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Claude Jeter & the Swan Silvertones

 

Swan Silvertones
Claude Jeter, front right
 

The greatness of a vocal group depends on demonstrated influence on quartets that have followed them.  No where is that clearer than with the Swan Silvertones and their famous lead singer, the Reverend Claude Jeter. Jeter's use of a falsetto lead revolutionized the way we think of vocal harmony.  In more than sixty years of singing, the Swan Silvertones excelled in vocal harmony and set the stage for countless groups that came after them.

Claude A. Jeter was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on October 26, 1914.  Montgomery was near Birmingham, long a hotbed of quartet singing and Claude grew up singing harmony.  Claude’s father died when he was eight and soon after Claude’s mother, Maggie Jeter, moved the family to Kentucky.  There, Claude sang in the church choir and began experimenting in quartet singing.  In his early twenties, Claude Jeter went to nearby Coalwood, West Virginia to work in the coal mines.

In 1938, Claude Jeter organized a singing group called the Four Harmony Kings with his brother and two other coal min­ers.  The group sang at nearby churches on weekends.  In the coal mining community, black gospel quartet singing flourished.  Community churches had their own quartets but touring quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds and Heavenly Gospel Singers regularly came through the area.  On one such occasion, Claude Jeter became a brief fill-in member of the Dixie Hummingbirds.  When “Birds” organizer James Davis fired bass Jimmy Bryant, Claude Jeter was asked to substitute for him on several programs, singing bass.  The opportunity lasted only a short time until Bryant returned to the Hummingbirds.                  

In 1942, Claude Jeter quit coal mining and moved to Knoxville, TN, taking two of the Harmony Kings with him.  The group, then consisting of Claude Jeter, John Myles, Leroy Watkins and Eddie Boroughas, changed its name to the Silvertone Singers.  They soon landed a daily radio program on 50,000-watt radio station WDIR in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Since the program was sponsored by the Swan Bakery, their name changed again to the Swan Silvertones.  The Swan Silvertones sang live on the radio for fifteen minutes every weekday.  Evenings and weekends saw the group singing at area churches.  During this time, Jeter experimented with falsetto to enable him to extend his vocal range.  The audience seemed to like it so he began using falsetto more and more.

Their radio show and live appearances made the Swan Silvertones one of the most popular quartets in the south.  In July 1946, the Swan Silvertones were given some time off from their radio show to record for King records in Cincinnati.  The group now consisted of Claude Jeter (lead), Albert Reed (tenor), Solomon Womack (baritone), John Myles (baritone) and William Johnson (bass singer and guitar).  In contrast to Jeter's falsetto lead, Womack was added to the group to provide a hard, gospel lead.  Eight songs were recorded at this first session, resulting in four 78 RPM singles on the subsidiary Queen label.  After the Queen label was discontinued in 1947, some or all of these sides were reissued on the King label.  Subsequent Swan Silvertones' records came out only on King.


The Swan Silvertones' second record, 1947
(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)

 

After the first King session, Roosevelt Payne replaced Albert Reed and Henry Brossard became the new bass.  Brossard was born and raised in Cincinnati and had previously sung with the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham.  Reverend Percell Perkins also provided an extra baritone voice on some of the King recordings.


[New!]Rare autographed photo of the Swan Silvertones ca. 1948.
Back row, left to right: John Myles, Soloman Womack, Claude Jeter, Henry Brossard
Front row, left to right: presumably Roosevelt Payne and William Johnson
(Photo courtesy of Robert Marovich.  Check out Bob's Gospel Memories Website.)



(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)

 

All told, the Swan Silvertones had six recording sessions with King Records, recording forty-five songs (twenty-two 78 RPM singles) through December 1950.  Though Claude Jeter was never happy with the King recordings, saying King wanted give the group a “hillbilly” sound, many group harmony enthusiasts love these early acappella and near acappella sides for their purity.  Some years later, in September 1960, King re-released all but one of the King recordings on a series of eleven 45 RPM EP’s (four sides to a record) on their Audio Lab subsidiary.  These EP’s are now prized by collectors of this music.


