Saturday, November 21, 2009

Swan Silvertones

swan silvertones
Swan Silvertones from

One of the seminal gospel groups, along with the Dixie Hummingbirds and Soul Stirrers, called Pittsburgh home during the fifties and sixties - The Swan Silvertones.

They were led by Claude Jeter, who formed the a cappella quartet in 1938 as the Four Harmony Kings while working as a miner in Coalwood, West Virginia. The group changed its name to the Silvertone Singers to avoid confusion with another group riding the same circuit, the rival Four Kings of Harmony from Texas.

The Silvertones were a jubilee, or uptempo, gospel group, although they later included sentimentals (ballads) and chop jubilees (also known as “shouts”), sowing the early seeds of R&B.

After moving to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1942 and landing their own radio gig on WDIR, they became the Swan Silvertones because Swan Bakeries sponsored their show. Their radio exposure - WDIR was aired over much of the south - eventually earned them an audition and contract with Syd Nathan, owner of Cincy's King Records.

They developed a national reputation during their contract with King Records from 1946 to 1951, releasing 45 titles for the label. But they were bumping heads with King's management, which wanted nothing more than old-timey gospel from the band.

They packed up and moved to Pittsburgh in 1948. No reason was ever given that we could find, but it wasn't unusual for black groups during that era to head north for both better opportunity and a smidge less race-based hassle. The Dixie Hummingbirds made the same move, from South Carolina to Philly, a few years before the Swans.

Freed from the King impress, they signed a deal with Art Rupe's Hollywood-based Specialty Records, an arrangement that lasted from 1951 to 1955. But that adage about the grass being greener proved true again.

The Silvertones taped 25 tracks for Specialty, but the label issued only four singles (later releasing compilations in 1972 and 1991) that featured a more up-to-date style of music before the group was dropped by mutual agreement. But the singers had developed a sound much like the popular doo wop groups of the day during that period.

The early Silvertones had lead singers Jeter and Solomon Womack (Bobby's uncle), tenors Robert Crenshaw and John Manson, baritone John H. Myles, and bass Henry K. Bossard.

But in 1956, the band made what for them was a sea change. They began adding instrumentation to their songs, which had previously been backed by a lone guitar or snare and vocal bass lines.

The Silvertones brought in guitarist Linwood Hargrove, jazz sidemen Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Walter Perkins on drums, to back their recordings. Louis Johnson had by then taken the place of Robert Crenshaw, who became a minister and wasn't pleased with the groups secular direction.

Then they signed with Chicago's Vee-Jay gang, and recorded with that label from 1956 through 1964. Their popular Vee-Jay sound was mainly credited to arranger/tenor Paul Owens, who joined the group in 1952, replacing Womack, who was having health issues.

Influenced by groups like the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los, Owens, who had performed with the Nightingales and Dixie Hummingbirds, made the music more contemporary, developing a prototype R&B sound for the Swan Silvertones.

Perhaps their greatest hit was "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," released in 1959. It's during this song that Claude Jeter adlibs the phrase "I'll be a bridge over deep water..." that inspired Paul Simon to compose "Bridge Over Troubled Water" some years later.

In fact, Simon's first choice to join him on 1973's "Loves Me Like A Rock" wasn't the Hummingbirds, who backed the tune, but the Silvertones, though they never hooked up. However, Jeter did make it on the album that song was on, "There Goes Rhymin’ Simon," credited with the falsetto vocals.

When Vee-Jay closed down in 1965, the group moved on to Detroit's gospel label, HOB Records, where they did one last album before Claude Jeter left to record on his own and focus on his ministry in 1967.

After his departure, Louis Johnson led the Swan Silvertones, which continued to make records through the 1970s. He tried to put the group back together again in 1984, but stopped the project after six months; Johnson couldn't find the voices to duplicate the old sound. They joined the oldies circuit, as Jeter occasionally reunited with his colleagues for reunion concerts through the 1990s.

Nobody could go from a smooth tenor to a piercing falsetto like Claude Jeter did. You can hear the phrasing of his leads echoed in the singing of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks. Jeter's later interplay with the other Swan Silvertone vocalists is reminiscent of Sam and Dave and the Righteous Brothers.

Yet Jeter more or less walked away from the music business, cutting one solo album after his departure and making a few appearances. He had been ordained as a minister by The Church Of Holiness Science, and generally limited his singing to services.

Jeter ministered quietly in Harlem before his passing on January 6, 2009 at the age of 94. His trade may have been music, but his calling was to serve a higher cause.

But the good Reverend Jeter did hang around long enough to see the Swan Silvertones inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002. Oh, and in 1996, he was elected into the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame.

The legacy continues, though. Pittsburgh-based Rev. R. L. Bush & The New Swan Silvertones, consisting of Eddie Houston, Lorenzo Rideout, Ron Womack, and Ricky Mathews, are keeping the tradition of the original Swan Silvertones alive.

"My Rock" - Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones

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