The longtime leader of the Swan Silvertones, Claude Jeter towers among the most celebrated and influential gospel singers of the postwar era. While his silken falsetto inspired a generation of crossover soul superstars including Sam Cooke and Al Green, Jeter steadfastly refused to abandon spiritual music for secular fame and fortune, and in the latter decades of his life he shifted his focus away from performing in favor of the ministry. Jeter was born October 26, 1914, in Birmingham, AL. Following his attorney father's 1922 death, the family relocated to Kentucky, and by the time he was 14 Jeter was working in the coal mines of nearby Coalwood, WV, singing in his mother's church choir on weekends. In 1938 he teamed with some fellow miners to form the a cappella gospel quartet the Four Harmony Kings -- Jeter, a high tenor, assumed the majority of lead vocal duties, and while the group initially emphasized the short vocal phrasing, rich harmonies, and rapid tempos of the jubilee style, over time their repertoire expanded to embrace sentimental ballads and shout songs as well. The Four Harmony Kings quickly emerged as a fixture at weekend gospel gatherings across West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina -- in 1942, the quartet changed its name to the Silvertone Singers (to avoid conflict with a rival act) and relocated to Knoxville, TN, where the group regularly appeared on radio station WBIR's Sunday morning gospel program. The radio show was sponsored by the Swan Bakery Company -- at WBIR's suggestion, the group renamed itself the Swan Silvertones.
The Swan Silvertones (now featuring Jeter alongside tenors Solomon Womack, Robert Crenshaw, and John Manson; baritone John H. Myles; and bass Henry K. Bossard) signed with King Records in 1946, recording about 100 songs during their five-year stint with the label. Efforts like "I'm Gonna Walk That Milky White Way," "I'm Coming Home," and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" boast an uncommon elegance and grace -- Jeter's signature vocal fillips often evoke the improvisational freedoms of jazz, contrasting with the gritty intensity of Womack and the ecstatic shouts of Crenshaw to presage the arrival of doo wop. The Swan Silvertones relocated to Pittsburgh in 1948, and three years later left King in favor of Specialty Records. The move crippled the group's commercial momentum, however -- Specialty released only four of their recordings over a two-year period, during which time both Womack and Crenshaw resigned. In 1955 a revamped Swan Silvertones lineup made up of Jeter, Myles, tenors Louis Johnson and Paul Owens, and bass William "Pete" Connor landed at Vee-Jay, where their music adopted a more commercial, R&B-inspired approach. With 1958's "Mary, Don't You Weep" they scored their biggest hit to date, and the Jeter lyric "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust my name" was later cited by Paul Simon as the inspiration behind the Simon & Garfunkel classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water." (More than a decade later, Jeter lent backing vocals to Simon's album There Goes Rhymin' Simon.)
Despite Vee-Jay's attempts to push the Swan Silvertones into the secular arena, the group stood its ground: "I promised my mother I would never sing nothing but for the Lord," Jeter later told The New York Times. "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. 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." In 1963 Jeter became an ordained minister at Detroit's Church of Holiness Science, and as the challenge of balancing his commitments between the music and the ministry grew too intense, he left the Swan Silvertones in 1967 and relocated to Harlem. For a number of years Jeter toiled as an assistant manager at the Hotel Cecil, located above the legendary jazz club Minton's Playhouse. Despite his emphasis on his ministry work, he occasionally reunited with the latter-day Swan Silvertones lineup for live dates, and in 1988 he teamed with producer/gospel music historian Anthony Heilbut for the Shanachie label solo LP Yesterday & Today. Jeter's sight failed him as the decades wore on, and he spent the final years of his life legally blind and living in a nursing home. He died January 6, 2009, at the age of 94. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi