Response to the Easter post on the Abyssinian Baptist Church Gospel Choir has been amazing. Obviously, a lot of lovers of gospel music out there toiling on the information highway! To encourage you along that journey, the Washerman’s Dog posts, on this wintry Sunday evening down at the bottom of the world, another stone classic of African-American gospel music.
The story tonight begins in Montgomery, Alabama where a skinny 8-year old boy named Claude Jeter, is informed by his mother that the family will be moving to Kentucky. A few months earlier, Claude’s daddy had died and the coal mines of the Bluegrass State seemed to hold some economic promise for the poor family. Claude attended school and by the time he was in high school was pulling a few shifts down in the shafts. But pulled by contrary desires to support his family and still be his own man, Claude, moved to find work in the deep, rich coal mines in West Virginia.
The work is dusty, dirty, tedious and difficult. To find relief, Claude, who is blessed with a special falsetto voice, and who has promised his mother that he will never use his gift for anything other than “praising the Lord”, gets an a cappella gospel quartet together called the Four Harmony Kings. It is 1938 and Claude Jeter is 24 years old. There aren’t that many options available to a poor black coalmining man in the United States at the time. The Four Harmony Kings keep singing around the mining towns of West Virginia and eastern Tennessee, making no money but blessing those who come to hear them at small churches and tent gatherings. The boys change the name of their group to the Silvertones and when, in 1941, the Swan Brothers Bakery in Knoxville, Tennessee sponsors them for a radio show, they become the Swan Silvertones.
Little did the bakery realize that it had just been the catalyst for the launch of one of the most influential vocal groups in American music. As the saying goes: from little things big things grow.
The Swan Silvertones were a blend of strong, rough-edged gospel voices that included, in addition to Claude Jeter’s amazing falsetto/tenor lead, Solomon Womack (uncle of yet to come 1970’s R&B superstar Bobby Womack), crooner Paul Owens and ‘shouter/testifier’ Louis Johnson. For the first part of the group’s existence they sang in the traditional (for the time) a cappella quartet style, each singer contributing his vocal in an intricate rhythmic structure. And though they enjoyed a national reputation and made a number of recordings, in the 1940-50s, they made just enough to meet their expenses. And as with so many similar groups members came and left. Not everyone had the commitment of Claude Jeter, who continued to lead the group as the lineup changed.
In the 1960s the group was signed by Vee Jay Records who were keen to capitalise on the emerging R&B sound. For the first time the Swan Silvertones added guitars, drums and bass. Their sound became more contemporary and rocking; the guitar work of Linwood Hargrove was exciting and added a dimension that created a whole new audience for the Swans. Part of that new audience (black and white) included professional musicians who heard in Claude Jeter’s voice the tinkling of cash registers. Many approached him with many offers of secular fame and fortune but Claude remained true to his promise to mother to never sing but for the Lord. Others, like Sam Cooke, and Al Green, lifted much of Claude’s style and made reputations as male singers of the highest order. In what is probably their most famous song Mary, Don’t You Weep, Claude inspired by the Spirit, let’s rip: “I’ll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in me, Mary”. Many years later a young Paul Simon incorporated the line into a song that would go on to become, Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Eventually, even the rockin’ style of gospel that the Swan Silvertones pioneered fell out of vogue and in the mid 1970s the group gave it up. Claude Jeter, still poor and with not many more options than back in the 1938, turned to full time Christian ministry. He moved to New York and in 2009 died of natural causes. Though not widely appreciated except by enthusiasts of gospel music, Claude Jeter left behind in the recordings of the Swan Silvertones a truly exceptional heritage.
This collection covers many of the latter period Swan Silvertones avec instruments. The account is opened and the listener is left in no doubt about the group’s mission statement with, If You Believe Your God is Dead, Try Mine. The guitar fretwork that drives the Swans on this track is as deadly as anything Nile Rodgers ever concocted for Chic. Other highlights include a moving Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, a powerful retelling of the Prodigal Son in I Got My Act Together, the iconic Mary, Don’t You Weep, and a stunning, smoking organ laced, live recording of Brother Claude shouting Amazing Grace.
Again, this is not music for Christians but music by Christians for the rest of us. Please partake and enjoy it again and again.
1. If You Believe Your God is Dead, Try Mine
2. He's Sweet, I Know
3. Happy With Jesus Alone
4. Jesus Made Me
5. A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King
6. Marching On to Zion
7. In My Heart
8. I've Got Myself Together
9. Tell God
10. He's All I Need
11. Leaning On Jesus
12. Lord Have Mercy
13. Mary Don't You Weep
14. He's My Friend
15. Til He Meets Me
16. No Secret
17. The Fault's In You
18. Stand Up and Testify
19. Amazing Grace
20. Breathe On Me