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Members include Henry K. Bossard, bass; William "Pete" Conner, bass; Robert Crenshaw, tenor; Claude A. Jeter(born on October 26, 1914, in Birmingham, AL), tenor; Louis Johnson, tenor; John Manson, tenor; John H. Myles, baritone; Paul Owens, tenor; Solomon Womack, tenor. Addresses: Record company--Collectables Records, P.O. Box 72, Narberth, PA 19072, website: http://www.oldies.com; Fantasy Jazz Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710, website: http://www.fantasyjazz.com.
For their tight harmonies and sophisticated vocal arrangements, the Swan Silvertones are remembered as one of the greatest gospel groups of the twentieth century. Founded by coal miner Claude A. Jeter in 1938 in West Virginia, the group underwent several name changes and different lineups during its history. It also incorporated various musical styles from a cappella to jazz to various gospel music forms. Through a series of recording contracts the group released at least nine albums between 1946 and 1967. Several more recordings and compilations have been released in the years since. After Jeter's departure in 1967, the Swan Silvertones carried on with occasional performances. Jeter eventually released a solo album, but preferred to concentrate on his religious ministry in New York City. He has been cited as a vocal and lyrical influence on Sam Cooke, Al Green, Eddie Kendricks, Curtis Mayfield, and Paul Simon.
Jeter, the founder of the Swan Silvertones, was born on October 26, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, a lawyer, worked for the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad and provided the family with a comfortable existence. His mother instilled a love of music in her son: "My mother was a great singer," Jeter remembered in a New York Times profile in 1992. "She wasn't known, but she could really sing. She sang in the church choir, and when I got old enough she put me in there.... When I got about fourteen, I was still singing in the choir, but me and two or three other boys had a little group." By that time, the Jeter family had relocated to Kentucky in the wake of his father's death when Jeter was only eight years old. Jeter managed to finish high school, where he sang in the choir, but went to work in the nearby West Virginia coal mines when he was still in his teens.
While living in Coalwood, West Virginia, in 1938, Jeter decided to form a gospel quartet to provide some diversion from the hard work of coal mining. With his brother and two other miners, Jeter formed the Four Harmony Kings and within a few months started appearing at weekend gospel gatherings in West Virginia and neighboring Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. The group initially sang a cappella (unaccompanied); Jeter, a high tenor, took most of the leads. Emphasizing major harmonies, short vocal phrases, and sometimes rapid tempos, the Four Harmony Kings were considered a "jubilee" gospel group, although they later included sentimentals (or ballads) and chop jubilees (also known as "shouts" for their fast pace and sometimes chopped phrasing).
After a couple of years of local success, the Four Harmony Kings moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they appeared on WBIR's Sunday morning gospel program in 1942. The AM station could be heard as far away as Florida, and the regular spot, sponsored by the local Swan Bakery, gave the group some financial stability. Having already changed their name from the Four Harmony Kings to the Silvertones to avoid confusion with another Texas-based gospel group, Jeter added "Swan" to the Silvertones name at the suggestion of the radio station.
Between 1942 and 1946 the Swan Silvertones built a reputation as one of the best gospel groups in the South. As gospel singer Harold Agnew recalled in a February of 2001 Knoxville News-Sentinel review of the city's music history, "They were the best around. Their theme song was 'I'm Gonna Walk that Milky White Way.' They had one guitar and a singer who did all the bass with his mouth, and Claude Jeter could go way up high. I used to love to hear them sing." The addition of instrumental accompaniment had indeed changed the Swan Silvertones' sound, as did the addition of another tenor to the lineup--that of Solomon Womack (uncle of R&B singer Bobby Womack). In addition to Jeter and Womack, the group included Robert Crenshaw and John Manson, both tenors, John H. Myles as baritone, and Henry K. Bossard as bass. It was this lineup that entered a recording studio in 1946 under contract to King Records. The group stayed on the King label until 1951 and made approximately 100 recordings.
