The Swan Silvertones – Let Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark

Let Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark

The Swan SilvertonesLet Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark Savoy SL-14524 (1979)

An album with a funky R&B sound.  To my ears, some of this is reminiscent of Luther Vandross or other popular R&B and contemporary gospel of the day.  Some decent songs on side one, particularly “God Has Smiled on Me”, “Trying to Get Home” and the title track, but generally nothing else too memorable.  On the whole, unessential, but relatively speaking one of the group’s better albums for Savoy.

The Swan Silvertones – At the Cross

At the Cross

The Swan SilvertonesAt the Cross Savoy 14440 (1977)

The Swan Silvertones’ debut album for Savoy Records At the Cross marked a transition to their autumn years.  The music carries forward elements of the sound of their tenure on HOB Records from a few years earlier, but also pushes to modernize the group’s sound at the same time.  This makes the group’s style troublesome, often tending toward the cartoonish.  It’s all too obvious they are trying hard to sound relevant to contemporary tastes, rather than just following their own muse.  One of the lesser Swan Silvertones albums.

The Swan Silvertones – The Swan Silvertones

The Swan Silvertones

The Swan SilvertonesThe Swan Silvertones Vee-Jay LP 5003 (1959)

The Swan Silvertones had been around for over two decades before they released their first album of new material.  Their previous new recordings had been released as singles, first for King Records and then Specialty.  In the late 1950s, they switched to Vee-Jay Records, the label that released The Swan Silvertones.

The group’s first full-length album marked a new approach for the group.  Having already developed their own style by the end of their tenure at King and perfected their musical ideas at Specialty, they transitioned to a phase where they were now expanding upon the elements of their music that were already in place.  The Swan Silvertones really set the tone for all the albums the group would release through the 1960s, with an increased use of instrumental accompaniment and more ornate arrangements.  Often the use of instrumental accompanists went hand in hand with allowing more layers in the song arrangements.  There was also a more liberal use of space.  These trends combined to give everything a softer edge than the “hard gospel” recorded for Specialty.  The LP format also allowed them to record a lot of slower songs to break up the more familiar up-tempo numbers in the album sequencing.  This works well, and the group would only improve on those kinds of subtleties of the album format on subsequent releases.

Songs like “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Jesus Remembers” demonstrate the full power of what The Swans were capable of in their Vee-Jay era.  Elsewhere on the album particularly in the middle, the results aren’t quite as exciting.  Some songs with a rather conventional doo-wop feel tend to come across as filler.  And at times the arrangements, as on the version of “How I Got Over” included here, feel a bit forced and claustrophobic.  The group’s ambitions seem to get ahead of themselves in piling too much into a single song.  This isn’t a condemnation of the album though.  In fact, there really isn’t a bad track here.

As a bit of trivia, note that some of the lyrics sung by Claude Jeter or possibly Paul Owens (“I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name”) from the opener “Mary Don’t You Weep” inspired Paul Simon to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.  Jeter later was a guest vocalist on one of Simon’s solo albums.

The Swan Silvertones – Since I Laid My Burdens Down

Since I Laid My Burdens Down

The Swan SilvertonesSince I Laid My Burdens Down Savoy MG 14468 (1978)

There a number of observations I can make about The Swan Silvertones’ material for the Savoy label from the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The group was in its autumn years, and this was most evident in the song arrangements.  Once a hallmark that placed the group above their peers, in the Savoy years the song arrangements tended to be more utilitarian.  The backing vocals use rather boilerplate harmonies that add almost no rhythmic embellishment.  This makes the backing vocals sound almost the same for every song, and the points of interest are almost never the backing vocals.  Louis Johnson was the only recognizable member from the group’s heyday, and he handled essentially all of the lead vocal duties.  That isn’t to say the songs are always dull.  They tend to be mellow, but are often heartfelt enough to be enjoyable.  The instrumental accompaniment is generally quite respectable, and often is the factor that makes certain songs stand out.  The instrumental performances may not innovate, but are skillful enough to match a typical 1970s soul outfit.  The last point I will make about the Swan Silvertones’ Savoy albums is that they tend to be quite short, typically including only eight rather compact songs — this particular album tops out at just over 25 minutes of music.  About half the material is also usually filler.

