The former Knoxville Singing Group whose influence crossed genres in unexpected ways.
One Black musical group has been cited by multiple well-known songwriters as an important inspiration for some of the most emblematic national and international hit songs of the 1960s and ’70s. And they had an intimate connection with a big building, now being contemplated for redevelopment, on Magnolia Avenue.
Maybe serious pop-music aficionados out there might guess what Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel, and John Fogarty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, have in common. They’ve both credited the same inspiration for two very different hit songs, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Proud Mary” to one extraordinary gospel group that was performing on the radio in Knoxville in the 1940s. That much is well known, even on Wikipedia.
Also that the same group had a big influence on the great Memphis soul singer Al Green, who once described the group’s lead singer as “fantastic, distinctive, and smooth as silk,” and even recorded some of their songs. Music scholars see him as an influential precursor to Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and many other soul singers of the 1960s and later.
That might seem like plenty of influence for anybody. But there’s a bit of a surprise in a new book by music journalist and historian Marc Myers. In his first book, Anatomy of a Song, Myers interviews and catalogs the words of successful songwriters, telling the story of how each big hit evolved. The follow up, Anatomy of 55 More Songs, just came out, with more stories of major hits from the latter half of the 20th century. On p. 89, a well-known songwriter who has performed in Knoxville several times remarks, “Then we came up with choral parts for the melody, an approach we had picked up from the Swan Silvertones, a gospel group we loved and listened to.”
The guy talking is Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead. He’s talking about his unusual San Francisco band and one of their biggest radio hits, perhaps their signature tune, “Truckin.’”
Swan Silvertones, or the Silvertone Singers, as they were known most of their time in Knoxville, may be more famous now than they were at their performing height. You don’t have to be especially religious to be carried away by their transcendental harmonies. Leader Claude Jeter’s arresting falsetto sounds surreal, like a voice from another dimension.
They made lots of recordings, but it would appear the only people who listen to them are stunned musicians, who share the old records with other musicians, saying you gotta hear this. You never hear the Silvertones’ music in restaurants. People would stop eating.
Swan Silvertones, who were based in Knoxville in the 1940s, bore the name of their early radio sponsor, Swan’s Bakery. For decades, Swan’s carried on a rivalry with Kern’s as this city’s leading baker of bread. Swan’s long, two-story brick headquarters building was built in 1927 on Magnolia Avenue between Austin and Bertrand, and remained there until Swan’s closed in 1991. It’s still a good-looking building, and appears to be on the brink of some transition.
The core of Swan Silvertones was lead singer and guitarist Claude Jeter. Born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1914, he moved with his family to Kentucky, and found work in the coal mines of West Virginia. With fellow miners, he formed a quartet originally known as the Four Harmony Kings. (Chronologies make it seem unlikely they were the same group that performed by that name on WROL and at the St. James Hotel in the fall of 1932.)
By some accounts, Swan Silvertones didn’t come to Knoxville until the wartime year of 1943. But the group’s leader and best-known singer is shown living here in October, 1940, when Claude A. Jeter is on a draft roll, living at 422 Fairchild Alley, which was in the old neighborhood known as “the Bottom,” east of the modern Old City. In 1942, he’s listed in City Directories rooming on old Pritchard Street, not far away. Rooming with him was John Myles, known to be a member of the classic Silvertones lineup.
Of course, almost all that area was erased during Urban Renewal. Jeter was listed as 1-A in February, 1943, which makes him sound draftable, and that might be one reason his name drops out of City Directories for a while.
But in October, 1944, WBIR welcomed them to the lineup with a big ad: “The Sparkling Arrangements of the Silvertone Singers” would be broadcasting every single weekday at 12:45. It was just a 15-minute show, but lunchtime was a big time on radio in Knoxville in the 1940s. For a while, WBIR had them on right after Morton Downey (Sr.) a national show dedicated to the singer known as “the Irish Nightingale.”
The Silvertones’ direct competition was the live noon variety show, the “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” on WNOX. Radio stalwarts WROL and WNOX are famous for launching musicians during that period, mostly white country musicians, but latecomer WBIR, 1240 AM, deserves a place in music history just for introducing America to the Silvertones. At the time, WBIR’s studio was in the Journal Arcade building, which still stands at 618 S. Gay.
An unsigned music column that October, 1944, compared the Silvertones to the Ink Spots, the popular Black vocal group then at their national height, famous for “If I Didn’t Care” and several other radio hits; they sometimes performed in Knoxville.
If they weren’t famous yet, the Silvertones got around. If you were paying attention in 1940s Knoxville, you would have heard of them. Often known simply as the “Silvertone Singers,” they frequently performed in African American churches in East Knoxville, like Mt. Zion Baptist and Bethel A.M.E., but many of those events were advertised in the papers as if they were expecting interest from the white community. They drew attention across racial lines.
In January, 1945, they were a featured attraction at the President’s Birthday Ball at UT’s Alumni Memorial Auditorium. It held more than 4,000, and was Knoxville’s most popular place to hear music in those days. President Roosevelt wasn’t there for his 63rd birthday—it would, of course, be his last—but his wife Eleanor had spoken in the same room a few years earlier, and the event raised thousands for one of his favorite charities, the one to fight polio.
