Thursday, January 08, 2009

Remembering Claude Jeter

While today's generations of gospel music followers have grown very close to the beats and grooves of their radio, much of gospel's great history - though overlooked and barely embraced - stands as a testament of the genre's mighty evolution. Important to that great history is the legacy Rev. Claude Jeter left behind.

One of the greatest quartet singers that ever lived, Jeter, born in Montgomery, Alabama, played an astronomical role in modern gospel music by shaping up the traditional avenues of quartet gospel with his smooth falsetto style and his silky vocals; ultimately influencing a rising list of R&B vocalists like Eddie Kendricks, Smokey Robinson and Al Green. He founded the legendary Swan Silvertones in 1938 and led them up the charts in the late 1940s and early '50s while recording for King Records and later for Speciality. In the jubilee gospel style, the Silvertones developed a strong reputation for solid performances and for pushing the envelope towards a more contemporary style. Their greatest results, with Jeter out front on lead vocals, appeared on songs like "Lord I've Tried," "I'm Coming Home," "I'm a Rollin'" and the haunting "Motherless Child." They later softened up their sound when arranger Paul Owens joined the group; incorporating a more relaxed jazz sounds on their recorded work.

Jeter is best remembered for his landmark hit "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" in 1959. Within the song Jeter ad-libs the phrase: "I'll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name." These words would serve as the pure inspiration for pop icon Paul Simon when he scored "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with singing partner Art Garfunkel in 1970. "Troubled Water" is best noted as Simon's most successful song associated with the 1960's duo. Another interesting point in Simon's classic hit is how the song lyrically also pays homage to the Silvertones for their inspiration. Within the third verse, the beginning line mentions, "Sail on, silver girl, sail on by." Most music historians note that Simon was thinking of Jeter and the legendary Silvertones.

Jeter remained with the group throughout the first half of the '60s until the group moved to the HOB label. He wanted to focus more on his solo career and ministry.

After being inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002, Jeter remained somewhat low-key. In 1988, a gospel festival sponsored the reunion of Jeter with the Silvertones, along with other gospel greats like the late Marion Williams and the Faithful Harmonizers. In a 1988 New York Times article, Jeter spoke of gospel's great story of survival:

''Our music' goes clean back to the days of slavery. That's when my great-grandmother and grandfather, they worked them as slaves and they worked them in the fields, and they didn't feed them on nothing but fatback and corn bread. They'd be tired, they'd be exhausted from the heat and everything, but they'd look up toward heaven, and they'd say, 'Jesus, I'm going to be there someday.' We've been living on hope for 200 years.''

Jeter passed away on January 6, 2009 in New York City at the age of 94. He leaves behind a powerful legacy and a mesmerizing catalog of timeless music that is most certain to last for 200 more years.


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