The Swan Silvertones moved to Pittsburgh in 1948 and in 1951 signed with Specialty Records for two years. In poor health, Womack left the group; Robert Crenshaw, who became an ordained minister, also left the group because he disagreed with the direction the music was taking. During this period, the group consisted of Jeter as lead tenor, Louis Johnson and Paul Owens as tenors, John H. Myles as baritone, and William "Pete" Connor as bass. The group made its first recording on its new label at Pittsburgh radio station WPGH. Only four of its recordings were released by Specialty from 1951 to 1953, although a compilation, Heavenly Light, was later issued by the label.
The Swan Silvertones signed with Vee-Jay Records in 1955; by that time, the group had developed a sound much like the popular doo wop groups of the day. As Jeter later recalled in a 1992 New York Times interview, "Coming up in the 40s and 50s, we drifted into a generation of beat music: all the rock-and-roll beats. People liked it, and we had to do it." The group scored its biggest his with the 1959 release "Mary, Don't You Weep," a spiritual that the group reworked into a ballad with a call-and-response arrangement. Jeter also included the line "I'll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust my name," which later inspired Paul Simon to write the classic 1960s tune "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
In 1963 Claude Jeter became an ordained minister at Detroit's Church of Holiness Science and felt increasing tension between his love of performing with the Swan Silvertones and devotion to his ministry. He also had numerous opportunities to perform secular music, as he later told the New York Times: "I had many offers to sing rock-and-roll, but I never did it. I got offered good money. I said, no, I don't want to do rock-and-roll. I ain't going to jump the fence. I promised my mother I would never sing nothing but for the Lord. As far as lyrics are concerned, there's just as much truth in the blues as there is in gospel. The difference? The blues doesn't move me spiritually. The devil, he's over there singing the blues, and I'm over here singing gospel. Even though he's got true words, I've got true words too."
In 1967 Jeter finally decided to leave the Swan Silvertones and moved to the Harlem section of New York City, where he worked as a minister. Jeter appeared as a vocalist on Paul Simon's 1973 album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. He also released one album as a solo artist, Yesterday and Today, for the Shanachie label in 1991. After his departure, Louis Johnson led the Swan Silvertones, which continued to release original albums through the 1970s. Jeter occasionally reunited with his colleagues for special Swan Silvertones reunion concerts through the 1990s.
by Timothy Borden
The Swan Silvertones's Career
Formed in Coalwood, WV, as the Four Harmony Kings, 1938; recorded for King Records, 1946-51, for Specialty Records, 1951-53, and for Vee-Jay Records, 1955-65.
- Selected discography
- Heavenly Light , Specialty, 1952; reissued, Fantasy Jazz, 2002.
- Pray for Me/Let's Go to Church Together , Vee-Jay, 1956.
- The Swan Silvertones , Vee-Jay, 1959.
- Singin' in My Soul , Vee-Jay, 1960.
- Swan Silvertones , Vee-Jay, 1962.
- Blessed Assurance , Vee-Jay, 1963.
- I Found the Answer , Peacock, 1965.
- Glory Gospel , Hob, 1967.
- Love Lifted Me , Specialty, 1970; reissued, Fantasy Jazz, 2002.
- Day by Day , Savoy, 1972.
- I See the Sigh of Judgment , Savoy, 1972.
- My Rock , Specialty, 1972; reissued, Fantasy Jazz, 2002.
- Get Right with the Swan Silvertones , Rhino, 1982.
- Only Believe , Hob, 1993.
- Do You Believe: The Very Best of the Swan Silvertones , Collectables, 1998.
- Great Camp Meeting , Frank Music, 2000.
- Swan Silvertones: Saviour Pass Me Not , Collectables, 2001.
- Get Your Soul Right , New Cross, 2002.
- Happy with Jesus Alone , Liquid 8, 2002.
- Boyer, Horace Clarence, and Lloyd Yearwood, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, Elliot & Clark Publishing, 1995.
- Young, Alan, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
- Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 19, 2001.
- New York Times, April 10, 1992.
- "Claude Jeter," Island Internet, http://www.island.net/~blues/cjeter.htm (July 22, 2002).
- "Swan Silvertones," Eyeneer Music Archives, http://www.eyeneer.com/America/Genre/Gospel/Profiles/silvertones.html (July 22, 2002).
- "Swan Silvertones," Fantasy Jazz Records, http://www.fantasyjazz.com/catalog/swansilvertones_s_cat.html (July 22, 2002).
The Swan Silvertones Lyrics
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