Much like The Soul Stirrers and Fairport Convention, The Swan Silvertones were recording long after the original members had left. The current group was led by lead singer Louis Johnson. The songs all have a Memphis soul feel. There are none of the intricate vocal harmonies of years past. Louis Johnson still has a good voice, though he doesn’t seem to have the range he once did. The new singers aren’t prominent enough to be memorable here. Still, the mellow sound of the album has its charms. This might just be the best offering from the group’s years on Savoy Records.
A pretty mediocre album. It’s in the soul-inflected style of It’s a Miracle. However, producer John Bowden has done an absolutely atrocious job recording this. The instruments seem incredibly muddy and indistinct. At times the recordings are so murky that it seems like the instrumentalists are just plain out of sync with the vocalists. The murkiness of this recording is just as bad as on In God’s Hands.
You’ve Got a Friend is among the more listenable of the albums The Swan Sivertones recorded for HOB Records. The group has better success here melding their vocals with the instrumental backing than in subsequent years. Of note is the increasingly prominent use of raw, slightly twangy electric guitar and rock-inflected organ. Though there really are no standout tracks, the version of the gospel standard “Well, Well, Well” and covers of James Cleveland‘s “Prayer Will Move It” and the recently popular “You’ve Got a Friend” are nice.
A solid effort. Longtime member John Myles was still around for this mid-1970s album, though his input seems to have been waning. Louis Johnson and Sam Hubbard take lead vocal duties. Most of these songs are respectable but not particularly remarkable. The best of the bunch are the title track, the organ-drenched “Happy With Jesus Alone”, and “Life of a Sinner”. The last of those finds Louis Johnson going much further than usual with some of his most subtly complex songwriting and arranging, with vocals punctuated by a somber horn and a jittery, rambunctious piano. The group does seem to run a bit low on ideas in places. So they borrow a guitar riff straight out of Al Green‘s “Love and Happiness” to open their version of “Leak in This Old Building”. But generally The Swans bring enough energy to the table that it’s easy to let the album’s weaknesses slip by. On the whole, this is a characteristic effort from the group’s tenure on HOB Records, and worth a listen for anyone with an interest in soul-inflected gospel.
Try Me Master was the final album The Swan Silvertones released for HOB Records, and their last album with longtime member John Myles. It’s a decent album for the period, with better production values than their many low-budget releases of the previous eight or nine years. The group remakes their perennial favorite “Jesus Remembers” and adapts a few gospel standards. The title track and “Please Help Me” (with keyboards a little like Joy Division‘s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” of all things) are the highlights. The material is listenable throughout, if a little thin on side two. Fans will probably enjoy this even though it doesn’t break any new ground.
A good set, though still an imperfect one. Many reissues of Soul Stirrers material with Sam Cooke have overdubs that were not present on the original releases. Fortunately, the versions here are the originals. On the other hand, this set includes Sam Cooke’s first 5 solo recordings (some originally released under an alias “Dale Cook”), and those are for the most part a distraction. Sam Cooke’s softer, lighter lead vocals took gospel music in a whole new direction.
Soulful, mellow gospel produced by Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds. This lineup of The Sensational Nightingales featured Horace Thompson, Brother Joseph Wallace, Charles B. Johnson and Willie George Woodruff. The group was among those top-flight gospel acts that updated their sound to contemporary tastes into the 1970s. With accompaniment led by a reverb-heavy guitar, the smooth, simple vocals are all catchy and inviting. The sound is vaguely similar to The Swan Silvertones‘ I Found the Answer, The Consolers, and probably lots of other gospel of the day on Peacock Records and Nashboro Records. There is some filler toward the end, but I can’t help but really enjoy this.
An album supposedly culled from leftover material recorded for Vee-Jay Records in the 1960s that develops a soul-inflected sound — though given the apparent absence of Paul Owens and the possibility that it’s Claude Jeter imitator Carl Davis rather than Jeter himself here, I wonder if this material is from the post-Vee-Jay era. There are bouncy, up-tempo rhythms as well as slower, smoother, organ-drenched sounds. At times there is even just a bit of country-rock influence. From songs like “How Great Thou Art” it’s easy to see the direction the group would take through the mid-1970s during their tenure on HOB Records. This album has an easygoing charm. It’s yet another forgotten gem in The Swan Silvertones’ catalog.
[Note: Though I don’t believe this is available on CD by itself, it’s available in its entirety on Raisin’ the Roof]
In many ways, Albertina Walker‘s Caravans (a group originally founded by Robert Anderson) were the gospel equivalent of Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers in the jazz world. Both worked like a “grad school”, finding and training a huge number of musicians who would go on to notable solo careers. The number of star vocalists that came through the ranks of the Caravans is quite astounding. There was “Tina” Walker of course, but also Cassieta George, Inez Andrews, Bessie Griffin, James Herdon, and the big stars Shirley Caesar and James Cleveland. There were few gospel groups that managed to cultivate such rosters of great singers for such a long period of time. The Caravans also heralded the stylistic trends that dominated the sound of contemporary gospel in years to come, with bright solos and slightly muddy backing harmonies. Their style also lent itself to a kind of Vegas-style showmanship too. The group was definitely a little weaker than some of their contemporaries in terms of arrangements. This twenty-three song set is exclusively material recorded for the Savoy label in the late 1950s and the bulk of the 1960s (though the liner notes are skimpy as to recording and release information), and there isn’t a tremendous amount of variety. At a superficial level, though, this is satisfying stuff.
If You Believe (or If You Believe Your God Is Dead, Try Mine, as the sticker on the LP itself says) was sort of a transitional album for The Swan Silvertones. They seem to have made some overt attempts to keep their sound up to date, without completely abandoning the style they settled into starting in the late 1960s. Side two is stronger than side one. It’s somewhat easy to tell why. Longtime band member and manager John Myles was a good, strike that, great arranger. He only arranged three songs on this album, though — the title track plus the first two songs on side two. While this album isn’t his finest hour by any means, he’s still effective. Most of side one was arranged by Louis Johnson, with some assistance from James Lewis. Johnson was not very adept at using arrangements to match the material to individual singers’ strengths. He also tended to put himself way out in front and minimize the backing vocals, at times to the point where the backing harmonies seem like an afterthought. Because he dominates side one, it doesn’t really move like it could. New (or new-ish) members James Chapman and James Lewis wrote the last two songs on the album and sing lead vocals on them. It is a nice change of pace to hear their contributions, which, along with the greater presence of John Myles, make side two the more interesting and enjoyable half of the album. The instrumental backing is purely functional throughout, not the subtle counterpoint it was previously or the saving grace it would be later on. This isn’t a bad Swan Silvertones album, but it’s also far from their best.
As an aside, the titles of the last two songs seem to be erroneously reversed on the original album jacket (“Live Together” is heard last on the recording itself), continuing the sloppy packaging in which HOB Records seemed to excel.