Little Anthony: My Journey, My Destiny
published: 6 /
Lisa Torem examines soul and blues legend and the front-man with Little Anthony and the Imperials Anthony Gourdine's new autobiography
Young Anthony Gourdine, acclaimed for his one-of-a-kind falsetto, “lived side by side with people of all races and backgrounds” in the Fort Greene Projects of Brooklyn. His father, Thomas AKA “Mighty Mo”, an electrician at the Naval Yard on the historical Battleship Missouri, moonlighted as a swing band saxophonist where he played with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Fascinated by his father’s talent, Gourdine begged his father to bring him along when he performed at the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club.
His mother, Elizabeth, worked at the A & S store where she ran the information booth and frequently manned the elevator. A musician, too, she sang with the Nazareth Baptist Gospel Singers. From this information, alone, it’s easy to understand why this youngest of four sons cultivated such an early passion for show business.
In his autobiography, co-written with Arlene Kreiger, the doo-wop and R & B front man of Little Anthony and the Imperials recalls his primal motivations. “When I sang, people listened to me and they were drawn to me. When I opened up my voice, people paid attention.” He frequently attended Saturday night parties with “Aunt Shortie” and other extended family members. Whilst sharing potluck dishes and turns at the parlour piano, he got exposed to the exciting rhythms of Gospel. When Aunt Bessie exclaimed, “Get up and dance,” and “Sing, Anthony, sing,” and his other relatives egged him on, “he had found his niche.”
In addition to Gospel, Anthony experienced the glory of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Wagner. “I remember looking up at the chalkboard and staring into the photos of all those great composers,” he confirms, remembering early piano lessons. He also studied acting at the Star Time Studios, where he became entranced by the natural tone and nuance of Frank Sinatra. At eleven, he got a role in ‘Life With Father’. His newly acquired skills served him well and in his freshman year at Boys High he joined the Duponts as lead singer for two years after meeting up with a few older boys.
Snapping their fingers and inventing harmonies under streetlights and singing in subway stations, where they collected spare change from stunned passers-by, they perfected their craft. Enter Paul Windley, of Windley Records, who believed in their sound despite a failed audition at The Apollo – Windley coaxed the young men to practice harder and after they kept their promise he recorded ‘You’, which became a hit on soul stations.
Fortunately, Anthony didn’t have to travel far to meet young men with a similar musical ethos. Nathaniel, Tracey, Ernest, Clarence and Sammy were all Brooklyn natives. Their recording of ‘Prove It Tonight’ attracted DJ Alan Freed, who invited the Duponts to open at New York’s Paramount Theater, with the Platters, the Cadillacs and Frankie Lymon of the Teenagers. They received “thunderous applause.”
Anthony left the Duponts and joined the Chesters, which would later be renamed the Imperials. Their agent, Ernie Martinelli, got them engagements in New York hot spots like Town Hill, where they met up with Nancy Wilson and Jackie Wilson.
But back in the studio, a major hit was brewing. ‘Tears on My Pillow’ was recorded at George Goldner’s studio and flip-side ‘Just Two Kinds of People in the World,’ gave them a “two-sided back to back hit.” The first shot up to number two and the latter stopped at number nine in the top one hundred.
It was assistant Lou Galley’s eagle eyes that inspired their new moniker when, as he glanced out of the window, he spotted a shiny, contemporary Chrysler. Anthony met Judy Fonseca, his first “true love of his life”, as well. Life was full of excitement, professionally and personally.
But Anthony’s sheltered world tore apart when touring America and witnessing the harsh realities of 1960’s racism. Although his mother had once patiently explained prejudice, he was shocked when he discovered that the world outside his melting pot neighborhood held bigotry. He and his band mates faced daily injustice because of their race.
“Here I was a big national star, with my music played across America. Everyone knew who we were, but in the South all they could see was the colour of our skin.” The band members were taken to a run down hotel complete with bugs, no heat and dirty sheets.
But bonding together, Gourdaine found humour and comfort with Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley.
On the other hand, as Anthony’s success grew so did the distractions. He discovered women and experienced happiness, heartache and homesickness. It made him long all the more for Judy, with whom he would share a son at only nineteen. Gourdine’s romantic life doesn’t end there but this key relationship sets the stage for major reflection.
Besides personal accounts of Anthony’s personal and professional struggles, the making of hits is highlighted. To name a few, talented Teddy Randazzo produced and wrote ‘I’m On the Outside (Looking In)’and ‘Goin’ out of My Head’ in 1964 and ‘Hurt So Bad’ the following year.
This insightful book provides a detailed and riveting account of Gourdine’s incredible five-decade career without glossing over his addictions, regrets and accomplishments. Some episodes of his life are deeply touching, some are shocking and some are simply laugh-out-loud ironic but Gourdine’s honesty and resilience sparkle from each page.
Wisecracks and stories about musicians that we all recognise are also priceless.
Anthony’s career with the Imperials had several incarnations. In 1992, Collins, Wright, Strain and Gourdine reunited at Madison Square Gardens. Their concert was so successful that they were asked to be the house band at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, where Anthony still resides. In 2009, Smokey Robinson inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in February of this year Gourdine toured the UK with David Gest’s ‘Legend of Soul’. He continues to perform and record in the US and recently took part in an Alan Aldridge project, on which he performed Paul McCartney’s ‘World Without Love, ’the hit song by Peter and Gordon.
If you’re looking for a culturally lush book that goes from being light-hearted to gripping and inspirational in a heartbeat, this is the one.