Regarding this album in particular, it probably falls somewhere between At the Cross and Day By Day in both style and quality.  Side one might be a little stronger than side two.  But the filler tends toward the tedious more often than not.  The new version of “Mary Don’t You Weep” here pales in comparison to the group’s classic version from the late 1950s, instead being vaguely comparable to the earlier re-make on Only Believe.  The bass line on “Trying to Reach Perfection” is lifted straight from “Chameleon” on Herbie Hancock‘s Head Hunters.  Still, the smooth and mellow “The Lord Will Make a Way” and “It’s Hell” are among the group’s best recordings of the late 70s, those and “Lord I Thank You” being probably the only reasons for fans to bother with the album.

Swan Silvertones – Singing in My Soul

Singing in My Soul

Swan SilvertonesSinging in My Soul Vee-Jay LP 5006 (1960)

For those not in the know, The Swan Silvertones were a long-lived gospel group — one of the best.  Their second LP, Singing in My Soul, is perhaps their very best.  The group had already been around for more than two decades when they made the album, an existence that pre-dated the album format era.  Their early days involved radio performances (no recordings of those performances have been released).  They then recorded a host of singles for the King label in the 1940s, which were mostly a cappella, with occasional acoustic guitar accompaniment.  The group complained that the record label forced them to play up a kind of hillbilly, folky sound.  Into the 1950s, they recorded “hard” gospel for Specialty records.  All the Specialty sides are essential.  The group sang searing leads, balanced with ravaged screams and driving tempos.  Lead singer Claude Jeter made pioneering use of his falsetto range, seemlessly jumping between his natural range and his falsetto.

When the group moved to Vee-Jay records in the late 1950s — where almost all of the top gospel acts of the day recorded — there was a profound shift in their music.  Instrumental accompaniment was much more pronounced, and varied.  Vocals remained the focus.  But there were new opportunities for interplay between vocal and non-vocal sonorities.  On record they were paired with some of the finest session players around (in particular, the jazz group MJT+3), with credentials from outside the gospel world, because Vee-Jay was also active making successful recordings in other genres like blues and jazz.

Vee-Jay was a significant independent record label in its day, and was notable for being an African-American owned and operated company when Jim Crow segregation laws were still prevalent.  It maintained a measure of dominance in the African-American market until overtaken by Motown, and Vee-Jay’s eventual bankruptcy due to financial mismanagement in 1966.  Though, it should be noted, the label’s biggest commercial successes came not from black acts but from white acts like The Four Seasons and licensed state-side re-issues of recordings by The Beatles.  Vivian Carter Bracken, one of the label’s owners, was a radio DJ first in Chicago and then in Indiana.  Her knowledge and connections, not to mention her exposure on radio broadcasts, seemed to give her an edge identifying new talent and understanding commercial markets for music.  Scores of major musical artists made their first commercially successful recordings for the label.

The opener on Singing in My Soul is the traditional “Swing Low.”  The first sounds are from an electric guitar (from Linwood Hargrove), slowly playing two dissonant, descending chords.  Louis Johnson, who joined the group about five years earlier, is the first singer heard, and he is sermonizing rather than singing as such, recanting a nostalgic tale about supposedly hearing about the lyrics of the song from “an old gray-haired lady” many years ago, presumably in childhood.  A vocal harmony is introduced, with slow, wordless “wooos” filling out the space behind Johnson.  Claude Jeter comes in next.  He goes immediately to his falsetto range.  He dips into his natural range briefly, only to swoop immediately back up to his falsetto.  Some lightly brushed percussion on a cymbal (from Walter Perkins), and a faintly plucked acoustic bass enter in too (from Bob Cranshaw).  As all this builds, there is a bluesy, jazzy approach to the instrumental accompaniment, though except for Jeter’s vocals everything stays respectfully in the background.  There is actually a lot happening, with six or seven performers backing Jeter at the same time, yet the song still provides a sense of space and openness.

