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Lead singer of legendary quartet the Swan Silvertones dies aged 94
ONE OF the giants of post war gospel music, Rev Claude Jeter died on 6th January in New York aged 94. Pop historians have noted that the quartet he led along America's Gospel Highway in the '50s, the Swan Silvertones, were one of the most influential in the development of both gospel and soul music while an improvised aside on the Silvertones' 1959 recording "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" inspired the lyric to Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water".
Claude was born on 26th December 1914 in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1938 Jeter lived in Coalwood, West Virginia and worked as a coal miner. He started the gospel quartet Four Harmony Kings (Jeter, his brother and two fellow miners) to express their Christian faith and the group began singing at weekend gatherings. In 1942, the Four Harmony Kings moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to appear on a radio show on WDIR sponsored by New York's Swan Bakery Company. With a new home came a new name: the Swan Silvertones.
In 1946 the group began recording for King Records, in 1952 Specialty Records and in 1956, VeeJay Records. Despite many offers, the group refused to switch to R&B or doo-wop but remained influential figures on the thriving gospel scene. Jeter's pure, achingly expressive tenor-into-falsetto was a huge influence on Al Green and Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations. The Swan Silvertones made an appearance on the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
The Swan Silvertones influenced pop acts such as Simon And Garfunkel and The Band. Said gospel historian Anthony Heilbut, who produced Jeter's last record in 1990, "I remember Simon came to my apartment and personally gave Jeter a check for $1,000 for inspiring the song." Simon also hired Jeter to sing on Simon's album, "There Goes Rhymin' Simon." Said Heilbut, "As admired as he was, he lived very modestly. The gospel highway is a hard-knocks road, and the Swans never made much money. He told me the best year they ever had, they made $5,000 apiece."
Jeter was ordained a minister at Detroit's Church of Holiness Science in 1963. In 1967 he left the Swan Silvertones and moved to the Harlem section of New York City to work as a minister. He lived there the rest of his life, much of it in a small apartment on 118th Street. For a time he was an assistant manager at the old Hotel Cecil, above the famous Minton's Club. "I remember him saying to me, 'I'm just another singer who never made it'," said Heilbut. "It was very sad. But he reconciled himself to it. It didn't destroy his life that he never made a lot of money."
In a New York Times interview Jeter said, "I promised my mother I would never sing nothing but for the Lord. The Devil, he's over there singing the blues, and I'm over here singing gospel. Even though he's got true words, I've got true words too."
Heilbut recalled a time a few years ago, after Jeter had moved into a nursing home, when he was visited by Ira Tucker Sr, the lead singer of another legendary gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds. They had known each other for many years, and Tucker brought his group to sing "Oh Mary" for Jeter. "Jeter listened and he finally said, 'Watch those minors!'," said Heilbut. "He was almost blind by then, but he still had his ears."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.