Besides sharing a birthday with Elvis Presley and receiving the news that his group finally got inducted into America’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the year 2009 may have been a milestone for tenor Anthony Gourdine for another reason.

Thirty years earlier, one of Anthony’s idols, baseball icon Willie Mays, had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though baseball and R & B or “doo wop” don’t seem to have much in common, on the surface, the singer with the silky, God-given voice, might still draw significant parallels. His optimist outlook and reverence for heroes goes way beyond the discipline of music.

Anthony’s lush voice, world renowned falsetto and dramatic stage presentations helped launch Little Anthony and the Imperials to fame in the 60s. The team of Teddy Randazzo and Don Costa (The Beatles, Dionne Warwick, the Drifters) worked with the group to arrange their vocal tracks and define their sound.

It was a time when groups dressed the part: flashy suits, sophisticated harmonies and stylized moves on-stage, after exhaustive rehearsals with choreographers, such as Harold Jenkins, were more of a main-stay. YouTube footage shows many of these performances - which are lavish in detail like mini-Broadway musicals. ‘Goin' Out Of My Head’, ‘Hurt So Bad’ and ‘Tears On My Pillow’ were some of the most memorable, but all the performances exemplified high energy and warmth.

Coming from a musical family where his mother sang with the Nazareth Baptist Singers and his father, also an electrician, played tenor/alto sax with the Sinclair Orchestra and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra, the younger Anthony lived amongst Navy yard workers in the Fort Green Project Complex, run by the US government.

Oh, and by the way, he also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Otis Blackwell, composer of ‘Return to Sender’ and ‘All Shook Up.’ Anthony, proud of his neighborhood’s musical “roots,” playfully jests, “there must have been something in the water.”

The 60's line-up of Anthony Gourdine, Clarence Collins, Ernest Wright and Sammy Strain was the one which produced the largest number of recordings, though the group underwent changes before and after that time.

Clarence Collins left the group in 1977 to create his own version of the Imperials. They’ve recently enjoyed tours through out the UK. Ernest Wright left the group in 1971 to join the Platters and Sammy Strain replaced William Powell in the O’Jays in 1972.

But, Brooklyn-born Gourdine, nick-named ‘Little Anthony’ by American DJ Alan Freed, has not merely enjoyed half a century of performing with the Imperials and successful solo work as an actor and vocalist, but he also writes a monthly online column, 'Little Anthony’s This and That' ( from his home in Las Vegas. He stays informed on everything from politics to sports. In fact, Anthony kept this journalist frantically hopping and “going out of her head” just trying to keep up with his encyclopedic references throughout our forty minute conversation.

The group recently headlined at the Las Vegas Hilton for the first time in 50 years, and a DVD of their sold-out performances is expected to be available later in the year.

Anthony frequently shares anecdotes about his own heroes; some are historical figures and others are personal mentors. It’s clear, in either case, that he’s a great believer in paying tribute to those that have achieved greatness despite overwhelming odds or lack of recognition.

He spoke to Pennyblackmusic about his beginnings in Brooklyn’s Fort Green, his greatest moments on stage and why the Imperials reformed after 17 years apart, with astounding enthusiasm.

PB: In 2008 you produced a CD ‘You’ll Never Know’ on which you wrote several songs. How would you describe your songwriting process?

LA: Well, I’m not really a songwriter, per se. I’m a person who writes songs. There’s a difference. A songwriter spends his life, that’s his profession, at a piano, in a room, somewhere, and he can turn out song after song, day after day, month after month.

I may just get an inspiration for a song every five years. I have no formal, musical training. I work by instinct. I don’t sit down and write a song.

In fact, there’s a song on that particular CD, ‘You Don’t Fun’ and different things will pop into my mind at any given time. It could be an emotional attachment, something that happened, maybe something good that I felt in my spirit, maybe something sad that comes over me and I have to express myself.

PB: You played at the Las Vegas Hilton. It was packed.

