Claude Jeter - vocals; Paul Owens - vocals; Louis Johnson - vocals; John H. Myles - vocals; William Conner - vocals; Linwood Hargrove - guitar; Master of Ceremonies - Doc Wheeler
George Wein, the jazz impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival (which began in 1954 and 1959 respectively), is responsible for showcasing younger, older, and rediscovered jazz, blues, and folk musicians alike. However, his vision also included adding complementary elements to the festivals, which presented leading and lesser-known figures from the regular Newport Festival programs at morning and afternoon workshops on the festival grounds.
By the time of the 1959 festivals (the year the Newport Folk Festival was launched) one of these complementary elements had become a Sunday morning workshop spotlighting gospel music. Prior to this, the richest expression of gospel music had primarily been relegated to churches and was intrinsically bound in the development of fundamentalist religion within the southern Afro-American communities. The Newport workshops broke ground by presenting gospel music in a non-secular environment.
Although many of the artists featured were strictly gospel singers, crossover performers like the Swan Silvertone Singers and Dorothy Love Coates were also included, exposing the young, primarily northern white audience to the primarily southern black gospel artists in an intimate setting. In doing so, the festivals provided many northern white listeners with their first exposure to traditional gospel music.
With the help of legendary producer John Hammond and with respected musician and popular disc jockey, Doc Wheeler serving as master of ceremonies, they gathered many of the most impressive gospel singers on a single stage. At a time when soul music hadn't yet developed into a genre of its own, the energy, earthiness, and earnestness of these gospel performances made for an enthralling listening experience.
Here, we present in near entirety, the Sunday, July 5th Gospel Workshop presented at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. Not only did the 1959 presentation feature a world-class overview of gospel singers, but it also included Professor Herman Stevens accompanying all the acts on organ. One of the best organists in gospel, having served on countless Savoy Records recording sessions, Stevens' presence adds continuity and authenticity to the already impressive lineup.
The sixth performance that Sunday featured one of the most influential vocal groups of all time, let alone some of the best male gospel vocalists—The Swan Silvertone Singers. Founded by the Rev. Claude Jeter in 1938 West Virginia as the "Four Harmony Kings," the group changed its name to the "Silvertone Singers" (to avoid confusion with another group—te Four Kings of Harmony) after relocating to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they began starring in their own radio show. With Swan Bakeries as the sponsor, they soon became te Swan Silvertone Singers, gaining wide popularity and scoring a recording deal with King Records.
The group achieved great popularity in the 1940s and 1950s combining smooth barbershop quartet-style harmonies with a wide variety of virtuoso lead singing. By the time of this 1959 Newport performance, the group had long perfected the interaction of sharply contrasting vocal styles. Jeter was a tenor who could sing falsetto without ever losing his lyric control; Paul Owens was a crooner, and Louis Johnson a hard shouter. Rather than separate these different approaches, these vocalists played off each other to great effect. Jeter in particular would have a profound influence on modern vocal music. His ability to soar into falsetto directly influenced everyone who would do the same in the decade to come, from Motown to Soul Music, from the Beach Boys to the Four Seasons—all owe a serious debt to Jeter's groundbreaking style. One of the group's biggest hits, "Mary, Don't You Weep," which featured Jeter interjecting the line "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name" directly inspired Paul Simon to write his own form of gospel and one of the biggest hits of all time, "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
The group's innate pop sensibilities, Jeter's undeniable charisma and style, and Owens' ability to croon a lyric all play a large part in the appeal of this set. Even those not usually enamored by secular music will find much to enjoy here and longtime fans will delight in such high quality live recordings of "This World Is Not My Home" and "Sinner Man You Better Run." The set also includes a remarkable performance of "The Lord's Prayer" that has the Newport audience shouting for more. After being persuaded back for an encore, the Swan Silvertones entice the audience with their newest recording at the time, "Move Up," to conclude their set.
The Swan Silvertones became one of the most successful vocal groups in the entire history of gospel, despite being one of the most adventurous and experimental. Jeter's influence alone cannot be overstated, and in addition to the superb vocal work featured here, this set also showcases the one non-singing member of the group, Linwood Hargrove. Although the Swan Silvertones' set was the only set that day not to include the great organ playing of Professor Herman Stevens, Hargroves' inventive guitar stylings fill that gap, adding another impressive dimension to the group's already progressive sound.