The greatness of a vocal group depends on demonstrated influence on quartets that have followed them. No where is that clearer than with the Swan Silvertones and their famous lead singer, the Reverend Claude Jeter. Jeter's use of a falsetto lead revolutionized the way we think of vocal harmony. In more than sixty years of singing, the Swan Silvertones excelled in vocal harmony and set the stage for countless groups that came after them.
Claude A. Jeter was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on October 26, 1914. Montgomery was near Birmingham, long a hotbed of quartet singing and Claude grew up singing harmony. Claudes father died when he was eight and soon after Claudes mother, Maggie Jeter, moved the family to Kentucky. There, Claude sang in the church choir and began experimenting in quartet singing. In his early twenties, Claude Jeter went to nearby Coalwood, West Virginia to work in the coal mines.
In 1938, Claude Jeter organized a singing group called the Four Harmony Kings with his brother and two other coal miners. The group sang at nearby churches on weekends. In the coal mining community, black gospel quartet singing flourished. Community churches had their own quartets but touring quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds and Heavenly Gospel Singers regularly came through the area. On one such occasion, Claude Jeter became a brief fill-in member of the Dixie Hummingbirds. When Birds organizer James Davis fired bass Jimmy Bryant, Claude Jeter was asked to substitute for him on several programs, singing bass. The opportunity lasted only a short time until Bryant returned to the Hummingbirds.
In 1942, Claude Jeter quit coal mining and moved to Knoxville, TN, taking two of the Harmony Kings with him. The group, then consisting of Claude Jeter, John Myles, Leroy Watkins and Eddie Boroughas, changed its name to the Silvertone Singers. They soon landed a daily radio program on 50,000-watt radio station WDIR in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since the program was sponsored by the Swan Bakery, their name changed again to the Swan Silvertones. The Swan Silvertones sang live on the radio for fifteen minutes every weekday. Evenings and weekends saw the group singing at area churches. During this time, Jeter experimented with falsetto to enable him to extend his vocal range. The audience seemed to like it so he began using falsetto more and more.
Their radio show and live appearances made the Swan Silvertones one of the most popular quartets in the south. In July 1946, the Swan Silvertones were given some time off from their radio show to record for King records in Cincinnati. The group now consisted of Claude Jeter (lead), Albert Reed (tenor), Solomon Womack (baritone), John Myles (baritone) and William Johnson (bass singer and guitar). In contrast to Jeter's falsetto lead, Womack was added to the group to provide a hard, gospel lead. Eight songs were recorded at this first session, resulting in four 78 RPM singles on the subsidiary Queen label. After the Queen label was discontinued in 1947, some or all of these sides were reissued on the King label. Subsequent Swan Silvertones' records came out only on King.
After the first King session, Roosevelt Payne replaced Albert Reed and Henry Brossard became the new bass. Brossard was born and raised in Cincinnati and had previously sung with the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham. Reverend Percell Perkins also provided an extra baritone voice on some of the King recordings.
All told, the Swan Silvertones had six recording sessions with King Records, recording forty-five songs (twenty-two 78 RPM singles) through December 1950. Though Claude Jeter was never happy with the King recordings, saying King wanted give the group a hillbilly sound, many group harmony enthusiasts love these early acappella and near acappella sides for their purity. Some years later, in September 1960, King re-released all but one of the King recordings on a series of eleven 45 RPM EPs (four sides to a record) on their Audio Lab subsidiary. These EPs are now prized by collectors of this music.