The next song, “Move Somewhere,” again opens with Louis Johnson.  This time, though, he’s actually singing.  His range is much lower and, frankly, narrower than Jeter’s, with a gravelly texture that is accentuated with slightly cracking, subdued screams used for emphasis.  This song picks up the tempo.  The full drum kit is used to provide syncopation.  Meanwhile, the vocal harmonies introduce words, and the guitar continues in what seem like improvised blues/jazz riffs not far off from West Coast cool jazz of the latter part of the 1950s.

By the third song, “Lord Today,” Claude Jeter’s opening lead is ready to fully open up.  His finesse in going from a robust use of his natural tenor range, with more limited, precise and dramatic forays into falsetto puts superb technical skill into play in the most friendly, welcoming way possible.  Louis Johnson enters and he is now wound up to a more fevered pitch, pushing against the steady tempo of a rhythm section that is providing more forceful beats.

The first part of the album lacks any prominent contributions from the great Paul Owens.  This changes somewhat in the middle and latter part of the album. Owen’s biggest chance to shine is on the closer “Stand Up and Testify.”  The presence of a jazz trio kind of takes away opportunities for Owens to showcase his style of singing influenced by what was then fairly contemporary and modern vocal jazz.  But he gets to do some of that in at least in that one song.

The group’s classic “Trouble In My Way” is re-recorded here with a brand new arrangement that manages to impress even with a completely different sound.  Owens gets some time out front here, along with Louis Johnson.  The backing vocals adopt something approaching New Orleans second-line music (with echos of “Jesus on the Main Line”).  The guitar strums steadily in nearly a fury, setting aside the jazzy chords for the first time to play in a more incongruous folk music style.

As usual, baritone singer John H. Myles and bass singer William Connor stay pretty much out of the spotlight.  What is more unusual, though, is that the group’s most talented arranger, Myles, isn’t felt so strongly on this album as on others.  The jazz trio providing instrumental accompaniment is given relatively free reign to create a lightly improvised foundation, and the most of the backing vocals are straightforward call-and-response stuff.  More complicated vocal treatments do come on the title track, with the instrumentalists holding back a bit more and the singers providing a more layers that more somewhat more independently, with solos from Jeter very nearly taking the role of the responses to the calls from the other singers.

“Near the Cross, Pt. 2” might well be a live recording.  The instrumentalists can barely be heard, and there are shouts and handclaps that might be from an audience.  Along with “Rock My Soul,” it raises the intensity and energy level of the album and helps provide a more a more varied song sequence.

This is my favorite Swan Silvertones full-length album.  While it somewhat paradoxically gives over a lot of attention to the instrumental accompaniment, and the vocal arrangements are rather more straightforward than elsewhere, this holds together so well I can’t help but want to listen to it more frequently than most of the group’s original albums.  It has a consistency of sound, yet it still maintains a kind of looseness and leaves room to sprinkle through it a variety of attitudes, tempos and phrasings that prevent stagnation down any single stylistic avenue.  It may lack any individual standout songs, but the sum ends up being greater than its parts.  The Swan Silvertones are definitely number one on my list of “greatest bands no one seems to have heard of”.  Listen in!

The Swan Silvertones – Walk With Me Lord

Walk With Me Lord

The Swan SilvertonesWalk With Me Lord HOB HBX-2112 (1970)

A live album recorded July 4, 1969 at the Baptist House of Prayer in New York City.  The sound is soul-inflected.  This would be the last album The Swan Silvertones recorded with longtime member Paul Owens — his feature “What About You” (renamed “What About Me”) appears early on.  It would be wrong to focus on any individual songs here, though, because this album is more importantly a document of a live performance that is really more than the sum of its parts.  There is a lot of talking and sermonizing in between songs, and “Pass Me Not” is more like “testifying” set to music than a proper song.  Often times the sermonizing segues to the song proper.  Clearly a great deal of practice is reflected in how the group transitions between different songs across the program.  What all this captures on record is the way the group could work up a crowd through multifaceted performance techniques.  And this crowd was clearly enthusiastic about the performance.  Gospel music may have been seeing a steep decline in popularity at this time.  But you wouldn’t guess it from the searing vocals of lead singer Louis Johnson.  This is a good one from the later years of one of the most important groups in gospel.

