Little Anthony’s musical run has lasted more than 53 years. But don’t ever call his band doo-wop.
“We’re more like pop/rhythm and blues,” says Anthony, born Jerome Anthony Gourdine. “We’ve been trying to break the title of doo-wop since we were pegged with it back in the ’50s. We were street corner kids singing, that’s all. But they didn’t know what to call us.”
Call it what you will, the music of Little Anthony and the Imperials is timeless, ageless and speaks to all generations. On Saturday, Oct. 15, the group will sing their enduring hits at the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce’s Fabulous ’50s concert at the Wildwoods Convention Center.
Born in 1940 in a rough section of Brooklyn called the Fort Green projects, Anthony was fortunate to grow up surrounded by music. His mother sang gospel with her sisters, and his father played tenor saxophone with the Sinclair Orchestra and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra. His brothers and sisters also were musical.
At Public School 67, Anthony found a mentor in teacher Ethel Mannix, who instilled in him an appreciation of the arts, including many genres of music.
“I owe a lot to Mrs. Mannix,” says Anthony. “She was very influential in my musical development.”
In 1957, boyhood friends Clarence Collins and Ernest Wright formed a singing group called the Chesters.
“Clarence was looking for a lead singer,” says Anthony, “and I fit the bill. Our very first recording was Tears on My Pillow.’”
The record was endorsed by influential deejay Alan Freed, credited by many with coining the phrase “rock-and-roll.” Freed changed the group’s name from the Chesters to Little Anthony and the Imperials.
“He heard my voice without seeing me and asked where the little girl was,” says Anthony with a laugh. “Alan renamed us because of my high-pitched voice.”
Little Anthony and the Imperials continue to perform with all the group’s original members. Though more than half a century has passed, they still move audiences beyond color and generations.
A Conversation with Little Anthony
Many rock-and-roll greats attribute their success and sound to Little Anthony. Elvis, Paul Simon, the Beatles and Billy Joel just to name have acknowledged his influence. Anthony has met notables from Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, but he’ll talk to anyone, famous or obscure, and most importantly he doesn’t take anyone or anything for granted. He has confronted substance abuse, prejudice and discrimination and yet Jerome “Anthony” Gourdine has a humility that is natural.
As a young man sitting on the street corner in Brooklyn, Anthony never dreamed he would go on to such a successful career. “We just sang on the street corner under the street lamp, that’s what did, that’s when we were making noise!” he says. “We sang what everyone was listening to from our age group, like the Flamingoes and others. The kids hung around us and congregated there, and you had no music, so you hit the notes. Clarence had perfect pitch, if you asked him to give you a ‘C,’ he gave you a ‘C,’ and we started to gain an audience.”
Q: Was it tough to perform as a black group during a period of American history that was so racially charged?
A: Being a black group and performing in the South was quite difficult – I had people say to us, “Oh, those were the good old days.” I say, “These are the good old days!”
Q: When in your career did you know that you made it?
A: When I was about 30 years old I said, “Oh, this is what I do.”
Q: There seems to be a very unique bond and history among the members of the group. What do you feel has attributed to that camaraderie?
A: The chemistry of the group is a gift. We often talk about our years of experience. We grew and became more serious about our talents. And we celebrate what we’ve done with continuing to perform. What one may lack in, the other picks up, so it’s sort of like a marriage.
Q: How do you feel when you hear a remake of one of your songs, like Amy Winehouse doing, “I’m on the Outside Looking In?”
A: Honored. Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang a duet called; “Going out of my Head,” and Sinatra also sang; “Hurts so Bad,” so did that girl, Linda Ronstadt, I like all their versions of the song. When one artist sings another artists song it’s a real honor. We sing Sting and the Police, Billy Joel too. Sinatra once told me if you’re going to sing someone else’s song, make sure you do it comparable or better. We listened to that advice and I believe we put on a good show for the audience.
Q: What’s your favorite song?
A: “Hurts So Bad,” because I’ve lived through hurts-so-bad moments.
Little Anthony and the Imperials List of Hits
Hurts So Bad
Going Out of My Head
Tears on my Pillow
Shimmy Shimmy KoKo Bop
Make it Easy on Yourself
Little Anthony and the Imperials received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and have been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2008, Little Anthony and the Imperials released You’ll Never Know, an album of new songs and re-recorded oldies to celebrate their 50th anniversary as a group. In 2009 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 24th annual ceremony. Smokey Robinson presented the award.