Intricate harmonies, which gospel DJ Joe Bostic, Jr. once described as being “smooth as polished glass,” and the astonishingly elastic, powerfully emotive lead tenor voice of Rev. Claude Jeter set the Swan Silvertones apart from other gospel quartets. Organized in Coalwood, West Virginia, in 1938 by then-24-year-old coal miner Jeter, they were originally known as the Four Harmony Kings. By 1941, they had changed their name to the Silvertone Singers and were broadcasting a daily 15-minute program over a 50,000-watt radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee. The local Swan Bakery became the program’s sponsor the following year, and the quartet became known as the Swan’s Silvertone Singers.
Between 1945 and ’51, the quartet recorded 45 issued titles for King Records in Cincinnati. Most, in Jeter’s words, were “hillbilly-style gospel.” The Silvertones’ 1952-55 recordings for Specialty Records found them taking a harder, more contemporary approach to gospel in which shouters Solomon Womack and Rev. Robert Crenshaw alternated leads with Jeter. The Hollywood company issued only two singles while the they were under contract, though additional singles and two albums were released after they’d found greater fame at Vee-Jay Records in Chicago with such gospel hits as “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Savior Pass Me Not.”
At Vee-Jay, for whom they recorded from 1956 to ’64, the singers adopted a smoother sound that relied more heavily on the modern arrangements of member Paul Owens. And, the formerly a cappella quartet added guitarist Linwood Hargrove. After the demise of Vee-Jay in 1965, the Silvertones moved to Hob Records, where Jeter cut one last album them before moving on to concentrate on his ministry and make solo records. They continued on without him but were never able to fully recapture their earlier magic.