In the Spotlight: Little Anthony and the Imperials

Anthony Gourdine and the doo-wop group that grew up first

Little Anthony and the Imperials
Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Who are Little Anthony and the Imperials?

Anthony Gourdine and company entered the hearts of doo-wop fans with the classic yearning ballad "Tears on My Pillow" and never looked back, but this Brooklyn quartet would take that pop vocal style to lush, adult territory in the '60s, essentially creating what we know now as "Uptown Soul"

Where you might have heard them Their twin Uptown Soul monoliths -- "Goin' out of My Head" and "Hurt So Bad" -- have been covered by seemingly everyone in pop and soul, but the originals still get plenty of mileage, and "Pillow" remains a timeless doo-wop standard

Little Anthony and the Imperials' most popular songs:

  • "Tears on My Pillow"
  • "Goin' out of My Head"
  • "Hurt So Bad"
  • "Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop"
  • "I'm on the Outside (Looking In)"
  • "Take Me Back"
  • "I Miss You So"
  • ""I'm Falling in Love with You"
  • "So Much"
  • "Help Me Find a Way (To Say I Love You)"

Formed 1958 (Brooklyn, New York, NY)

Styles Doo-wop, R&B, Pop Vocal, Soul, Pop-soul

Principal Members:

Little Anthony (b. Jerome Anthony Gourdine, Janoary 8, 1940, Brooklyn, New York, NY): lead vocals (falsetto)
Ernest Wright, Jr. (b. August 24, 1939, Brooklyn, New York, NY): vocals (first tenor)
Clarence Collins (b. March 17, 1939, Brooklyn, New York, NY): vocals (baritone)
Sammy Strain (b. December 9, 1940, Brooklyn, New York, NY): vocals (second tenor)

Claims to fame:

  • Began as one of Brooklyn's finest doo-wop groups
  • Lead singer Anthony Gourdine has one of the most unique and dramatic voices in pop history, perfectly suited to heartbroken ballads
  • Had a longer chart history than almost any other vocal group, largely due to their decision to abandon doo-wop for adult pop standards
  • Helped create and define the sophisticated Sixties genre known as "uptown soul"
  • Also known for harder-edged R&B, dance, and a brief early-Seventies flirtation with "Philly Soul"

    The History of Little Anthony and the Imperials

    Early years

    A veteran of Brooklyn's notorious Fort Greene projects, Anthony Gourdine sang on street corners for years before his success, most notably with a doo-wop group called the Duponts. When that group split, he formed the Chesters with what would become the classic Imperials lineup; after an appearance at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater and one flop single ("Lift Up Your Head") on the theater's custom label, Richard Barrett of End Records signed them and suggested the famous name change -- but only of the group, not Anthony. Barrett then gave the group a song called "Tears on My Pillow."

    Success

    "Tears" was a huge smash in 1958, selling over one million copies. (DJ Alan Freed, noticing Anthony's diminutive stature, airchecked the group as "Little Anthony and the Imperials," a name which stuck.) But even though the flip got enough airplay to become a minor hit, the next few years saw the group vainly attempting to replicate the original's success, scoring only with the strange novelty "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop." Finally in 1964, childhood friend Teddy Randazzo of DCP Records steered them in an adult-pop direction, creating wonderfully overblown pop operettas perfect for Anthony's sense of vocal drama.

    Later years

    The mid-to-late Sixties were glory years for the Imperials (not to be confused with the other, Anthony-less doo-wop group of the same name from Detroit). The Seventies saw soul becoming slicker and smoother, yet ironically, the kings of Uptown Soul couldn't manage another big pop hit, despite the best efforts of Philly hitmaker Thom Bell, among others. Sammy Strain left in the mid-Seventies, and Anthony a few years later, effectively ending the group; however, three of the original members (minus Strain) reformed in 1992. Gourdine and Wright lead a reformed Imperials that still records and plays the oldies circuit.

    More About Little Anthony and the Imperials

    Other Little Anthony and the Imperials facts and trivia:

    • Sammy Strain was co-author of the Chips' 1956 novelty hit "Rubber Biscuit," later a hit for the Blues Brothers
    • Other Imperials members have included: Glouster "Nat" Rogers (tenor vocals, 1958-1961) and Tracy Lord (bass vocals, 1958-1961)
    • "Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop" was the last song played by Alan Freed at New York station WINS before he left due to the "Payola" scandal 
    • "Goin' Out Of My Head" has been played on US radio over five million times
    • Sammy Strain joined the O'Jays in 1977; Wright has toured with a version of the Platters
    • Gourdine is a born-again Christian who recorded a religious album with B.J. Thomas in 1980

    Little Anthony and the Imperials Awards and Honors Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2006), Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award (1993), Vocal Group Hall of Fame (1999)

    Little Anthony and the Imperials hit songs and albums:

    Top 10 hits
    Pop "Tears On My Pillow" (1958), "Goin' Out of My Head" (1964), "Hurt So Bad" (1966)

    R&B "Tears On My Pillow" (1958)

    Famous Covers Linda Ronstadt took "Hurt So Bad" back to the top 10 in 1980, while pop vocal mainstays The Lettermen had a Top 20 hit with "Goin' out of My Head," done as a medley with Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"; EDM pioneers Daft Punk sampled the Imperials' disco-era track "Can You Imagine" for their 2001 song "Crescendolls"

    Movies and TV Anthony Gourdine had a cameo in the 2006 indie musician drama Siren and appeared as a mental patient in a 1980 episode of CBS sitcom "The Jeffersons"; the Imperials made their most recent TV appearance in 2015 on an episode of "The View"