february 2009

'I Promised My Mother I Would Never Sing Nothing But For The Lord'

The Rev. Claude Jeter

Oct. 26, 1914-January 6, 2009

The Swan Silvertones (Rev. Claude Jeter, lower left): '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.'

The Rev. Claude Jeter, one of the giants of the golden age of gospel music whose soaring, soul piercing falsetto cries amidst the impeccable harmonies of the Swan Silvertones, were echoed in succeeding generations of doo-wop, R&B and soul singers, passed away on January 6 at his home in the Bronx, NY. He was 94 years old.

Jeter's distinctive falsetto and soothing tenor gave the Swan Silvertones one of the most distinctive vocal blends of the era in its contrast to the gravel-throated shout of Rev. Robert Crenshaw and the hard driving rhythmic attack of co-lead singer Solomon J. Womack. The group's 1947 recording, "Lord I've Tried" was the prototype for the ensuing decade's brooding R&B and doo-wop ballads, with Jeter's plaintive, pleading lead buttressed by a rumbling, walking vocal bass line, soothing ensemble harmonizing and dramatic but restrained call-and-response choruses. "Mary Don't You Weep," a 1959 recording and one of the group's monuments, found Jeter caressing the lyric, "I'll be your bridge over deep water, you can trust in me," which was reconfigured by Paul Simon in 1970 in Simon & Garfunkel's six-week chart topper, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." (Jeter later sang on Simon's 1973 solo album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon.) The Jeter falsetto, at once emotionally charged but imbued with tender yearning, was adopted by a host of popular and influential secular singers who followed him and all had roots in the church, including Drifters founder Clyde McPhatter, Impressions founder Curtis Mayfield, the Temptations' Eddie Kendricks and Jeter's most vocal acolyte, Al Green, who has rarely passed up an opportunity to praise the Rev. in words, or in deed, with falsetto swoops descended from the Jeter bloodline.

''I really didn't learn to sing,'' Jeter told New York Times music critic Jon Pareles in an interview published on November 11, 1988 ("At Gospel Festival, Music Inspired by Hope"). ''I was born with that. I've never taken any music or anything. My mother was a beautiful singer who sang in the church and the choir and had a group, and I think that's where it began, by me loving it. When I was 14 years old, three or four little boys around the neighborhood, schoolboys, we got together and began to sing. We sang around in a couple of churches and it went on and on from there."

The falsetto that became his trademark was essentially an artifact of his normal singing style. ''When you'd sing natural,'' Jeter told Pareles, ''you'd reach a note that was straining you. I learned to use the note in falsetto instead of natural, and I began to learn how to move out of natural into falsetto. It made it easier for me, I didn't have to strain in the natural. And it developed. Now, when I sing, I don't even have to sweat my shirt.''

Born in Montgomery, AL, and raised in Kentucky from the age of eight, after his lawyer father died, Claude Jeter began working in West Virginia coal mines as a teenager. With his brother and two other coal miners he formed the Four Harmony Kings in 1938. The group changed its name to the Silvertone Singers, then became Swan's Silvertone Singers, then the Swan Silvertones, after the Swan Bakery began sponsoring its radio show on WBIR in Knoxville, TN. Signed to its first recording contract in 1946, the Swan Silvertones recorded prolifically for the King, Specialty and Veejay labels before Jeter left to pursue a solo career in 1968. In the group's later years its lineup included Paul Owens, who had joined up after stints with the Dixie Hummingbirds and Sensational Nightingales. An expert arranger with an affection for pop music, Owens updated the Swans' sound with pop rhythmic patterns and tighter harmonies, although Jeter made sure the gospel message came through unsullied. His was a view shaped less by changing trends than by a history he felt duty bound to honor.

''Our music,'' he said, ''goes clean back to the days of slavery. That's when my great-grandmother and -grandfather, they worked them as slaves and they worked them in the fields, and they didn't feed them on nothing but fatback and corn bread. They'd be tired, they'd be exhausted from the heat and everything, but they'd look up toward heaven, and they'd say, 'Jesus, I'm going to be there someday.' We've been living on hope for 200 years."

Ordained as a minister in the Church of Holiness Science in 1963, Jeter settled in Harlem, where he worked (and occasionally performed) at the Hotel Cecil. He recorded his only solo album, Yesterday and Today, in 1991. Commenting to the New York Times in 1992 on the singers who had taken his sound and applied it to hugely successful secular recordings, while he made little money with it during his heyday, Jeter expressed neither bitterness nor regret over his chosen path.

"I had many offers to sing rock 'n' roll, but I never did it," he 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. 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."

The Rev. Jeter's niece, Gwendolyn Davis, of Lillie, LA, is his only surviving immediate family member. —David McGee

Listen to the Swan Silvertones, with Claude Jeter on lead, performing "Lord, I've Tried," recorded 1947 for King Records.

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