The Swan Silvertones: Gospel at Newport

Apr 9, 2017

The legendary Claude Jeter made one of his final appearances as leader of the Swan Silvertones at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. The Silvertones founder was 52 at the time, and he would live another 42 years, but by then he'd tired of the ceaseless travel and modest reward of the gospel highway. In his groundbreaking chronicle The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Tony Heilbut began his chapter on Jeter and Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales by noting that, "Vocal styles cannot be copyrighted, and it's a cause of endless frustration for the gospel singers to see the world enrich their disciples while they sing for free-will offerings in store-front churches." Heilbut titled the chapter, "The Fathers of Soul," and names a few of their iconic disciples: the Temptations, the Impressions, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett. (Here at Newport Jeter sings the lead on "Only Believe.")

"Savior Pass Me Not," which Heilbut says was the group's last "great record," opens with Louis Johnson singing the opening verse and chanting words in the style of a country preacher. He's followed by Jeter in falsetto singing, "Loving loving loving loving loving loving loving loving loving," and adding what Heilbut calls "glorious ad libs." Paul Owens sings the background lead. "Savior Pass Me Not" is a prototype of what was just ahead in the secular soul of Otis Redding, James Carr, and Al Green.

The Silvertones' Newport appearance came one year after Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Bob Dylan set off sparks that placed the festival in the forefront of new directions in American music. For Newport '66, the festival's board put together a more traditional program with gospel by the Silvertones, Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Original Gospel Harmonettes; blues by Skip James, Bukka White, and Son House; a showcase called 'The City' with Howlin' Wolf, and Chuck Berry; "plain folksinging" by Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, and Carolyn Hester; bluegrass by Dock Boggs and Hazel Dickens; and what festival producer George Wein called "a small but noteworthy concession to the folk-rock trend," the Blues Project and the Lovin' Spoonful. Alan Lomax, the folklorist who'd caused a ruckus the previous year with a disparaging introduction of Butterfield, returned with a camera crew and filmed the proceedings on stage as well as a sound-stage on which a facsimile juke joint served as the backdrop for a set by Howlin' Wolf. 

The Swan Silvertones in 1950

Claude Jeter was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1914. His father was a lawyer and plantation owner who provided substantially for his family before his death in 1922. His mother moved the family to Kentucky, where Claude sang in church, graduated from high school, and began working in a coal mine just over the state line in West Virginia. He said the work "wasn't so bad." In 1938, he formed a gospel quartet called the Four Harmony Kings with his brother and two other miners. Early on in his career, this renowned "Father of Falsetto" spent a brief period singing bass with the Dixie Hummingbirds, but by 1941, his own group was offered a slot on a 50,000 watt station in Knoxville. They renamed themselves the Silvertone Singers, and with the sponsorship of the Swan Bakery, became the Swan Silvertones. Jeter told Heilbut, "After we went commercial, every thirteen weeks we got a raise. We stayed five and a half years, and by then we were making pretty good change."

The Silvertones were in the forefront of gospel quartets that combined smooth harmonizing with "jumping jubilees." Jeter's casual elegance contrasted with the impassioned lead of Solomon Womack. Jeter told Heilbut that part of their success was due to fastidious microphone training. "For an hour before each broadcast, we'd rehearse mike technique." They signed with King Records in Cincinnati in 1946 and released 45 singles over the next five years, then recorded for Vee-Jay in Chicago throughout the '50s.

In addition to their smooth harmonies and fervent shouting, the Silvertones' sense of time makes them one of the most compelling groups I've ever heard regardless of genre. In a passage in The Gospel Sound, Jeter might well have been commenting on this Newport performance when he said, "My mother Maggie Jeter was one of the greatest singers...I guess all you say that is so odd, my phrasing and my time, I picked up from her. You couldn't beat her with the time."

Here's Claude Jeter with Shirley Caesar, the Dixie Hummingbirds and David Sanborn in 1989 performing the Jeter original, "Mary, Don't You Weep."