Purists will tell you that the “blue” Stax period – up to the sale of the company to Gulf & Western – was the time when the label was at its best. And as signed up purist myself I’m quite seduced by the argument. However listening to the third volume of the Complete Stax 45s should give any southern soul lover pause for thought, particularly when it comes to female vocalists. Sure the early years saw the wonderful Ruby Johnson and the best of Mable John, but in Mavis Staples, Inez Foxx, Shirley Brown, Margie Joseph and Veda Brown I’d say that the 70s just shades it. OK the arrangements may be sweeter but the passion and gospel power these women put into their vocals is just as compelling as their earlier Stax sisters.
Veda Brown was born Mildred Pulliam in the small town of Kennett, MO and brought up there very much in the gospel tradition. She was taken under the wing of local radio station owner Larry Robinson who encouraged Mildred’s move towards secular music. Robinson engineered Mildred’s contract with Stax in 1971 and she changed her name to Veda Brown for professional and personal reasons before her first recordings were issued – Brown being her mother’s maiden name and Veda being a name picked out at random in a sweepstake run by the Stax secretaries.
Veda’s earliest sessions for Stax included the original recordings of “I’ll Be Your Shelter (In The Time Of Storm” and "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right” but they never progressed beyond the demo stage before Johnny Baylor commandeered them for Luther Ingram. Instead her first 45 was issued in May 1972 and the fine ballad “Living A Life Without Love” showed just what an expressive singer she was. But Veda’s second release – cut at Muscle Shoals Sound like almost all her Stax numbers – was much better. “I Know It’s Not Right” which has clear echoes of Ingram’s smash hit, was in another class. The wonderful playing of the Swampers provides a perfect backdrop for Veda’s heartfelt vocal.
Her next 45 coupled the funky dance classic “Short Stopping” with the quite superb bluesy deep soul of I Can See Every Woman's Man. The former was the hit of course spending 10 weeks in Billboard’s Top 50 but it’s the ballad that really hits home for me. It seemed as though Veda was getting stronger with each release, a trend confirmed by the sensational Don’t Start Loving Me which must rank as one of the heaviest pieces of soul put out by Stax in the 70s. I’d put this on a par with the Soul Children’s “I’ll Be The Other Woman” and Shirley Brown's "It Ain't No Fun" such is the emotional strength of Veda’s vocal and the beauty of the arrangement.
But although this 45 charted briefly it got caught up in the maelstrom that was Stax’s last few months and when the label finally collapsed Veda contract died with it. Her two Raken 45s were down to Stax staffer John Wesley Smith who took four of her sides recorded during her Stax contract was in effect and put them out. The pick of these was undoubtedly the upbeat message of Brand New Tomorrow which had enough exuberance and a catchy enough melody to be a big hit. But Raken’s haphazard distribution put paid to that notion. Veda’s final 45 came about via a renewed relationship with Larry Robinson who paid for a Memphis session which produced her rare and highly sought after Rav 45. The side the dancers love is her version of Ann Sexton’s “I Had A Fight With Love” but the flip Play Brother Play Sister is one of the great unheralded deep soul tunes. In Memphis musical terms it acts as a bridge between the Stax sound and the soon coming Sound Town era – looking back to her own great Muscle Shoals recordings and forward to Shirley Brown’s key period. It was a superb way for Veda to end her career.
These days she is back home in Kennett living a quiet family life as Mrs Whitehorn. We are grateful to her for her wonderful music. You can read more about her gospel singing in her home town church here.
Take it off her / Living a life without love ~ STAX 0123 (1972)
I know it's not right / Don't let the green grass fool you ~ STAX 0143
I can see every woman's man but mine / Short stopping ~ STAX 0163 (1973)
Don't start lovin' me / Fever ~ STAX 0194
Brand new tomorrow / Shoutin' out love ~ RAKEN 001 (1975)
Trip / I'm loving him right ~ RAKEN 002 (1975)
Play brother play sister / I had a fight with love ~ RAV 16 (1977)
Acknowledgements to Rob Bowman and Garry Cape.
Note:- Veda’s entire Stax output including the demos can be found on the excellent Kent UK “Stax Solo Recordings” (CDKEND 302) she shares with Judy Clay.
UPDATE ~ My friend Michel has spotted a very fine, although unfinished, track under Veda's real name Mildred Pulliham on the UK Stax CD "5000 Volts Of Stax" entitled "Who Wouldn't Love A Man Like This". I'm grateful as ever to Michel. Thanks also to Marc Demuynck for the gospel link.