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.
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]
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.
The original album jacket clearly identifies Only Believe as a studio album, but the feel is loose and in the spirit of a live performance complete with audience applause and shouts. Lots of space is given over to what seem like improvised passages. Rev. Claude Jeter‘s “replacement” Carl Davis is featured on a few songs, with Louis Johnson leading the group in a decidedly rock/soul direction throughout. Paul Owens also gets a lot of room here, singing some great leads on “Tell God” and “Oh Lord, I Thank You”. This is a pretty enjoyable outing, with the more open-ended arrangements proving to be an effective change of pace from the group’s intricate early 1960s sound. The Swan Silvertones really perfected this style on Great Camp Meeting.
As a side note, the opener “I Only Believe” is presented in two parts with a break in between, though the album jacket doesn’t really note that fact (though CD reissues tend to present each part as a separate track). Also, the song is listed as 5:29 in length but is in actuality a minute shorter.
The sound of the The Swan Silvertones continued to change with It’s a Miracle. Longtime member Paul Owens had left the group, and that represented a major loss. Owens was a truly great gospel singer, and a real innovator — being responsible for introducing elements of modern vocal jazz into the vocabulary of gospel singing. Carl Davis, a lead singer who typically imitated departed group founder Claude Jeter, seems to also have quit the group. This left Louis Johnson as the only great singer left, and left almost all the lead vocal duties to him.
Nonetheless, the group’s long-serving manager and arranger John Myles makes this album a success. He wrote all the songs on side one, and arranged everything on side two. Like Duke Ellington, he could match the group’s material to the individual strengths of the performers. So he turns a song like the opener “I Can Dream” into a magnificent vehicle for Louis Johnson’s vocals, cradling the nostalgic lyrics in a loping beat perfect for Johnson’s sing/speak crooning. Setting the pattern for the group’s next few albums, there is a mix of up-tempo numbers like “What Ya Gonna Do” and mellower fare, giving time to all the facets of Johnson’s vocal abilities.
In the final analysis, It’s a Miracle is among the group’s best albums for HOB Records. It’s not quite as good as Great Camp Meeting or even Walk With Me Lord, but is very comparable to Only Believe. This might not match the very best of the group’s recordings, but it’s among their most successful and even-handed album-length statements conceived in a rock/soul style.
As an aside, by my count this was The Swan Silvertones’ ninth or tenth full-length album, but the first to feature a photograph of the band on the album jacket. The only other photos of the group members were compilations that tended to recycle two promotional photos from the 1950s (sometimes even slapped on recordings made by completely different lineups than pictured).
[This album was, confusingly, reissued on CD in its entirety, with song titles changed and two bonus tracks added, as The Very Best of The Swan Silvertones: Do You Believe, though the CD reissue seems to have remixed or remastered the sound in such a way that the original vinyl sounds quite different.]
The Swan Silvertones – The Very Best of The Swan Silvertones: Do You Believe Collectables 6111 (1998)
An inappropriately titled collection, given that this is by no means even meant to be a selection of the “very best” material recorded by The Swan Silvertones. It actually is a reissue of It’s a Miracle (tracks 1-10) with two bonus tracks (11 and 12) from another (live) album added. In that sense, people unfamiliar with the group looking for an broad introduction should steer clear of this. Though there is no indication in the liner notes as to where any of this material originated, so naturally approaching this properly would be confusing. Most confusingly, songs are renamed here compared to their original names, for no good reason. The liner notes provide a history of the group, discussing the great Claude Jeter while failing to mention that he’s not featured here at all. As for the music itself, things lean toward soul and even blues-rock in sound at times. The last two tracks are live recordings from Walk With Me Lord. Of those live tracks, “I Gave My Heart to the Lord” (better known to Swan Silvertones fans as “What About You”) is a bit too muddy in the recording to get excited about it, while “Walk With Jesus” is interesting in how its crazy, out of step guitar and piano pull you in and push you away at the same time.