LA: It was a beautiful day the first time we played there. It was a huge success for us, here in Las Vegas, to play a place like the Las Vegas Hilton because it has so much history in it. That’s the room, the hotel that Elvis Presley built, and Barbra Streisand and all these wonderful people that have performed there, so to come into that atmosphere and to be a part of that rotation with Petula Clark and ZZ Top and Earth Wind and Fire, Tony Bennett…

This is a complete vindication of all the years we’ve spent in this business, to be accepted at that level, and to be able to walk in and pack the joint. That’s pretty good.

PB: I’ve been watching your You Tube videos and observed that you put an enormous amount of expression into your voice and into your whole body. You really become the character when you perform. Specifically on ‘Going Out Of My Head’ and ‘Hurt So Bad’, you really throw yourself into the mood. How do you prepare yourself, before the concerts, to perform that way?

LA: It’s not what you do. It’s what is there. That’s a gift from God. That’s a God gift, the ability as an actor. I mean there are people that are especially gifted as actors, like an Anthony Hopkins or Marlon Brando, on and on and on, and these great people, Bette Davis. There’s something in them that’s been implanted in them long before probably they were born, and it’s a special gift that’s God given. It’s the ability to be able to express oneself through this media.

Bette Davis, Anthony Hopkins; these people are special actors. They are given a gift, something very special, so that when you ask me that question, “how do you get that emotion?” I don’t go to the shopping store and say, “hey, I want some emotion” - it’s developed over the years. I mean, I’ve had heartache. Have you had heartache?

PB: Oh, yeah.

LA: I’ve had those things happen to me and what happens is that when a song comes to me and I make it my own, I can relate to that song, then the emotion, maybe something that happens, and the past comes up, and I allow that to happen. We actors, most actors, call that “colour” or the ability to reach into one’s self, deep down (laughs).

Then, that’s the easy part. The hard part is exposing yourself to the public that way. I mean, a lot of people will be frightened by that. They’ll say I don’t want to let anybody know who I really am.

PB: But, you let them know who you are.

LA: It’s just something that we have to express to people, but a lot of people can’t do that because they don’t want to expose themselves. That’s what makes artists – whether they are painters…Creative people will reach into those feelings and bring it up to the surface. It’s nothing we can put our finger on, but we’re able to do that.

PB: When did you first realize you were able to do that?

LA: As long as I can remember.

PB: How have your recordings, all these years, been selected? I was listening to ‘Hurt So Bad.’ I play piano and I was aware that there are a number of modulations and there is some very sophisticated stuff going on with those harmonies. What did it take to arrive at that sound?

LA: I didn’t arrive at it at all. But, the great arrangers did. Mr. Don Costa (Don Costa Productions), our producer, did. He’s one of the finest producers and he had been with Sinatra for 30 years and Teddy Randazzo, the writer, he was our musical arranger.

So you get these talented people working with you and you get me singing, and you come up with sophisticated things that happen (Laughs).

PB: Of course, you and the Imperials went your separate ways for about seventeen years. Then, you came back together to a show at Madison Square Garden in New York. Did you experience any fear or in trepidation after agreeing to this?

LA: No! Money! (Laughs). You’ve got to understand that the guys were spread out all over the place, but we always remained friends. We didn’t break-up because of anything you see on TV and all this stuff, and all this drama.

We just came to the point, like the Beatles, you get to a certain point where you just feel like you can’t go any further. Then you start exploring things as an individual.

So, I just decided to go into the acting field and the musical field. I did all the things that I wanted to do, so we sort of drifted away, but we didn’t plan on it.

There was a gentleman in New York by the name of Dick Fox. He’s a theatre producer of shows and he called me in 1990. He said, “I’m trying to plan this show called ‘Legends’ and I’m going to get all the original people, who ever is still alive, and I’m going to get them together and I’m going to do this show in MSG, and I’m going to have Bruce Springsteen, as part of it, and the E Street Band is the band playing behind the show", and I said, "Oh, that’s cool." And then he said, “Do you think you could get the guys for this one engagement - Little Anthony and the Imperials?”

I said, “I don’t know!” So he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I said, “How much?” (laughs). I’ll get right back at ya.”

You’re talking that kind of money, I’m going to call those cats. I called Clarence Collins. He was performing in Vegas in the lounges. And he said, “Great.”

