LITTLE ANTHONY AND THE IMPERIALS
By Todd Baptista
Categorizing artists and classifying them under a specific style of music is often a daunting and dangerous task. For program directors and those in the marketing and advertising field, it’s a necessity. While some artists can easily be slotted into various genres, many shudder at the process. Classify someone under “blues”, for instance, and try to get their record played in a non-blues format. As a marketing tool, such labels can help but they can also hurt.
Over 50 years have passed since Little Anthony and the Imperials traveled from the Fort Green Projects in Brooklyn, New York’s Greenpoint neighborhood to record for George Goldner’s fledgling End Records. In that time, the group has endured a host of categorizations- Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Vocal Group Harmony, Doo Wop and- ouch- Oldies. “That one is the worst,” agrees Anthony, now 69 and living in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerland. “It sounds like something old and dusty, and moldy that you dragged out. Even Doo Wop- we do the Doo Wop shows but we’re not a Doo Wop group. We were in the middle of that, and we graduated from it. There were so many styles. I wouldn’t call the Flamingos or Bobby Lester and the Moonglows ‘doo wop’ groups. We knew them as rhythm and blues singing groups. Today, we do all types of music, and the people who come and see us live and hear what we’re doing, they know and they understand that.” In 2009, Little Anthony and the Imperials continue to record and tour around the world.
Undeniably, Anthony and the Imperials did come out of the so-called “doo wop” era. Jerome Anthony Gourdine’s father worked as an electrician in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and had also played tenor sax with Buddy Johnson’s big band. His mother and her sisters sang gospel in their neighborhood Baptist church. Influenced by a diverse group of artists from Ella Fitzgerald and George Shearing to his future label mates, the Flamingos, Anthony formed his first group at the age of 14 with a trio of neighborhood friends and Boys High classmates.
Taking their name from a chemical firm’s advertising sign, the Duponts recorded a pair of singles for the local Winley and Royal Roost labels in 1956-57 and made it to the stage of the New York Paramount Theater with legendary WINS disc jockey Alan Freed. By mid-1957, the group had dissolved and Gourdine connected with a local quartet looking for a new lead singer. Known as the Chesters, they consisted of baritone Clarence Collins, lead Ernest Wright, Jr., tenor Tracy Lord, and bass “Nate” Rogers. “I was doing the lead, (and) we went in to the studio to (audition) for Richard (Barrett) and George Goldner,” Wright recalled at Barrett’s 2006 memorial service. “(It) wasn’t coming out right. Richard came out and he said, ‘Come back when you have a better lead singer’. Walking away, we knew we had to find a better voice - a lead voice.” When Anthony noted the neighborhood girls’ affinity for the Chesters, he turned his attention to joining them, and a new partnership was born.
Through a friend in the Cellos, the Chesters auditioned for Apollo Records and ended up recording “The Fires Burn No More” in 1958, but even a big push from Freed couldn’t break the record nationally. With all the pieces in place, the quintet returned to see Richard Barrett (1933-2006), the former Valentines’ lead singer whose skill and success as a songwriter, producer, arranger, manager, and label owner made him a creative force behind artists including the Chantels, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and the Three Degrees, among others. Barrett, who served as a producer and A&R man at Goldner’s End-Gone firm liked the group and Wright’s original song, “Two People In The World”, and suggested adding the “boy who told the girl of the stars up above” bridge. Lou Gallo, the label’s promotions rep, rechristened them the Imperials.
Goldner and Barrett eventually offered them a demo of a new song called “Tears On My Pillow”, which was issued as the flip side of “People” in July of 1958. “It was hastily done,” Anthony told interviewer Scott Mervis for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2008. “I learned it quick. The melody stayed in my head very quickly, and then I read the words off the lead sheet, and the guys had to come up with a background, and they didn’t know what to do, so they took the background of the Penguins’ ‘Earth Angel’.”
Disc jockeys turned the record over and began playing “Tears On My Pillow”. One of the deejays playing the record was Freed, who came up with the “Little Anthony” moniker after hearing the singer’s unusually high tenor lead. “Tears” went to #4 on Billboard’s pop chart, the first in a string of 19 Hot 100 hits stretching into 1974. Eleven additional R&B charted singles and four albums also followed. The succession of tours and television appearances that followed over the next 17 years was virtually endless.
Barrett’s influence on the young group was all-encompassing. “He was giving me information to help me group to become a man,” Anthony remarked to historian Charlie Horner. “(He) showed us what show business was all about. He pulled us aside and said, ‘I’m going to teach you something you don’t know about’. It’s called show business class. You can be any group in the world, but I want you to be the sharpest, the best singing, the best everything!’ He taught us things that are unteachable today. He gave us the ability to perform with class and dignity. He gave us the tools we needed.”