The Swan Silvertones – There’s Not a Friend Like Jesus

There's Not a Friend Like Jesus

The Swan SilvertonesThere’s Not a Friend Like Jesus Savoy SL-14505 (1979)

Stylistically, There’s Not a Friend Like Jesus (or simply Not a Friend as the back of the album jacket states) is a fairly typical late-period Swan Silvertones album.  The instrumental backing is polished, though the underlying material is too bland for that to matter.  There is surprisingly little singing here.  Louis Johnson is at the front, with only minimal backing vocals.  But Johnson often sermonizes without truly singing.  That makes this a somewhat disappointing album, even with reduced expectations that take into account the generally unambitious nature of the era of the Swans’ career that produced it.  It’s also a bad sign that this is the only Swan Silvertones album to feature an extended electric guitar solo.  This may earn the distinction of being the very worst Swan Silvertones album.

Apparently none of The Swan Silvertones’ recordings for Savoy Records have been released on CD.  But the original LPs are relatively easy to come by for reasonable prices, as the Savoy period is the least interesting of the group’s long career and there are plenty of people out there willing to give up their discs.  The same can’t be said for the group’s earliest material for the King, Specialty and Vee-Jay record labels, almost all of which is readily available on CD.  Material for HOB Records has seen only limited re-release on CD, mostly by way of shoddy “best of” sets and not full-album reissues.  The HOB material is good enough in quality and hard enough to come by that prices for vinyl tend to be a bit high, and the CD compilations often aren’t worthwhile due to being so incomplete.

The Swan Silvertones – Great Camp Meeting

Great Camp Meeting

The Swan SilvertonesGreat Camp Meeting HOB HOB290 (1968)

The Swan Silvertones’ over five decade existence can be broken down into about four periods.  The first period is their early period from formation in 1938 through 1951, roughly encompassing their time recording for King Records, when they were searching to find their style beyond “jubilee” gospel.  During this time they didn’t really have a sympathetic record label to record them, so today we have to just guess what they would have sounded like live.  Some surviving notes suggest that the band was holding some of their better material and arrangements in reserve until they found a more willing label to record them.  Nonetheless, they had some mild success in this early period, but probably not a tremendous amount on a national scale.  The second period is 1951 through the later years of the 1950s.  I consider this the classic period of the Swans, when they firmly established their own unique style of “hard gospel”.  They were recording for Specialty Records.  While Specialty gave them essentially complete creative control in picking arrangements and songs, it seems Specialty didn’t do that much for the group in terms of promoting them and releasing in a timely fashion what had been recorded.  During this time they recorded some all-time greats.  While I think the group was gaining a reputation, they probably weren’t getting as much exposure through their recordings as they deserved.  The third period, and the one that probably brought the group the most commercial success, was when they moved to Vee-Jay records at the end of the 1950s.  On Vee-Jay, they added instrumental backing for more or less the first time — previous recordings were mostly a cappella and generally included only minimal percussion accompaniment.  They also were releasing full-length LPs of new material for the first time.  In this phase, the group was expanding upon the stylistic ideas they had previously developed.  Things were going very well, but then Vee-Jay closed down in 1965.  They switched over to HOB records, but the group’s long-time leader Rev. Claude Jeter left in 1966.  The group continued though.  They recorded more for HOB.  Starting in 1968, HOB albums were distributed by Scepter Records, but Scepter shut down in 1976 at which time the group switched over to record material for Savoy Records, with longtime manager John Myles departing.  In these later years, particularly on Savoy when Louis Johnson took over leadership of the group, they had what has been described as a “seventies gospel” style.  This post-Vee-Jay period is the fourth and final period of The Swans’ existence — though the Savoy years could perhaps be viewed separate from the HOB years.  Finding albums from this last period can be incredibly difficult, as even discographies covering this period can be hard to find, much less copies of the LPs, most of which have never been re-released on CD in full as of this writing.  If anything, the band kept moving in a direction that bore little connection to any of their earlier periods.  In some respects, this is the least rewarding period, and that probably goes a long way towards explaining the lack of reissues and willful amnesia among fans and critics. I don’t want to make this period sound like it’s consistently terrible, because these recordings were still well-crafted, just not always very stylistically rich or ambitious.  Claude Jeter supposedly came back a few times through the 1980s and early 1990s for live appearances.

