Pittsburgh Music Story‎ > ‎Gospel‎ > ‎

Swan Silvertones

Pure Music at the Highest Level
The Swan Silvertones, one of the greatest Gospel groups of all time along with the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers, made their home in Pittsburgh from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Over their thirty year career they were one of the most influential and revered vocal groups. Their uptempo jubilee shout style gospel music, rich harmonies, and lead falsetto influenced Doo Wop and R&B singers. They recorded for the King, Specialty, Vee-Jay, HOB, and Savoy labels releasing over sixty singles and several albums between 1946 and 1979. Their music has been reissued on ten Swan Silvertones compilations since their breakup. Their biggest hit "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" with the line "I'll be a bridge over deep water..." inspired Paul Simon to compose "Bridge Over Troubled Water".  The Swan Silvertones were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002 and the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003.

Claude Jeter, the lead singer and founder of the Swan Silvertones is credited for influencing the singing styles of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Drifters founder Clyde McPhatter, and Eddie Kendricks. Jeter pioneered falsetto singing in African American music and is credited as the father of fallsetto.. His strong falsetto leads backed by three-part harmonies was adapted by Doo-wop and R&B groups.  Jeter was elected into the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame in 1996.

"The Swan Silvertones are a premier gospel group and one of the great music experiences awaiting anyone who has never heard them.  If you are not a fan of gospel music or "religious" music of any kind, don't let that fact deter you from having this unique listening experience. This is pure music at the highest level." -  Michael Erlewine All Music Guide

"The Swan Silvertones are possibly the finest vocal group ever to step into a recording studio." - Tony Cummings CrossRhythms.co.uk

"The Swans were among the chief architects of Gospel's Golden Age, and also played no small part in the development of secular vocal group singing, or "doo-wop." The quartet's sweet, expertly executed harmonies and crisp syncopated rhythms, led by Rev. Claude Jeter's trademark high tenor ... are the archetypal gospel quartet sound." -The Black Gospel Blog

“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." - Ray Charles from his autobiography Brother Ray

Claude Jeter Founds the Harmony Kings

Claudis Augustis Jeter, the founder and leader of the Swan Silvertones was born on Oct. 26, 1914, at Hope Hill in Montgomery, Alabama. He was born into a family of one sister and four brothers.  His father Will was an attorney for the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad. His mother Machi, a great church singer, gave her son the love of gospel music. Claude began singing in the Bryant Chapel church choir as a child. His father died when Claude was eight and the Jeter family moved to Kentucky in 1921. Claude continued to sing in a church choir in Kentucky. He formed his first gospel group with three other boys when he was fourteen.  He also sang in his high school choir.

Graduating from high school Claude Jeter found work in the coal mines of Coalwood West Virginia. As a diversion from the back breaking dirty work in the mines he founded the acapplla gospel group the Four Harmony Kings in 1938 with his brother Melvyn and two other miners. Their repertoire was mostly “jubilee" gospel and also included sentimental ballads and fast paced chop shout jubilees. Jeter, with his high tenor voice, sang most of the leads. They performed at weekend gospel gatherings in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina.

In 1939 Claude Jeter performed as a member of the Dixie Hummingbirds on a two week tour.  He filled in for singer Jimmy Bryant for a short time. 

WIBR Gospel Show Leads to Southern Renown
The Four Harmony Kings auditioned for the 50,000 watt Knoxville, Tennessee radio station WBIR in 1940. They were given a trial 15-minute Sunday morning show for three Sundays. A popular success they continued to appear on WIBR every Sunday. It was one of the first black gospel shows on American radio. To avoid confusion with a Texas based group named the “The Four Kings of Harmony” they changed their name to the “Silvertone Singers” in 1942.

After hearing the Silvertones the president of the “Swan” bread company offered to sponsor the group on a daily WIBR show. The Silvertones moved to Knoxville in 1942 to work at WIBR five days a week. At the suggestion of the radio station they added their sponsor’s name to become the Swan Silvertones. Their show, which primarily reached the 150 mile area around Knoxville, could be heard throughout the South reaching as far as the Carolinas and Florida. The Swan Silvetones WIBR show ran for five years through 1946 making the Silvertones one of the most respected and popular Gospel Groups in the South. It led to many concert bookings across the South and a record contract.  While they were doing the daily show they were allow five days a month to tour in the South  
The Silvertones began to tour more extensively across the country and ended their daily radio show in 1947.  With Mr. Swan’s permission they kept the “Swan Silvertone” name.  

