An Imperial singer to the end

Little Anthony publicity photo

Little Anthony publicity photo

Little Anthony and The Imperials rocketed to fame and fortune on the strength of a stunning series of hit R&B singles like 1958’s “Tears On My Pillow” (No. 2), 1959’s “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop” (No. 14), 1961’s “I’m On The Outside (Looking In)” (No. 8), 1964’s “Goin’ Out Of My Head” (No. 6), “Hurt So Bad” (No. 3) and 1965’s “Take Me Back” (No. 15). When the hits stopped coming, he transitioned into a stellar performing artist with and without The Imperials. At 74, he has no plans to slow down. He put out a book “My Journey, My Destiny” (Mascot Books) and recently recorded a duet with George Benson called “Electric Together.” Goldmine caught up with Little Anthony prior to a show with Darlene Love.   

GOLDMINE: How’d that “Electric Together” project with George Benson come about?

LITTLE ANTHONY: George and I have been friends for many years. He saw me on TV and had a mutual friend from Pittsburgh call me to say, “We’ve got to do something together.” So when my producer Preston Glass at Reviver Records told me about a song he wrote that might work, we took it in the studio, had fun and it had over 1,500 YouTube hits the first night!

GM: How have you been able to sustain such a long career? What’s the secret to your longevity?

LA: There is no secret. I tell people all the time, “it’s not natural, it’s supernatural.” See, I’m a believer. And I do believe this voice of mine is divine. I still sing in the same key as when I was 18. Mel Tormé did it. Look at Tony Bennett. It’s a gift from God. It’s really not my voice. I just have it on loan.

little-anthony-songsGM: Who gave you guidance early on?

LA: My first paycheck from singing came when I was 14. Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and Moms Mabley told me things that have held fast. Redd Foxx taught me about the comedy timing. Sammy Davis Jr. and I were friends because his wife Altovise and I were raised together in Brooklyn. People always tell me, “Oh, it’s a shame they’re not with us anymore.” I tell them, “Yes they are, and they’re all inside me.” Now it’s a time of Beyoncé and Jay Z, but I don’t know if they understand what they’re going to do when their records stop coming out. The late Tim Hauser of Manhattan Transfer, another friend, was smart enough to study modern jazz, for instance. He had to make the same transition as I did. There are a lot of my peers from that era who didn’t. That’s why very few are left. Many of them hang on to their old records for dear life and all they do now are these oldies or doo-wop tours. I’m very blessed to still work the finest casinos in the country. In fact, I just came back from a theater thing in Pennsylvania that was so rewarding, I cannot tell you.

GM: So you made a conscious decision not to join any of those package tours?

LA: In the 1980s, as a solo act, I didn’t know any better so, yeah, sure, I did ‘em. But I found out that, first of all, I’m no doo-wop singer, never was. I don’t put anybody down for doing that. But for me? That would be a disservice to the great songwriters, arrangers and producers I’ve had. I’ve had the good fortune to sing some of the finest music in the world.

GM: I dug “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop” when it first came out in 1959. I was 8 years old and thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.

LA: (laughing) That was a novelty song. People like to think — and it goes back to when I was a kid – 14 years old in the Brooklyn streets — that I was a doo-wop singer. “Goin’ Out Of Head,” “Hurts So Bad” and “Take Me Back” were hardly doo-wop songs. It’s a joke to call those songs doo-wop! A joke! It took a long time to get that point across. Eventually, the promoters began to see it. It’s whole ‘nother category, man. I don’t know what we are! But we’re not that. We’re more contemporary R&B.

GM: You’re a soul singer, my man.

LA: Yeah. I like that. But I’m smooth. Like a crooner. Like Luther Vandross. I sing R&B but it’s too smooth to be hardcore.

GM: I also assume that you’ve been able to steer clear of some of the residual effects of stardom, mainly the enticements that oftentimes fell people in your position … the whole sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll thing.

LA: Not really. I’m just like everybody else. I’ve had my moments of, uh, goin’ out of my head. You must understand, what happened to me in 1978 changed my whole life. I have trepidation about even talking about it in the press but, yeah, that was the year I was touched by the holy spirit, God himself. I felt him. When that hit me, I was never the same. Before that, I lived that whole other life. I did all the drugs. The only drug I never did was heroin. So I’m no different.

GM: I understand you have nine children.

LA: Yes, and 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

GM: Wow, from how many women?

LA: Two. One of ‘em I married twice. She passed away from cancer. I’m 40 years married to my wife now.

GM: I understand you’re friends with Paul Simon. What kind of guy is he?

LA: He’s kind of shy, actually, a real introvert. He’s very open with me, though. He just doesn’t trust a whole lot of people. One time he called me and said he was driving back down from Connecticut and got the idea for a Broadway play that he wanted to talk to me about. It turned out to be “The Capeman” (1998). It didn’t run too long and I wasn’t in it but he did have me come out onstage at his Brooklyn Academy of Music show to reminisce about Brooklyn under a single spotlight that made it look like the glow from a street lamp. We did one song but got a tremendous standing ovation.

GM: Paul Simon is one guy who loves doo-wop. One of my favorite Paul Simon songs of all-time is a tune off his underappreciated “Hearts And Bones” album called “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” where he writes how they “returned to their hotel suite and they unlocked the door easily losing their evening clothes/They danced by the light of the moon to The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles, The Five Satins, the deep forbidden music they’d been longing for.” Who are some of your other show biz friends?

LA: Bobby Darin (1936-1973), Billy Joel and Paul Shaffer. We all used to hang around the Brill Building offices at 1619 Broadway where all the songwriters would try to hawk their songs.

GM: You were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009.

LA: Well, we have sold 32 million records worldwide. We never got a Grammy Award because when we first started there was no Grammys. But that was some night. We went in with Bobby Womack, Run-D.M.C., Metallica and Jeff Beck. I had all my kids and grandchildren with me. Paul (Shaffer) was instrumental in helping me get inducted. We also performed at the Hall’s 20th Anniversary show at his insistence. I’ve had artists like The Four Tops and The Temptations come up to me and tell me that my music directly influenced their decision to do more pop-oriented material, and they thanked me for it. They learned from me just like I learned from Nat King Cole. Billy Joel invited me to Madison Square Garden one time. I was sitting right up front when he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, my idol is in the audience tonight. Little Anthony, please take a bow!” And with that, he starts singing “Tears On My Pillow.” I swear, I felt like crying.

GM: Why are you “Little” Anthony? You’re hardly little. Why aren’t you just Anthony Gourdine?

LA: Oh, I used to hate that “Little” in front of my name! I’m 5 feet, 9 inches. But Alan Freed gave it to me. One time some radio guy thought I was a girl when he heard me sing. Freed said, “That ain’t a girl. He’s just little.” And it stuck. Little Richard is 6-feet tall. Did you know that?

GM: How are The Imperials doing?

LA: Ain’t but one left alive and that’s Ernest Wright.

GM: So what’s in store for you in the near future?

LA: I’m doing a show with Darlene Love in Virginia and there’s talk about it becoming a tour. I wouldn’t mind Bobby Rydell joining that tour because he still has the pipes. Maybe Chubby Checker. He does a 75-minute show that has people standing and wanting more.

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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