Then, I called Ernest Wright. He was in Europe and he was living somewhere, in Belgium. I don’t know where he was living. He’d been in Europe for about 12 years, and he had been playing a tribute to the Platters in a tour all over Europe with the late Tony Williamson. He was touring, so I had to call all these people and find him.

Now, Sammy Strain has been with the O’Jays for seventeen years. He then called me. He said, “Hey, I heard you guys are doing Madison Square Gardens. Hey, how come you didn’t call me and count me in on all that?” I said, “You were probably touring. You’re doing things with the O’Jays.” He said, “We’re on vacation for at least a month.” So, I had talked to Eddie (Eddie Levert) of the O’Jays and he had thought it was a great idea, one time to do something like that, and that’s how it came about.

We did miss each other, but I was doing very well as a solo act, and as an actor, so I really didn’t have any desire to go back into that world. But, we got together, and the funny part about it is – we were in New York and we had to rent tuxedos and then we proceeded to rent a rehearsal hall. There was a gentleman with me, his name was Steve Welch. And after that, he became a conductor for Barry Manilow, for about nine years.

He had been with me for 12 years and we came to that rehearsal hall and he played piano and we sang songs, and he just fell back in his chair and said, “Wait a minute, you guys haven’t played together for twelve years and you sound like you’ve been doing this ALL THE TIME…”

And, it really knocked him down. And we didn’t really see too much of it until we got to Madison Square Gardens for the actual engagement and there were 14,000 people in that place and all these different people on the show, Benny King and the Drifters, all these people got back together. The Ronettes got back together. It was one big show. And we had the E Street Band behind us. Max Weinberg’s one of the originals. He’s still with Bruce Springsteen to this day. He was a drummer.

And we had got these people back behind us and we went out and did this show and there was such a reaction. It’s as if the audience threw all their love at us and said, “Welcome back. We missed you so. We missed what you did. We missed your voices, we missed your voice, Anthony.” And, that’s how it affected our lives.

The reaction and the emotions that I felt from the audience – the fact is that we knew that after that show we’d go our separate ways - we just thought about it, and then, we got a call from Dick Clark’s office. They had heard about the concert and how successful it was, and his associate, Larry Klein, called us and said, “Dick would like you guys to stay together for just one more thing; he’s doing his 40th Anniversary for ABC. And, he’s doing it with Boyz II Men and he thinks it’s a great idea to compare the two: the old and the new.

They’re the hit makers and he wanted to compare them. We did it. It was such a success. So many letters came in. They were writing to us from all over the world. We decided, well, maybe we should just stay together. And the rest is history. That was 1992.

PB: Have you worked with Otis Blackwell?

LA: (Laughs). Oh, man. Otis came up in our neighborhood.

PB: He did?

LA: So did Thelonius Monk. So many people came up in our neighbourhood: Barbra Streisand, Jay-Z, the rapster.

PB: How do you account for that?

LA: There must have been something in the water. I don’t know. (Laughs).
There were basketball players, the great Bernard King. Oh, my Gosh. Simon Gourdine. I could go on and on. So many people came out of that area. Who knows why? But, it’s a very well-known fact. Somebody’s going to document it.

PB: How would you characterize your neighborhood?

LA: It’s an area called Fort Green, and it was a famous battlefield where George Washington was the last stand in defense of New York City and Long Island. He was run out of there, and Pennsylvania. We all know about that.

Fort Green was a fort during the Revolutionary War of 1776. They even have all the old cannons there to this day called Fort Green. The reason it was called Fort Green is because that’s what it was called in 1776.

The British were run-out and then George Washington was run out. Yeah, there were so many people that have come out of there and the last person to come out of there is Jay-Z, Beyonce’s husband. As for what that is – I just don’t understand it. I just accept it and I’m very proud that we came out of that same area.

PB: Can you talk to me about your musical background or training?

LA: My training is called “life.” Someone asked me, “how do you feel working all these years as a singer?” and I said, “What? I haven’t worked in 52 years. I sing. That’s not working. Working is what you do when you go to a factory. I don’t work. I don’t know if you can understand what I’m saying – it’s work to go to the airport. It’s work to (undergo) preparation. It’s work – all the things you have to do with the business end of it – that’s work.”

