and afterwards in 1996 on Overture CD 34901-2 (Tear Stained Soul). The faster and less impressive 'A' side of her Blue Rock single (Love Ain't Never Hurt Nobody) appeared on the 1998 2-CD set 'Lost And Found - The Blue Rock Records Story' (Mercury 314 558 273-2)." I'm grateful to Pete as always for his CD info.