King Records Recordings 

The Swan Silvertones signed a record contract with Sydney Nathan's Cincinnati based King label in 1945. The Silvertone members who began recording on King in 1946 where Claude Jeter, Solomon Womack (uncle of R&B singer Bobby Womack), tenors Robert Crenshaw and John Manson,  baritone John H. Myles, and bass singer Henry K. Bossard. They released 26 singles on the King label  from 1946 through 1951. Their recordings of “Lord I've Tried” by gospel songwriter the Rev WH Brewster), “I Cried Holy” and “Go Ahead” sold well launching them nationally.  A two disc CD compilation of the King recordings "The Swan Silvertones 1946 - 1951" was released by the U.K. label Acrobat Records in 2005. 

Move to Pittsburgh and Gospel Show on WPGH

Wanting to expand their audience into the North the Swan Silvertones relocated to Pittsburgh sometime between 1946 and 1948. In that period other Southern Gospel groups made the northern migration such as the Dixie Humingbirds who moved to Philadelphia.   The Silvertones began performing live on Pittsburgh radio station WPGH-AM 1080 sometime in 1949.    The 1000 watt station, founded in 1947, was located on East Lane atop Spring Hill in the North side of Pittsburgh and became R&B station WILY in 1957.  During 1951 and 1952 Silvertones show aired on WPGH  daily at 2:15 PM.   The Pittsburgh Courier reported that it was one of the station's most popular shows.  The show ended sometime in late 1952.

Hummingbirds Singer Joins the Silvertones

Singer and arranger Paul Owens, a former member of the Dixie Hummingbirds joined the group in 1952 replacing Solomon Womack, who was having health issues. 

Specialty Records

Claude Jeter was unhappy with King Records saying in interviews that the label did not appreciate real jubilee gospel and only wanted them to record hillbilly style music.  The Swan Silvertones signed with Specialty Records in 1951.  Specialty Records, located in Los Angeles, was owned by McKeesport, Pa native and Rock N Roll Hall of fame member Art Rupe.  The Slivertones recorded 25 songs for Specialty at the WPGH studio in Pittsburgh.  Specialty released seven singles including the classic songs "Trouble in My Way", "He Won't Deny Me", and "My Rock".  The group using Paul Owens' arrangements developed a more updated Doo Wop sound while on Specialty.  Jeter complained in a radio interview that Specialty didn't distribute their records widely. They parted ways with Specialty Records by mutual agreement in 1955.   

Specialty Records released a 24 song compilation of its Swan Slivertone recordings made in Pittsburgh during 1952 and 1953  titled "Love Lifted Me" in 1970.  The group on those records consists of Claude Jeter, Solomon J. Womack, Henry K. Bossard, John Manson, John H. Myles, Rev. Robert Crenshaw, and Paul Owens.

Silvetones Pittsburgh Performances

Th Swan Silvertones performed frequently in the Pittsburgh area from 1950 through 1969 promoting shows and "song battles" with other well known gospel acts.  They appeared in Pittsburgh at the Olivet Baptist Church, Emmanuel Baptist church, the New Light Baptist Church in Oakland, Carnegie Hall in Braddock, the Second Baptist Church of  Homestead, the Macedonia Baptist Church in Duquesne along with schools and churches in Aliquippa, McKeesport and Youngstown.  They performed with the Harmonizing Four, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Soul Stirrers, the Golden Harp, the Rugged Cross Singers, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and other acts.

On Sunday October 19, 1952 the Swan Silvertones held their 11th anniversary celebration at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Hall.  Performing with them were the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Five Blind Boys of Jackson, Mississippi,  and Pittsburgh's the Morning Doves and the Melotones.  WPGH celebrated the Silvetones fourth year on the station with a special live broadcast on the morning of the concert.

The Swan Silvertones celebrated their 15 anniversary with a concert at Soldiers and Sailors Hall on November 10, 1957.  Also on the bill that night were the Harmonizing Four, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and four other gospel groups.  They took the show on a tour of Western, Pa appearing in McKeesport, Aliquippa, and Youngstown.

On April 2, 1967 the Silvertones headlined another Soldiers and Saliors Hall show with the Soul Stirrers, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

They Silvertones made Pittsburgh their home base from whcih they traveled throughout the country in the 1950 and 1960s.  They performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.

Vee Jay Records

The Silvertones signed with Chicago based Vee-Jay Records in 1956 recording on that label through 1964  The Silvertones lineup in 1955 was Claude Jeter, John Myles, tenors Louis Johnson and Paul Owens, and bass William "Pete" Connor.   Louis Johnson joined the group in 1955.  At Vee-Jay their music became a more commercial R&B-inspired Gospel.  in 1956 they added more instrumentation to their recordings with guitarist Linwood Hargrove, jazz bassist Bob Cranshaw, and bass and Walter Perkins on drums.   

