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Singing legends set sights on golden anniversary

Tim Parsons
Little Anthony & The Imperials are, from left, Clarence Collins, Harold Jenkins, "Little Anthony" Gourdine and Ernest Wright.
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If any musician should write a book it’s “Little Anthony” Gourdine. The good news is that he’s working on one.

Gourdine is the lead singer in the country’s second-longest running band featuring its original members, Little Anthony & The Imperials.

The band from Brooklyn, N.Y. was formed in 1958, and Gourdine has been around all the great performers since that time.

Gourdine went on to live in Los Angeles for 31 years. He now resides in Las Vegas where Gladys Knight is his neighbor and Smokey Robinson is his golf buddy.

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Late in his life Sammy Davis Jr. enjoyed cooking soul food, and he often hosted and cooked for Gourdine and others at Bill Harrah’s guest house. In fact, the mother of Davis’ third wife, Altovise, was good friends with Gourdine’s mother back in Brooklyn. The last time Gourdine saw Altovise was when he was invited to sing at Liza Minnelli’s wedding.

Gourdine learned his trade by being around great performers.

“I had the great pleasure and the blessing to go out and perform on the old chitlin’ circuit, the old black circuit where you played with people like Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson and famous groups like The Flamingos,” he said.

The stories could go on and on. Like the time Gourdine went backstage to see his friend Buddy Rich, whose bandleader was a trumpet player named Miles Davis.

“I thought he was going to be one of those cats who wasn’t too up on pop music or singing groups, but he knew all about it,” said Gourdine, who imitated Davis’ gravely voice. “He knew who I was right away. He said, ‘I like that song, ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head.’ I’ve worked with Ray Brown and them cats who are on your recording.'”

The 66-year-old Gourdine is a legend in his own right, and so is his band. Three of the group’s four singers are original members — Gourdine, Clarence Collins and Ernest Wright.

Harold Jenkins joined the Imperials in 1972 (during Gourdine’s 16-year haitus from the band), and officially joined Little Anthony & The Imperials in 2004 when Sammy Strain retired.

Next year the band will celebrate the 50-year anniversary of its first major hit, “Tears on My Pillow.” The only all-original U.S. band to be around longer is The Dells, who began in 1952.

So how does a band survive so long?

“It’s not clean living,” Gourdine laughed. “I wish that was the truth.”

Being around great people is one of the biggest factors, he said.

“I’ve been blessed to work with the finest, most creative people on the planet,” Gourdine said. “From Day 1 we worked with Richard Barrett (the producer and songwriter who discovered The Chantels, Isley Brothers and Three Degrees). Later we hooked up with Teddy Randazzo and Don Costa.”

Randazzo was a songwriter and producer. Costa was an arranger for Frank Sinatra who signed Little Anthony & The Imperials to DCP Records in 1964. The group was one of the few in the pop genre to survive the British Invasion and Motown explosion, events that ended the era of doo-wop.

“Costa was the first one to get me to believe that what I had was a gift,” Gourdine said. “He taught me how to use my voice as an instrument. He said the human voice is like an instrument, it’s like a saxophone. We sat down and listened to Sinatra and Nat Cole and Mel Torme and all these people to teach me to be a stylist in my own right. That’s one of the reasons I survived so many years.”

A couple of years before Gourdine left the band for 16 years to perform solo and pursue a career in acting, a throat doctor gave him his critical advice.

“He convinced me to stop smoking in 1973, and then he taught me breathing exercises to build up my diaphragm just like an opera singer would,” he said. “That probably added 25 to 30 years to my life. I was talking to the late great Mel Tormey before he left. And he learned a lot of great alto and tenor sax breathing techniques. I became passionate about taking care of my voice.”

Gourdine’s exit from the band was preceded in 1969 by Ernest Wright. Six years later Strain left to join the O’Jays.

Collins, Jenkins and Bobby Wade played 10 years as The Imperials.

Gourdine recruited Collins, Wright and Strain back for a reunion concert in 1992, and the group has been together ever since.

“At our first rehearsal, it appeared as if we had never been apart, Collins said on the group’s Web site. “The sound was bigger and better than ever. Following the concert, which was a tremendous success, we decided to reform the original group.”

Gourdine has no plans to retire and is looking forward to Saturday’s concert at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.

“We have a devout following, and they’re going to see a performance” he said. “You’re liable to hear anything. Your not going to just hear records and sit in a chair. Its a high energy act.”


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