Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Little Anthony and the Imperials got their first hit, “Tears On My Pillow,” in 1958. Featuring emotional tenor vocals from the then 17-year-old Anthony Gourdine, “Pillow” was among the year’s biggest hits, reaching No. 2 on the rhythm-and-blues chart and No. 4 on the pop chart.
After the group’s 1960 dance hit, “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop,” Gourdine went solo, but he returned to the Imperials in 1963 for the group’s most successful years of recording. Little Anthony and the Imperials’ pop and rhythm-and-blues hits of the ’60s include “I’m on the Outside (Looking In),” “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurt So Bad.”
Gourdine adamantly rejects the doo-wop label that is often placed on vocal groups of the ’50s.
“I defy anybody to call ‘Hurt So Bad’ and ‘Goin’ Out of My Head’ doo-wop,” he said of those majestic hits. “That’s contemporary pop. And all of our hits, including ‘Tears On My Pillow,’ were contemporary pop.”
White singing groups from metropolitan New York, however, such as the Elegants, the Belmonts and the Duprees, more likely warrant the doo-wop tag, Brooklyn native Gourdine said from his Las Vegas home.
“They couldn’t figure the R&B and street-corner singers’ style out, so they developed their own style. If you listen to them, it’s all doo-wop, doo-wop, doo-woppa, doo-woppa. If you wanna call something doo-wop, that’s doo-wop. Not me! Not the Imperials. Not the Moonglows. Not the Flamingos.”
Even if he is a lone voice in the wilderness protesting the doo-wop tag, Gourdine vows to keep setting the record straight.
“People, say, ‘Well, I read in the book!’ I say, ‘But I was there!’ And I’ve had other groups tell me, ‘Thank you! Thank you for saying that!’ ”
As his spirited objection to be wrongly classified shows, Gourdine remains passionate about his music and performances.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “It’s high energy. And a lot of people wonder why. How can this be? So many of the artists and people who came out of my era just don’t have the energy anymore nor the desire. Well, I do.
“First of all, I love the business. Secondly, I’ve been blessed by God to have a voice. I know it’s supernatural. Can’t be natural. I understand it’s something special. And I know how to use it, I don’t abuse it. I don’t do things that can harm it anymore. And I was messed up until my life was changed in ’78, when I came to the Lord. Then I realized the gift that God had given me.
“My job now is to go out and make people feel good, to bring back pleasant memories, or maybe some bad memories. To perform, that’s what I’ve been put on this Earth to do. I’m blessed that I’m still here after all these years and able to perform at a high rate. That makes me feel very good. So, when I go on stage, I give all I got. The audience knows it, so everybody’s happy.”
Little Anthony and the Imperials learned the art of performance from the older acts they worked with, Gourdine said.
“We came up in the tail end of vaudeville,” he said. “We had great teachers: Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, the Flamingos. And we worked the chitlin circuit, the Apollo and all that.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was another mentor.
“He really took me under his wing,” Gourdine said. “And my dressing room was next door to Sam Cooke’s dressing room. If you hang with Sam, something’s gonna hit you. As a kid in the wings, I remember Little Willie John saying, ‘Hey, man. Hold my gun.’ He gave me a .38 to hold. But I watched him on stage and was mesmerized at how much command he had.
“I watched some of the greatest performers from the wings, especially Jackie Wilson and, my gosh, James Brown. James was like us. He went from being a recording star to a performing star. Well, 90 percent of the acts did not make that transition. They were talked out of it by managers and unscrupulous people who had their own interests at heart.”
Little Anthony and the Imperials’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t happen until 2009, 51 years after “Tears On My Pillow.” Late or not, the honor thrilled Gourdine.
“Anytime your peers vote and say, ‘You belong in here,’ that makes you equal with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and all these cats who accomplished phenomenal things,” he said. “It reminds me of a commercial jet. A lot of people want to go first class. Obviously, that’s better. But everybody gets there at the same time.”
Little Anthony and the Imperials’ belated New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival debut this weekend is another thrill for the singer.
“We wanted to get in that Jazz Fest for the longest!” he said. “I was talking to Gladys Knight and her brother, Bubba, the other night about it. A lot of the artists who have gone there to perform, they probably helped us. Because me and my guys, we were saying, ‘Why aren’t we on this thing? My goodness, our group is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ So I’m really looking forward to this.”