But, singing? That’s natural. (laughs). No, I had formal training, in a way, let me backtrack. I came up like a lot of blacks, in the church. My mom was a Gospel singer and my dad was a jazz musician.

I had a very influential lady in my life, a lady that’s very special to me, that’s all gone off the face of this earth. Her name was Ethel Mannix. She was the one who influenced me in classical music and singing pop music.

PB: But, you decided to stick with pop. Why?

LA: I like it. A lot of kids didn’t particularly want it, but it was a new thing happening: R & B. It was happening everywhere. That thing became – that R &B gave birth to rock’n’roll. That’s another story. That would take a long time.

PB: Let’s get back to Otis Blackwell.

LA: We used to go up to his apartment and he would play us songs. He used to have an old-fashioned piano and he used to play us all kinds of different songs. He tried to encourage us. “I’m going to tell somebody downtown,” and one thing and another, and he did.

So, he introduced us to that area and that crowd in New York and we began to hang out in that area, and that’s another story.

It’s very complicated, not simple. I have not had a simple life. My life has been complicated since day one. Unfortunately, people think somehow you just open your mouth and things happen. “You’re lucky!” (laughs).

No, no, it doesn’t work like that. There’s just so many intricate things in my life. Part of my life, I could not tell you in a small way – it would take too much time to do it. It would have to go into a book. I’m still living it though. (laughs).

Americans like to label people, because that way they know who they are. We’re unique like that in this country. And, the next thing you know someone says, “He’s a doo-wop singer, oh, no, he’s a this singer, he’s a that singer. I have no category. I don’t even know what doo-wop is!

I sing songs. Some of the greatest music that has ever been recorded, I have sung. ‘Going Out Of My Head,’ ‘Hurts So Bad,’ ‘Tears On My Pillow,’ – I could go on and on – 65 million records. I am not categorizable.

PB: And you don’t have a favourite style of music?

LA: No, I just like music! I guess you can call it contemporary pop or R & B pop. I don’t know. Whatever it is, people like it. I’ve been living off it for 52 years and I know I’m invested.

PB: Do you think it took too long for your group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

LA: No, I don’t go there. They once asked the great Willie Mays – have you ever heard of Willie Mays?

PB: Yes.

LA: The great baseball player, one of the greatest who ever played the game. “How do you feel Mr. Mays? All these new players made millions of dollars and you never made more than $450,000 a year?”

And, he replied: “In my time, $450,000 was a lot of money.” He said, “I knew that I was content in myself. I had no business as a pitcher seeing what somebody else might be doing.” That moment in time was what was important.

Well, it is the same with me. I didn’t sit there and wonder, oh, man, this one is in the Hall of Fame. I figured there’s a reason for everything and that we are worthy, and I’m making a lot of money out here. I’m drawing people. Evidently, the people show up. The Committee? Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they miss people.

Harry Steward (one of the executives of the Hall of Fame) said, “You know why it took us so long to get you in?” I said, “I don’t know why.” “I’m sorry it took so long. You’ve been nominated 10 times and you’re never made the cut.” He said it was an “oversight”(Laughs). Well, sometimes that happens. It’s an oversight. And that was a very honest answer, so I didn’t spend all that time.

All I know is that on my birthday, in 2009, at 8 o’clock in the morning, January 8th, this is also Elvis’ birthday, I get a call that said, “Congratulations. You have been nominated into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.” That’s all that mattered to me, that moment in time. I was vindicated. I could have spent my time wandering and hoping that maybe I could be this. I was like Willie Mays. It’s very nice to be accepted by your peers. Because we’re equal now with Elvis Presley. We’re equal with anybody who’s in that Hall of Fame.

We are now accepted into an exclusive club that not everyone can get in. So, that to me, means everything. I don’t think about what should have been, I could have been. At the time I was doing fine, so I didn’t think about that stuff.

PB: You’re producing a group called the Gift which includes some of your kids.

