You simply can’t have a conversation about the hottest vocal groups to come out of the New York scene without including Little Anthony and the Imperials. Lead singer Anthony Gourdine gave a voice to teenage passion and angst back in the fifties and continues to push the boundaries of contemporary R&B today.
Gourdine was visiting the Grand Strand last week as part of a promotional tour, and I had the chance to talk to him about the man, the music and the upcoming Little Anthony and the Imperials concert recording at Myrtle Beach’s Palace Theater on Sunday, Sept 13.
I’m here to tell you that anyone who pigeonholes Anthony Gourdine as a blast from the past is missing the mark.
His – and the group’s – longevity in the business is due at least in part because they refused to let others define them. “I’ve always followed my instinct … don’t allow anyone to define me,” Anthony Gourdine told me emphatically, and it would become a theme of the afternoon’s conversation.
“I’m a creative human being, that’s what I am,” he went on to say. “I’m a singer. I’m an actor. I’m a writer. I’m working on a book right now, with a ghostwriter. I’m in a perpetual state of growth.
“My music teacher Mrs. Ethel Mannix was the first person to open me up to art. When other kids were out playing sports, I was listening to Beethoven.”
Gourdine’s father, who was a jazz musician himself, didn’t support the teenager’s interest in music. He felt the life was too hard.
But the budding vocalist was already friends with Clarence Collins, who founded the precursor to the Imperials – originally named the Chesters – when he was 13 years old. “It’s as though there was a hand on us, moving us in a certain way,” Anthony told me, “I like to think it was God himself. It’s destiny. I’ve always been an adventurer. My mother encouraged me in music.”
The young Imperials would have a record contract with End Records within a year, change their name to the Imperials, and have a double-sided hit record. The A side was “Tears On My Pillow” and the flip side hit was “Two People In the World.”
Also singing with the teenage Imperials was a second tenor named Ernest Wright. Amazingly, this core group – along with singer/choreographer Harold Jenkins, a member of Little Anthony and the Imperials and later the Imperials during the 70s – make up today’s innovative R&B group, Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary for the group. “People love survivors,” Anthony laughs, “and we are definitely survivors.”
Unlike so many other 50s vocal groups relegated to anachronistic reunion shows or tours, Little Anthony and the Imperials celebrate their past without living it all over again. A tangible example of this is You’ll Never Know, the group’s CD, produced by Clarence Collins and released in 2008. Clearly a labor of love, it pays homage to the past even as it reaches to the future.
The 12-track disc includes a combination of new jazz-driven arrangements of old favorites and original tunes that – in Anthony Gourdine’s words – are going to surprise people. The album’s featured single is Gourdine’s duet with Grammy award winner Deniece Williams, known for her pop R&B tunes including “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” her duet with Johnny Mathis.Also included is a new version of the 1964 hit “Hurt So Bad,” (performed during the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show), and it is definitely not the same old same old. A new arrangement by Mary Ekler leaves no question that that this group isn’t rehashing old material.
Talking about the CD, Gourdine said, “People will be surprised. It’s what happens when folks come to our shows. They’re surprised.”
Who are their fans, I wanted to know. “We’ve had an influx of people in their 30s and 40s, whose parents told them about us, and we have folks in their 50s and such. We’re a contemporary R&B group, so our fans are anyone who loves R&B.
Little Anthony and the Imperials were honored last year with induction into the Carolina Beach Music (CBMA) Hall of Fame.
“You know, we used to play the beach towns … quick gigs here and there … and we never realized we were part of building something … it’s humbling,” Anthony said.
Despite growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gourdine’s family is from the Charleston, S.C. area. “I think it’s in the DNA,” he told me, “because even though this isn’t my home, I feel at home. I hear the Geechee and I know it. I live in Las Vegas now, but it feels good to be on this tour through the Carolinas.”
The concert at the Palace Theater stands apart from the rest of the tour because this show is being recorded for broadcast purposes. Tickets are $45 and are available at the theater’s box office or online at www.palacetheatremyrtlebeach.com. The theatre is located at Broadway At the Beach. For more information, call toll-free 800-905-4228
In addition to the event at the Palace, the Carolina tour includes stops at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, N.C.; War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro, N.C.; Odell Williamson Auditorium at Brunswick Community College in Supply, N.C.; and other locations. S.C. shows include the Peace Center Concert Hall in Greenville, the Newberry Opera House and the North Charleston Performing Arts Center among others. For a complete schedule, log onto the website at http://www.littleanthonyandtheimperials.com or visit the group’s MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com/littleanthonyandtheimperials.
Me, I can’t resist being part of history in the making. I’ll be front and center at the Palace Theater on Sept. 13. What song do I want to hear most? Surprise me, Anthony.
©2009 Dariel Bendin. All rights reserved. This will also be published in Beach Newz in Coast magazine and Alternatives NewsMagazine.