Featuring the stave-leaping tenor voice of the Reverend Claude Jeter, the Swan Silvertones rank among the most beloved gospel quartets of all time.
Initially called the Four Harmony Kings, the Swan Silvertones quartet was formed in 1938 by a group of miners working in Coalwood, West Virginia. Original members included John Myers, Willie Johnson, Charles Kelly and Claude Jeter. The soulful falsetto of Jeter, a Montgomery, Alabama, native born October 26, 1914, gave the group an edge over other a cappella quartets. The Four Harmony Kings became so popular that they quit their mining jobs and focused on singing professionally.
By 1941, the Silvertones (they changed their name to eliminate confusion with another quartet, the Four Kings of Harmony) had secured a 15-minute radio program over Knoxville, Tennessee, radio station WBIR. Swan’s Bakery signed on as the show’s sponsor in 1942 and, at the request of its sponsor, the group changed its name to Swan’s Silvertone Singers (later shortened to the Swan Silvertones). Having a weekly radio show on a station heard across a 150-mile radius increased the Swans’ visibility, and they began picking up gigs throughout the southeastern United States. Along the way, they recruited additional members, most notably Famous Blue Jay Singers alumni Solomon Womack and Henry Bossard.
The Swans signed their first record deal in 1945 with King Records of Cincinnati, Ohio, initially performing jubilee-style numbers. Between 1946 and 1951, they recorded 45 titles for King, the most popular being their first release, I Cried Holy. At this time, they moved from Knoxville to Pittsburgh, where they sang regularly over radio station WPGH.
Although the group began transitioning to a harder gospel sound while at King, they came into their own when they signed with Specialty Records in 1951. Label owner Art Rupe, basking in his success with the Soul Stirrers and Pilgrim Travelers, asked the group to sing with as much gusto as they could possibly muster. Between Jeter’s high tenor and propulsive lead singing by Womack, Dewey Young, Paul Owens and the Reverend Robert Crenshaw, the quartet produced a series of explosive records, including He Won’t Deny Me, My Rock, Trouble in My Way and Love Lifted Me.
By 1955, when the Swans shifted to Vee-Jay Records, they opted for a more nuanced sound built around Jeter’s frictionless falsetto. To keep with the changing sound of gospel quartet, they also beefed up their backing instrumentation. Swans’ personnel shifted somewhat during the Vee-Jay era, but the mainstays were Jeter, Owens, Bossard, Crenshaw, John Henry Myles, Louis Johnson and William “Pete” Connor. This combination produced a string of successes between 1955 and 1964, including Jesus Remembers, Saviour Pass Me Not, the a cappella masterpiece The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus He’s Alright with Me and Breathe on Me. On the group’s 1959 hit, Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, Jeter’s line, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name,” inspired Paul Simon to write the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel hit Bridge Over Troubled Water (in 1973, Simon hired Jeter to sing on Take Me to the Mardi Gras for his LP There Goes Rhymin’ Simon).
Sometime after the Swans’ 1966 appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Jeter left to focus on his ministry (he was ordained in 1963), leaving Johnson and Myles to anchor the group. They recorded for HOB Records for a decade, then signed with Savoy, releasing their first Savoy LP, At the Cross, in 1977. Other albums for Savoy included Let Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark (1979), Day by Day (1980) and Sign of the Judgment (1981). Savoy singles included At the Cross (1977) and I’ll Do His Will (1979). Their singing style reflected the smoother, soulful harmonies of their peers during this era.
The Swan Silvertones were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002 and the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003. Rev. Claude Jeter died at age 94 on January 6, 2009. Today, a new iteration of the group, called the New Swan Silvertones, tours and records.
—Robert M. Marovich