1960 Reissue of Swan Silvertones King label recordings
(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 


LP of the Swan Silvertones King recordings, ca. 1970 on Gusto
(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

In the early 1950's the Swan Silvertones moved their base of operations to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By May 1952, the Swan Silvertones had signed with Specialty records. In three years with Specialty, the group recorded twenty-seven sides, though only a handful were issued on singles during the group's stay.  [Specialty would continue to release these sides by the Swan Silvertones through the 1970’s.]


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 


Swan Silvertones on Specialty
 

Payne and Perkins left the group prior to 1952. New additions to the group during this period included tenors Robert Crenshaw and John Manson, as well as baritone Paul Owens. Owens had sung with the Sensational Nightingales and Dixie Hummingbirds prior to joining the Swan Silvertones. As well as becoming the group's second lead, Paul Owens was a brilliant arranger and helped the Swan Silvertones develop a style.  By the last Specialty session, Dewey Young had replaced Reverend Crenshaw.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)

 

In March 1956, trade magazines carried the announcement that Vee Jay Records in Chicago had just signed the Swan Silvertones.  There they finally reached the height of their popularity.  Henry Brossard left after the first Vee Jay session, being replaced by William Connor, formerly of the Trumpeteers.  The Silvertones also experimented with a third lead at this time, trying Robert Crutcher for two recording sessions before settling on the talents of Louis Johnson formerly of the Spiritualaires of Sumpter, SC.  Each of the group's three leads had their own distinct singing style; Claude Jeter with his smooth sweet falsetto, Paul Owens with his strong sophisticated tenor voice and Louis Johnson with his rough, hard shouting voice.  Another significant addition to the group at this time was guitarist, Linwood Hargrove, formerly of the Skylarks.  Hargrove's guitar helped give the group its unique sound.  On Vee Jay, the Swan Silvertones were quite successful.  Some of their most remembered sides-include "The Lord's Prayer," "Only Believe," "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," "My Rock" and "Amazing Grace."


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)


Swan Silvertones


 

“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” later became the inspiration for Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  The story is told how Paul Simon attended at Swan Silvertones’ concert where Claude Jeter performed the song, ad-libbing the line “bridge over troubled water.”  Paul Simon is said to have later donated $1000 to Reverend Jeter’s church and Jeter added a falsetto background to Paul Simon’s recording of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” on the There Goes Rhymin’ Simon LP.


(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)
 

1957 ad
 


French issued EP and Picture sleeve (Vee Jay material)
(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)

 

Here's a YouTube of Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones singing "Only Believe."  It was posted by the American Gospel Quartet Hall of Fame, to which Claude Jeter was inducted in 1996.


 

By 1967 Vee Jay Records folded and the Swan Silvertones moved to the HOB label.  After the first recording session with HOB, Claude Jeter retired from the Swan Silvertones.  Carl Davis took over as the new lead singer, imitating Jeter’s singing style perfectly. Davis was from Richmond, VA, and had plenty of experience in gospel quartet singing.  In the 1950’s he’d sung with the Singing Sons, recording on their own and with Edna Gallmon Cooke.  In the 1960’s he’d led the Miami-based Florida Robins.

Carl Davis himself left the Swan Silvertones in 1969 to join the Dixie Hummingbirds.  He was in turn replaced by James Lewis, who also sang in Jeter’s style.

Silvertones continued to record for HOB throughout the 1970's.  Paul Owens left the Swan Silvertones in the early 1970's to join the Brooklyn Allstars.  He later went back to sing with the Dixie Hummingbirds.  John Myles stayed with the group until 1978, when he retired, leaving only Louis Johnson to direct the group.  In the early 1980's the Swan Silvertones moved to Savoy records. Personnel changes have occurred through the years, but the basic "Swan Silvertones sound" remained.  Later Swan Silvertones have included Samuel Hubbard, Bill Elliot, Marvin Lattimore, Mickey Martin, Leonard Cox and Willie Jones.

Upon leaving the Swan Silvertones in 1967, Claude Jeter followed his calling as an ordained minister in the Church of Holiness Science.  He did occasionally record as a soloist and in the last ten years recorded a couple CD’s as a duet with Shirley Caesar.