While the hits on End continued, the group did not allow themselves to be pigeonholed. Their 1961 album Shades of the ‘40s, presented the group in a more sophisticated light, tackling the likes of Mercer, Gershwin, and Ellington. One of their biggest-selling singles, 1959’s “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko Bop”, a song Anthony still refers to as “stupid”, crossed over into a more novelty pop vein.
By late 1961, Anthony and the Imperials had parted ways, with Gourdine recording a pair of singles for Roulette and the group following Barrett to Carlton Records. Rogers and Lord also left, and George Kerr stepped into the lead role with Sammy Strain handling the first tenor chores. By 1963, Anthony, Wright, Collins, and Strain had reformed the act, and were soon introduced to singer-songwriter Teddy Randazzo (1935-2003), who had appeared in several of Freed’s 1950s motion pictures with his group, the Three Chuckles. Randazzo, working as the A&R director at Don Costa’s DCP label, offered the group a stellar ballad he had co-authored with Bobby Weinstein called “I’m On The Outside (Looking In)”.
The song hit #15 on the pop chart in the summer of 1964, and was followed in rapid succession by “Goin’ Out Of My Head”, “Hurt So Bad”, and “Take Me Back”, all of which benefited from Randazzo and Weinstein’s brilliant songwriting and Randazzo and Costa’s ardent production efforts. During an era when British groups and records with a Motown logo ruled the charts, the Imperials maintained a constant presence on the charts, a loyal and dedicated following, and continued to influence their peers. “‘Hurt So Bad’ is my own personal favorite,” Anthony remarks, pondering the group’s rich catalog. “We really consider ourselves blessed to have recorded so many remarkable songs. ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’ is a standard today, but it was written especially for us. These songs were a pop rhythm and blues sound. They’re not doo wop, they’re pop tunes.”
When DCP ran into difficulty with United Artists, who was distributing their product, Anthony and the Imperials shifted to UA’s Veep label in mid-1966, continuing to broaden their bases with the “Better Use Your Head”, a mix of R&B, soul, ‘60s pop with backing chorus, and even Broadway, which became their first British chart single in 1966. With Randazzo behind the board, the sweeping, powerful yet often-neglected “It’s Not The Same” followed it up the charts in the U.S. Again, the Imperials couldn’t easily be classified.
Shifting to the parent company in 1969, the group returned to the music of their youth, with successful renditions of “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind”, and “The Ten Commandments Of Love” before placing their final chart hit to date on Avco in 1974, “I’m Falling In Love With You”, from their On A New Street LP. One side of the disc was produced, arranged and conducted by Randazzo. The other side, including the hit single, was a Thom Bell product.
The group parted ways amicably in 1975 to pursue other opportunities. Sammy Strain went on to sing with the O’Jays. Wright spent some time with Tony Williams’ Platters. Clarence, Bobby Wade, and Harold Jenkins kept the Imperials active.
In January of 1992, Little Anthony and the Imperials- Gourdine, Strain, Wright, and Collins- performed together again at The Ultimate Reunion concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Delivering rich harmonies, sharp choreography, and a commanding stage presence, the effect the group had on their audience and reviewers was overwhelming. In the 17 years since, the group has crossed the globe making personal appearances. Strain retired in 2004 and was replaced by the returning Jenkins, who serves as the group’s choreographer. They have also released three CDs, Up Close And Personal, recorded live in South Carolina in 1996, 2002’s Pure Acappella, a return to the roots 1950s vocal group harmony, and You’ll Never Know, a 50th Anniversary celebration released in 2008 which includes the salsa-flavored “Carnival” and Anthony’s sparkling title track duet with Deniece Williams, an ideal mark for the Adult Contemporary charts. Once again, Little Anthony and the Imperials cannot be easily classified.
Enshrinement in the Rock Hall is an honor, but it’s not an honor that Little Anthony and the Imperials ever discussed or waited for. “We felt that we were fulfilling what our destiny was,” Anthony summed to interviewers Mervis and Tim Parsons. “We reached a pinnacle in our career where we were working some of the finest places in the world. I don’t know how they decide who gets to be in the Hall of Fame, but we realize that…we don’t have any power (to control that). We just happened to be people where they realized it had been 50 years, and they looked at our body of work and said, ‘My gosh, they should be in.’ ”
Ironically, the group’s pending induction finally provides them with a suitable categorization and classification a full half-century after their career began. Little Anthony and the Imperials are now Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.