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They broke out in the 1950s, but Little Anthony and the Imperials still have a lot to say today -- on and off the record. That’s because the group, who performs at the Las Vegas Hilton for one night only Saturday, has reinvented itself from a recording group into consummate performers who not only showcase their classic hits, but also bring a large repertoire of music from contemporary to rock and roll, R&B, pop, pop rock and Broadway.
That’s all thanks to the master of reinvention himself, Little Anthony, who was born Anthony Gourdine. “You can’t survive off your records,” said Gourdine, who has been performing since age 3 and singing professionally since 1956. “We had to make the transition from recording artists to performers.
“Sammy Davis Jr. taught us that, and so did a lot of others. We were taught how to transition by artists of great stature, from Sammy to Ruth Brown to Slappy White, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx. We’re so lucky we had the opportunity to pick their brains.
“We had to reinvent ourselves, but that’s the gift I have; it’s what I do best,” he continued. “I was trained in the theater and was a card-carrying actor when the group first got together. The art of performing is a dinosaur -- everything today is about what titillates the senses, from lights to high-tech electronics. We are truly about the art of performing -- we have more than 200 songs in our repertoire. So fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a fabulous, high-energy night!”
Little Anthony and the Imperials were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2009. They are the only pop group from the 1950s to have retained 75 percent or more of their original members. It all began back in 1957 when a Brooklyn doo-wop group known as the Chesters consisted of Clarence Collins, Tracy Lord, Nathaniel Rodgers and Ronald Ross -- and Gourdine, a former member of the Duponts, joined as lead vocalist. Ernest Wright replaced Ross, and the group recorded briefly for Apollo Records.
Changing their name, the group that became known as the Imperials, founded by Clarence Collins, came to prominence in 1958 with their hit “Tears on My Pillow” -- it was New York DJ Alan Freed who, while playing the song, dubbed Gourdine “Little Anthony” because of the singer’s small stature but big voice. Little Anthony and the Imperials scored another hit in 1960 with “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop.”
Although the group went through several incarnations from 1960 to 1963, it was in that latter year that its classic lineup was formed consisting of Little Anthony, Ernest Wright, Collins and Sammy Strain. With the help of record producer/songwriter Teddy Randazzo (a childhood friend of the group), Little Amthony and the Imperials found success on the new DCP (Don Costa Productions) label with the dramatic pop-soul records “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” (1964), “Goin’ Out of My Head” (1964), “Hurt So Bad” (1965), “I Miss You So” (1965), “Take Me Back” (1965), “Hurt” (1966) and “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (1969).
“We were all from Brooklyn, and we started out singing street corner harmony, which later became known as doo-wop, althought it wasn’t called that back then,” Gourdine said. “We were discovered by Richard Barrett, who also discovered Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers and the Chantelles. Once we hit, we were able to cross over to the masses, the same way that the Supremes and other Motown artists did. The Mills Brothers before us were the only other group that crossed over into the mainstream, then later on the Drifters, the Coasters and other groups did, too.
“We were there during the worst times of segregation,” he added. “I remember one time in the South when we had to sing to a wall because there were two audiences -- a black one and a white one. At the time, there were white artists and groups covering the songs of the black acts. Alan Freed, who coined the term rock and roll, took the heat for trying to merge the two groups.”
Gourdine revealed that success brought with it some low points, including his getting into its trappings such as alcohol. But coming from a good background -- a great mother who was a gospel singer, a great father and a very godly aunt -- as well as his being a survivor by nature, he was able to pull out of it and not suffer the same fate as so many of his contemporaries like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. The group continued to have hit records during his dark period, and he said that he learned from personal defeat and that quitting is never an option.
When it came to making the transistion into performers, Gourdine said that a lot of it was by trial and error and noted that he would stand in the wings while other performers were onstage so that he could learn how to speak to the audience.
“Nothing worth anything is easy,” he said. “But that’s what I love about this business. It gave me an education. I learned to talk; I learned to use a fork in my left hand and a knife in my right. I got a better education than if I had gone to school.”
At 70, Gourdine still has his eyes very much on the future. He is currently trying to get funding for a movie he is developing with a partner (who wrote the film) in which Robert Wagner and Jon Lovitz have expressed interest. As for Little Anthony and the Imperials, they just keep on going and going and going to enthusiastic crowds, with Robert DeBlanc, who used to be with Marvin Gaye, having replaced Stain, who retired in 2004.
One thing’s for certain: The group has never been out of sight, out of mind. They are truly more exciting to watch today than ever before.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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