After a long hospitalization, Reverend Claude A, Jeter passed away in the Daughters of Jacob Hospital in the Bronx, NY, on January 6, 2009.  It’s hard to imagine what our musical heritage would be without the contributions of this great man.  No falsetto in group harmony?  Why, what about the Turbans, Channels, Four Seasons or Temptations?  Ray Charles said in his autobiography, Brother Ray, “I … knew many of the gospel men and women … among them were the best singers I had ever heard in my life.  And at the very cream of the crop … were cats like Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones.  These guys had voices which could shake down your house and smash all the furniture in it. …  They sung for real and I loved their music as much as any music in the world.”

In tribute to Reverend Jeter, songwriter and singer James Power wrote a song called “The Man In Room 1009.”  He recently recorded the song as a duet with former Persuasions’ lead Jerry Lawson.


 

We asked James Power what inspired him to write the song.  Here’s his reply…

“The story behind the song began in 2008 when I decided to see if I could find Reverend Claude Jeter since, from everything I had read, he was very possibly still alive.  I had been a huge fan of his work with the Swan Silvertones since I first heard them in 1980's.  After scouring the Internet, I finally was able to locate him at the Daughters of Jacob Hospital in the Bronx, NY.  I went to visit him for the first time in August 2008.  Unfortunately, by that time, he was no longer able to communicate.  I returned again on his 94th birthday on October 26th, this time bringing along some of the Swans’ music so that his caretakers (who were unaware of his past) might at least know what an enormously talented and profoundly influential artist he was.  It was while leaving his room for the last time, Room 1009, that I began thinking about his enormous contribution to the arts and how, in his final days, he was a largely forgotten man.  A man without visitors.  A man alone.  Just the man in Room 1009.  From that, came the song.  I really hope his name will become better known since his influence was enormous (for example, I can't imagine Al Green having a career without Jeter's falsetto style).  Hopefully, one day, he will be thought of in the same vein as Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, and other gospel pioneers.” – James Powers

For those who haven’t yet heard it, here’s a Youtube of Jerry Lawson and James Powers singing “The Man In Room 1009” as well as an interview with Jerry Lawson about the influence of gospel music.



 

The video was recorded by filmmaker Keith Lewis.  James Power’s website is listed on our Links page.


Pam & Charlie Horner, Jim Power, filmmaker Keith Lewis
at Classic Urban Harmony Headquarters, 2009
 

In 1995, I (Charlie Horner) assisted Ronnie Italiano (Ronnie I), as a member of his United in Group Harmony Association’s Hall of Fame Board of Directors.  As a student of group harmony, I’d always been an admirer of Reverend Jeter.  The Swan Silvertones were slated to be inducted into UGHA’s Hall of Fame at the 5th Annual Induction Ceremony.  The event was scheduled for April 8, 1995 at Symphony Space Performing Arts Center, 2537 Broadway, New York City.  Ronnie had made arrangements for Reverend Claude Jeter and Paul Owens to accept their award plaques in front of a packed audience.  I had written the bio of the Swan Silvertones for the night’s program and was scheduled to read the bio prior to the group’s induction.  A few days before the awards ceremony, Ronnie broke the sad news to me that Reverend Jeter was hospitalized and would not be able to receive his plaque in person.  We went ahead with the ceremony, with only Paul Owens accepting his plaque.  I’d always assumed that arrangements had been made to send Reverend Jeter his UGHA Hall of Fame plaque, but in the day to day bustle of activities, that never happened.


Top (left to right): Louis Johnson, William Connor, Paul Owens
Bottom (left to right): Linwood Hargrove, Claude Jeter, John Myles
Page from the UGHA Hall of Fame Booklet
Autographed by Paul Owens
(From the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)

Ronnie I passed away in March 2008 and Reverend Jeter passed away in January 2009.  Reverend Jeter’s UGHA Hall of Fame plaque turned up recently among some UGHA memorabilia.  It has now been acquired by the Classic Urban Harmony Archives and has been permanently mounted on the wall at CUH Headquarters – a reminder to all who visit of the contributions to our music by a great man.