That brings me to Great Camp Meeting.  This was released on HOB records originally, and did manage to earn a CD reissue.  The album represents the peak of the increasingly rock and soul oriented sound the group first suggested with Blessed Assurance and continued into the 1970s with generally diminishing results.  When Rev. Claude Jeter left the group, he was replaced by essentially an imitator in new lead singer Carl Davis.  It seems like Davis is present on material here like “Little Wooden Church,” where his vocal similarity to Jeter is striking.  However, it’s clear that the group is under new leadership (with John Myles in control).  A lot of the material here also seems less elaborate than Swan Silvertones recordings from just a few years earlier.  The best stuff on the album tends to be the songs with simple, up-tempo instrumentals and Louis Johnson clearly taking the lead on vocals, with his voice swinging back and forth between gravelly shouting and smoother crooning.  “Can’t Do Nothing” is one of those, with one of the most grooving, driving beats you’ll find anywhere in The Swans’ catalog.  It’s probably my favorite cut from the post-Jeter era.  The version of “This Little Light of Mine” here is also really propulsive, one of the best versions of the songs I’ve yet heard, with an intense beat that shows clear signs that soul music was a vital force in popular music at the time.  Also really good here are a few of the songs like “It’s Good to Be Saved” with Johnson slowly sermonizing over driving backing harmonies, and “Stand Up and Testify” with Paul Owens delivering some slow, jazzed-out lead vocals.

The kind of offhand, inviting, casual feel of so much of this stuff has really hooked me.  There is plenty of good stuff here, and what makes it good is a world apart from what made earlier Swan Silvertones albums good.  This may be my favorite Swan Silvertones album of the post-Vee-Jay years, and it might just be one of the group’s best albums period.  It feels just a little rough around the edges, but that’s exactly what I like about it.

The Swan Silvertones (Part I)

Love Lifted Me

A twelve song tribute to one of my favorite musical groups, The Swan Silvertones.  This isn’t a “best-of” list or anything of the sort.  I just feel that this group, which was capable of just about reaching musical perfection from my point of view, is sadly unknown and as a result too many people are missing out.  So, enjoy!  This list will be continued with The Swan Silvertones, Part II, The Swan Silvertones, Part III, The Swan Silvertones, Part IV and The Swan Silvertones, Part V.  Maybe I should also mention that I have zero interest in the religious content of this music.

Trouble in My Way / I'm Coming Home

1. “Trouble In My Way

As The Swan Silverton Singers; single (1953); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

It may have a sentimental attachment, being the first Swan Silvertones song I ever heard, but this version of “Trouble In My Way” is what I consider the definitive Swan Silvertones recording.  It is hard gospel, with a syncopated rhythm, tight backing harmonies and soaring lead vocals on the top.  The two leads trade back and forth, and play off each other by contrasting coarser shouted vocals and smoother ones that effortlessly leap into falsetto range.  I sometimes listen to just this song over and over and over again.If music has gotten better than this, I haven’t heard it.

How I Got Over / Jesus Is a Friend

2. “How I Got Over

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (195?); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

A great song that provides lots of space for impressive melisma early on, and a pronounced call & response passage later on too.

Love Lifted Me

3. “Glory to His Name”

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (195?); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

Claude Jeter is without a doubt my favorite singer.  There are few songs that highlight his vocals better than “Glory to His Name”.  The first ten seconds alone should be enough to convince a few other people to become fans too.