We may not like to think of gospel harmony groups as warlike, but on a Sunday afternoon in April, 1945, days after the surrender of the Nazi army, the Silvertones competed in a public “Battle of Music” with the Famous Traveling Sunlite Spiritual Singers of Atlanta. The throwdown happened at the Bethel A.M.E. Church. Available records don’t hint about the victor.
A January, 1946, article lists the “Silvertone Singers” as Jeter, Roosevelt Payne, John Myles, and William Johnson, with accompanist Charlie Boyd, when they performed for another polio benefit at Alumni Memorial. Boyd was a longtime Knoxvillian, a pianist who often worked as a solo attraction at local nightclubs, but he was obviously impressed with Jeter’s band, and might be counted as the Fifth Silvertone.
They performed the following month for a benefit at Fundamental Bible Church, and the Journal ran a handsome picture of them.
It would be a big year for them. The Silvertones traveled to Cincinnati to cut their first 78s for King Records in Cincinnati. King had previously been best known for country music, in the days when Nashville’s recording industry was in its infancy, but in years to come, perhaps with the encouragement of the Silvertones sales, they promoted more and more African American music, especially R&B and jazz.
King Records would be a driver of the early career of a Georgia singer named James Brown.
Among their first records were “I Want My Crown,” “I’m Tired,” and “My Time Done Come.” You could buy the Silvertones’ King records here in 1946, in the downtown stores that sold “race” records, like Bell Sales Co. on Market Square, which eight years later would play a role in launching the career of Elvis Presley—and the general store on South Central known as SLOC (it stood for Spend Less on Clothes, but its Yiddish-speaking proprietors enjoyed the joke that it sounded like “schlock,” a word most Americans didn’t recognize in the 1940s).
They’d perform anywhere people would listen. That September, they performed at the big Central Street movie house known as the Grand before a screening of the two-year-old Humphrey Bogart war thriller, Passage to Marseille.
The Silvertones remained based in Knoxville, but after those recordings, they switched over from WBIR to WNOX, which had a longer reach, and more of a reputation for broadcasting live music. (They came on right after the Kate Smith Show.) They also began spending more time on the road. Known mainly in the region, they performed shows in Johnson City, Kingsport, and Sneedville, but also Macon, Ga., where they had a following. Their influence radiated first in the South, then in the Midwest where their records were selling in Indiana and Ohio.
In 1947, they played a few shows at Knoxville’s Black-congregation churches, like Payne Avenue Baptist, and at the old Austin High auditorium on old East Vine, under the auspices of the Bethel A.M.E. Church; there was no admission charge, but the church requested a $1 donation.
In January, 1948, Jeter was living at 315 East Cumberland, near downtown, another part of the area lost a decade later to Urban Renewal.
They had a following, and local imitators. A teenage group called the Silvertone Juniors emerged from the John Tarleton orphanage.
In late August, 1948, they performed a joint show with the Kings of Harmony Quartet, of New York, at the Church of God in Christ, on Marion Street, in the Mechanicsville area. They didn’t announce it as a farewell show, but after that, the Silvertones almost disappear from Knoxville newspapers.
As they were becoming, by degrees, a national act, they moved to Pittsburgh. It’s hard to know what propelled them, though by 1948 Pittsburgh was not as strictly segregated as Knoxville was. At the time, Knoxville’s biggest theaters, like most of its restaurants and its university, were reserved for white people only, a daily reality that might have seemed harsher for folks in the entertainment business. When they left, though, accompanist Charlie Boyd stayed in his hometown, and performed small shows here for many years.
Swan’s Bakery didn’t sell bread in Pittsburgh, but they kept the name, perhaps for its euphonious alliteration, and reportedly to distinguish themselves from other groups known as the Silvertones.
They seem not to have performed here often until February, 1963, when they appeared as “The Famous Swan Silvertone Singers” at the new Civic Auditorium. Without mentioning where they got their start, the ad hailed them as a group from “Pittsburgh, Pa.”
The older folks remembered when they were a Knoxville group.
People in the music business tried to coax Jeter into the secular pop music business, R&B or soul or even rock ‘n’ roll, where his music was already proving to be influential.
Except perhaps in 1973 when he sang backup for some Paul Simon recordings, he was untempted and stayed with gospel. He never got rich.
Jeter was known as Rev. Claude Jeter, performed a few times in a very different Knoxville, at the Civic Auditorium in May, 1971.
He lived a long life, albeit in modest circumstances. He died in 2009, in a nursing home in the Bronx.
So the Grateful Dead, Sam Cooke, Al Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel, Al Green loved to listen to this group of talented singers that performed on Knoxville radio and in Black churches here in the 1940s.
Claude Jeter may never have cared for rock or pop, and the concept of making music for profit. But if we can believe some of these testimonies, he was a bigger influence on that form than most inducted members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By Jack Neely, February 24, 2023