Claude Jeter's UGHA Hall of Fame Plaque
(Now in the Classic Urban Harmony Archives)

 

Claude Jeter & Swan Silvertones Partial Singles Discography

(Contains only 78 & 45 Singles with Claude Jeter)
(Post- Claude Jeter records will be addressed in the future) 

Queen 4134   - I Cried Holy / Go Ahead

Queen 4137   - I Want My Crown / These Bones Gwine Rise Again

Queen 4143   - Will The Circle Be Unbroken / My Time Done Come

Queen 4144   - I’m Tired / I Done Made It Up In My Mind


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King 4193      - I Want To Rest / In That Upper Room

King 4228      - I Want To Dig A Little Deeper / What Could I Do

King 4248      - Working On A Building / Depending On Jesus

King 4282      - I’ll Search Heaven / I’ve Tried

King 4308      - I Got A Mother Done Gone On / I’m Gonna Wait

King 4320      - No Not A One / Use Me Lord

King 4344      - My God’s Getting Us Ready / Down On My Knees

King 4391      - Jesus Is God’s Atom Bomb / Long Ago

King 4404      - Jesus Never Fails / Mother’s Name Lives In My Heart

King 4430      - Careless Soul / My Lord Done What He Said

King 4439      - I Got A Witness / Live So God Can Use You

King 4464      - A Mother’s Cry / All Night All Day

King 4494      - Backslider’s Plea / Over Yonder

King 4512      - He’s My All / Every Day Seems Like Sunday

King 4516      - All Aboard / Farther Along

King 4542      - Toll The Bell / Grant It Lord

Specialty 829 - Jesus Changed This Heart Of Mine / The Day Will Surely Come


Specialty 836 - My Rock / Oh How I Love Jesus

Specialty 844 - He Won’t Deny Me / Man In Jerusalem

Specialty 853 - Trouble In My Way / I’m Coming Home

Specialty 863 - How I Got Over / Jesus Is My Friend

Specialty 922 - I’m A Rollin’ / Love Lifted Me

Specialty 931 - Keep My Heart / This Little Light Of Mine


Vee Jay 182   - Jesus Remembers / My Soul Is A Witness

Vee Jay 222   - Traveling On / When Jesus comes

Vee Jay 232   - The Lord’s Prayer / Great Day In December

Vee Jay 843   - Sinner Man / That Day On Calvary

Vee Jay 850   - Well Well Well / A Lady Called Mother

Vee Jay 860   - Jesus He’s Alright With Me / End of My Journey

Vee Jay 867   - Oh Mary Don’t You Weep / Move Up

Vee Jay 869   - The Lord’s Prayer / Great Day In December

Vee Jay 879   - Trouble In My Way / Near The Cross [Part 2]

Vee Jay 889   - Move Somewhere / Swing Low

Vee Jay 894   - Singin’ In My Soul / Sinking Sand

Vee Jay 904   - Breath On Me / Come What May

Vee Jay 909   - What About You / Amazing Grace

Vee Jay 926   - Savior Pass Me Not [Pt. 1] / Savior Pass Me Not [Pt. 2]

Vee Jay 940   - Is God Satisfied With Me / At The Cross

Vee Jay 950   - Look Down The Line / Come To Jesus

Vee Jay 968   - I Found The Answer / Going On With Jesus


Exodus 600    - Only Believe [Pt. 1] / Only Believe [Pt. 2]

Exodus 603    - End Of My Journey / How Great Thou Art



The Swan Silvertones went on to record many excellent songs after Claude Jeter left the the group.  We'll cover them in a future feature.
 

References:

  1. Charlie Horner, "The Swan Silvertones," UGHA 5th Annual Hall of Fame Awards Ceremony Booklet, (1995).

  2. Charlie Horner's conversations with Paul Owens and Ira Tucker (1995).

  3. Anthony Heibut, The Gospel Sound, Limelight Editions, NYC, (1985).

  4. Ray Funk, "Get Right With The Swan Silvertones," liner notes to Archives Alive (Rhino) LP 70081 (1986).

  5. Jerry Zolten, Great God Almighty: The Dixie Hummingbirds, Oxford University Press, NYC (2003).

  6. Horace Clarence Boyer, The Golden Age of Gospel, University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, (2000).

 

Copyright © Classic Urban Harmony LLC, 2009.  All Rights Reserved.