They released 21 singles on Vee-Jay   Their biggest hit single "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" was released on Vee-Jay in 1959  .Vee-Jay went bankrupt in 1966.  A compilation of the Vee-Jay recordings "The Best Of The Swan Silvertones" was released in 1990.  Opal Nations of the All Music Guide wrote: "These cuts are postwar gospel milestones and memories of how dramatic and spiritually uplifting gospel music had become. It's a must for all serious collectors of postwar gospel" 

Vee Jay attempted push the Swan Silvertones into the more popular secular R&B music.  But Claude Jeter refused.  In a New York Times interview Jeter said " I promised my mother I would never sing nothing but for the Lord.  As far as lyrics are concerned, there's just as much truth in the blues as there is in gospel. The difference? The blues doesn't move me spiritually." 

Jeter Leaves the Silvertones

Claude Jeter was ordained a minister at Detroit's Church of Holiness Science in 1963 and began to move away from his full time singing career towards ministry.  .Claude Jeter left the Swan Silvertones sometime in 1965.  A July 1965 article in the Pittsburgh Courier article announced that Jeter was appearing with another Pittsburgh based gospel group the "Golden Clouds”  at churches in Western, Pa and West Virginia. 

Jeter moved to Harlem in 1967 to become a minister.  He supported himself working for many years working as an assistant manager at the Hotel Cecil on 118th Street above the famed BeBob jazz club Minton's Playhouse.  
In the mid 1960s Al Kooper introduced Paul Simon to the music of the Swan Silvertones. Simon heard the Silvertone sing live in concert.  Jeter's line, "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name", in the song "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" inspired Simon to write the song "Bridge Over Trouble Water" that was released in 1970.  In gratitude for his inspiration by Jeter, Simon went to Jeter's apartment to personally give him a $1,000 check for his church.  Simon also hired Jeter to sing with him on the 1973 album "There Goes Rhymin' Simon".  Jeter sang falsetto vocals on the track "Take Me to the Marti Gras".

House of Beauty Records

Louis Johnson took over the Swan Silvertones after Jeter left.  Carl Davis became the new lead singer.  The Silvertones moved to the Detroit gospel label HOB Records in 1965, when Vee-Jay Recrods folded in 1965.  HOB (House of Beauty Records, owned by beautician Carmen Murphy, also released music by the Dixie Hummingbirds. the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and many of gospel greats.  The Silvertones released seven singles on HOB including "I Not Tired Yet" / "Tell God".  They recorded their label album "Only Believe" on HOB Records at Scepter Studios in New York City

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 he retired in 1978.  

The Swan Silvertones releases two albums on Savor Records in 1979 "Let Us All Go Back To The Old Landmark" and "There's Not A Friend Like Jesus".  They released "The Lord is My Light" with Reverend Cleophus Robinson in 1983.  The Silvertones toured on the the oldies circuit in the 1990s and Claude Jeter made occasional appearances with tthe Silvertones at reunion concerts through the 1990s.

Claude Jetter's Final Years

Jeter returned to Pittsburgh to appear at the Hill House on December 15, 1979.  He recorded a solo album "Yesterday & Today" in 1988 with producer/gospel music historian Anthony Heilbut on the Shanachie label.  He made appearances with the Silvertones several times during the early 1990s.  His spent his final years in Northern Manhattan Nursing Home on E. 125th St in New York.  Claude Jeter died on January 6, 2009 at the age of 94 in New York City

The New Swan Silvertones

The musical legacy of the Swan Silvertones is being carried on by the New Swan Silvertones who are based in Pittsburgh.  Its members are Mel Johnson (the brother of the late Louis Johnson), Marvin Latimore and Sam Hubbard (who sang Claude Jeter) and Jimi Fluellyn, and Rev. Billy Houze represent the current lineup.  They released the CD "Need More Love" that was co-produced by Johnny Valentine of the Mighty Clouds of Joy.  The also released the live album "Live & Up Close" in 2007 and 2010.
Music of the Swan Silvertones
Short History
Advertisement for Silvertones Pittsburgh Radio Show
Claude Jeter
Swan Silvertones King Records
Back John Myles, Soloman Womack, Claude Jeter, Henry Brossard
Front Roosevelt Payne and William Johnson

Claude Jeter Interview
Interview Part 2