Pray for Me

4. “The Blood of Jesus”

From Pray for Me (1975)

A track that relies more heavily on guitar accompaniment than usual.  The laid-back mood here always reminds me of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay“.  I love Louis Johnson’s cracking vocals early on.

Singin' in My Soul

5. “Swing Low

Single (1960), and on Singin’ in My Soul (1960); available on Singin in My Soul/Blessed Assurance (2002)

The opener from the group’s best album is a fantastic slow-moving number that draws you in to the pristine vocal harmonies.  Then the subversive guitar accompaniment, from Linwood Hargrove I’m assuming, keeps you in it all the way.  Here’s a track that shows how The Swan Silvertones could just do it better than anybody else.

The Swan Silvertones

6. “Mary Don’t You Weep

Single (1958), and on The Swan Silvertones (1959); available on The Swan Silvertones/Saviour Pass Me Not (2001)

The improvised lyric “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name” from this song inspired Paul Simon to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water“, which is a bit of trivia that has probably brought quite a number of new fans to The Swan Silvertones’ music through the years.

The Day Will Surely Come / Jesus Changed This HEart of Mine

7. “Jesus Changed This Heart of Mine

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (1952); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

I love the line Claude Jeter sings that goes “I’m gonna eat at the welcome table”.  His phrasing is amazing.  The harmonic resolution at the very end is classic too. When the group went to the Pittsburgh radio station WPGH to record a number of tracks, this one among them, Art Rupe of Specialty Records sent along a letter to chief engineer Ralph Ketterer that said, “This type of performance may be foreign to you, but essentially we want the singers to sing out freely.  PLEASE DO NOT HOLD THEM BACK IN ANY MANNER.  If they want to shout, let them shout.  If they want to cry on the recording, let them cry.”  I hate to think what might have happened without that letter!

Working on a Building / Depending on Jesus

8. “Working On a Building

As Swan’s Silvertone Singers; single (1948); available on 1946-1951 (2005)

The Swan Silvertones’ earliest singles found them merely warming up, in a way.  Supposedly their label didn’t support them in recording hard gospel, pushing instead for a more folk or hillbilly sound.  Their earliest sides tend to fall more or less into the “jubilee” gospel style, and the arrangements are reminiscent of recordings by The Soul Stirrers and The Blind Boys from the same time period.  As the 1950s rolled around, you can hear them pushing the boundaries a bit more, with the lead singers going out further and further from the backing harmonies.

Love Lifted Me

9. “Prayer In My Mouth”

As The Swan Silvertone Singers; single (195?); available on Love Lifted Me/My Rock (1991)

Another classic track recorded in the 1950s.  Solomon Womack (Bobby Womack‘s uncle) takes the first lead.  Womack passed away in the mid 1950s, and the band suspected it was because the demands of touring had taken quite a toll on him.  The bass vocals on the second lead (Henry K. Bossard I think) are a cool change of pace before Rev. Robert Crenshaw launches into his wild shouting in the final lead.  I have seen Henry K. Bossard credited as the songwriter of “Prayer In My Mouth”, but it is essentially the same song as “Guide My Hand” that The Dixie Hummingbirds had recorded a few years earlier.

Let's Go to Church Together

10. “Search Me Lord”

From Let’s Go to Church Together (1964)

Let’s Go to Church Together is perhaps the most subtle Swan Silvertones album.  It might be live judging from the sound, but I can’t confirm that guess.  It’s not the place to start, but it’s great place to end up.

Saviour Pass Me Not

11. “Bye and Bye”

From Saviour Pass Me Not (1962)

The arrangements on The Swan Silvertones’ full-length albums had grown quite complex by the early 1960s.  From their eclectic Saviour Pass Me Not album, “Bye and Bye” is just another great, upbeat song of which The Swans had no shortage.

Blessed Assurance

12. “He Saved My Soul”

From Blessed Assurance (1963)

The Swans could do it all.  This song finds them singing against a pronounced rock ‘n’ roll backbeat.  Not much of a leap between this and soul music.  The group’s sound would increasingly move in this direction, especially after about 1966 or so.