LA: No, no. Clarence – the founder of the Imperials. My genes went into several of my children. Several of my grandchildren are singing.

PB: You once wrote, “Ideas misplaced can be as fragile as fine China.” What did you mean by that?

LA: I was just talking about the standpoint of, and I don’t want to get political right now…when you’re young, everybody has idealism in them. There’s no such thing as failure. No such thing. You learn what not to do. So, I was just elaborating on what M. Obama was doing in his campaign and I just said, you can have all the idealism, but it does not create government.

Lincoln said, “Government is of the people, by the people, for the people. So, you’re a servant of the people." I’m not necessarily saying you have to put away your beliefs. You’re dealing with 300 million people, and the job of the president is to lead and to define what is right. Now, idealism you can lock it up and just leave it until you die… .Then, that’s misplaced. Let me put it this way.

A reporter asked Thomas Edison, "How did it feel, Mr. Edison, to have had all these failures?"

"Oh, I didn’t fail," said Edison. "I just found 90 different things not to do." Don’t do it that way. When he was making light bulbs he failed more than 90 times in his experiments. It took me 90 different ways to learn what not to do.

PB: So, you’re saying you don’t believe in failure?

LA: There is no failure. There are obstacles, challenges all through your life. The thing that we have to learn is how to overcome those things. What we learn is (laughs) – that didn’t work. Don’t do it no more. You know if you see a hole in the street and you fall in the hole and I guarantee if you come back the same way, you’ll go around the hole (laughs). Fail? It goes wrong, so you just don’t do that no more.

PB: What are your plans for the cruise you’ll be going on – 'The Malt Shop Memories'?

LA: We’re going to bring our wives. We’re going to have fun. You’ve got a captive audience. You do one show up and one show down. That’s what we call it. You’re paid a lot of money to sit around the pool.

PB: I’m going to be on the cruise, too.

LA: Then you’ll see me at the pool.

PB: I know. I’m definitely going to see you at the pool.

LA: (laughs). We’ll meet each other.

PB: Awesome.

LA: They’re bringing their girlfriends and al kinds of people. Everyone’s going to be on there. Who else? A lot of artists consider it a mini-vacation. We do sing for our supper, but, hey, nice supper.

PB: One last question. What was your greatest moment on stage?

LA: That’s easy. It was 1968 or 1967. I think it was ’67. We were invited to go to New York for a black-tie occasion. It was for a fund-raiser. They decided they wanted us to do a concert with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

PB: Wow.

LA: Wow. That’s what we said. We said, “What’s the deal?” On that show was gong to be Dionne Warwick, conducted by Burt Bacharach. Our conductor was Teddy Randazzo. It still gives me chills to think about that. We had some of the finest people in the world with me. Our rhythm section consisted of, oh man, some of the best and this was really big, the elite of the elite, the top of the list all there. If anybody ever has an opportunity to go to Lincoln Center in their travels, it’s one of the best acoustical houses in the world. So, here we are, my Lord, my Lord, how did I ever get here?

From Fort Green Projects to Lincoln Center, that’s just too much. I told you it’s more complex than what people think.

I had a high-school diploma. I came from a moderate family. We weren’t rich, we weren’t poor. We were in- between somewhere. I really didn’t have a sense of where I was going or what I was supposed to do and the next thing I know I’m at Lincoln Center. That was one of the highlights of my career. That was 1967. I was 26.

PB: Did fame affect your life in a good or a bad way?

LA: It wasn’t a bad way or you wouldn’t hear me talking about it. I’m not going to mention anything bad. You asked me what was the highlight, not the lowlight, so I gave it to you (laughs).

I think you’ve got the idea of who I am now. I don’t have any ego. I’m not trying to hide. I just like talking to people. I’m a walking history book really.

PB: You are.

LA: Places you see, people you’ve met. Life is a wonderful thing if you hold on to the things that you have. And so, I’ve encountered adversity just like everybody else. I’ve seen these things, but by the grace of God, I am here. I must be good because they’re putting me in great venues.

PB. Thank you, Anthony.

Related Links:

Commenting On: Interview - Little Anthony and the Imperials

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

First Previous Next Last