It’s difficult to pin down Anthony Gourdine. Best known as “Little Anthony,” the falsetto-voiced namesake of the ’50s R&B group the Imperials, Gourdine is also a card-carrying member of SAG and has traveled the world over performing for the past half century. His life, a bit precarious at times, is detailed in a new book, Little Anthony: My Journey, My Destiny, revealing much more than most people know besides Imperials hits like “Tears On My Pillow,” “Going Out of My Head,” and “I’m On the Outside Looking In.” In it, Gourdine is starkly honest, sometimes to the point of oversharing, about his struggles with drugs, depression, and women. He chronicles the darkest times, but also some of the happiest — of his childhood in Brooklyn, New York, and those initial golden days of stardom. For a man who’s seemingly done and seen it all, it’s amazing that he could fit his multitude of lifetimes into one single volume. Recently, REBEAT spoke to Gourdine from his home in Las Vegas about the book, the road, and setting the record straight.
REBEAT: Your book is more of a narrative — it’s not really first person — and I know you had a co-writer, but how did you make the decision to make it a third-person account?
LITTLE ANTHONY: I’m a book reader — I read a lot — and one of the things about autobiographies is that basically most of them are “me” books, all about me. I did this, I did that, I jumped through the hoops. I didn’t want that. I wanted the people [reading] to take a little imaginary trip, sort of go back in time with me, take this journey [with] this little black kid out of Brooklyn, New York, out of the projects and the ‘hood…I wanted to let people see where this thing went. And in the end, I had people say, “Oh, it’s a book of redemption;” yes, [it’s] that too. So it’s the beginning — it’s a history book, it’s a book of redemption.
Right in the foreword, you talk about your title, My Journey, My Destiny. When you started to put together this book, did it really drive home the concepts for you? Like, “Wow, I have been on a journey, this was my destiny.”
Yeah, if I were to put everything on that journey, it’d be a novel.
I’m sure it could be a four- or five-part series!
Yeah, part one, part two, and part three! I just tried to take certain areas of my life that I felt were pertinent, that I felt were relevant — I mean all of it’s relevant, but I just wanted to find something that maybe reached people’s hearts, or maybe their experiences, or maybe they didn’t experience it, and maybe they get a little inspiration about not giving up. Even in the book, it talks about when I wanted to commit suicide. The thing is, there are emotional roller coaster rides in my life. Real highs, real lows, in betweens, you know? And when I look back at it, these really are my memoirs.
[In] the second or third months, [the book’s writer, Arlene Krieger] started putting Kleenexes on the table because I would cry, she would cry. I tried to get her to understand as much as I can. I said, “Arlene, you’ve gotta put this thing down like I tell you, note-for-note.” When you’re talking to someone, you sit there, and you’re reflecting, you’re going back. And she told me, “I’ve done a lot of books but you have total recall.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said that a lot of people don’t know as much detail, [like] what somebody said to you.
I’ve talked to a few people right after their autobiographies came out, and they compare it to going to therapy because you sort of purge everything.
It’s very therapeutic because you revisit the fun things, but you [also] revisit the very painful things. Like I talked about burying my entire family over a 10-year period. I had to revisit the pain and the depression that I went through. I have a great respect and understanding of what depression is. I was there; it’s a very dark place. And you can’t do a thing about it! It’s like, why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so bad? Nothing makes you feel good. Even the food you eat doesn’t taste the same anymore. And you’re in a very dark place. So I was able to express that then show how I was delivered from that.
I was standing on Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park area, and [a voice in my head] said “jump in front of a car.” And a kid hollered, “Oh, there’s Little Anthony!” And I snapped and I said, “Yeah, that’s who I am — I’m Anthony.” That one momentary time kept me from jumping because now I had something to focus on. Because depression takes you to a place where you’re nobody. You don’t have any hope, there’s no tomorrow. I understand why people do what they do. They get so low, they don’t see hope, but there’s always hope.
My best friend…was Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Well, Frankie died — he took an overdose of heroin. The day before, he called me because he was coming to visit his home because he was in the Army, and he called me and said, “Meet me over at Roulette Records, we’ll have a beer together or something.” I was in Chicago, and when I got to New York City, my wife had that look on her face. She said, “I got something to tell you; it’s not good.” I said, “Oh gosh, what is it?” And she said, “He’s gone.” I said, “Who’s gone?” “Frankie’s gone, he’s dead.”
He tried to cover up his pain and his emotional misery with heroin — and it killed him. And I would say at least 75 to 80% of the people that I knew are not with us because they OD-ed or whatever it might have been. And, by the grace of God, I’m still here — faculties, mind, sound, voice, everything. Like, a lot of times, I’ll tell people… they’ll ask me, “Do you do something special for your voice?” I’ll say no, because I don’t smoke anymore. I do vocalize and take care of it, but it’s not my voice: it’s God’s voice. I just got it on loan, you know? So at 74 years old, I even wonder to myself, how the heck can I sing like that? But I do. And that’s supernatural as far as I’m concerned.
In the book, you talk, of course, about your career with the Imperials, but one important distinction you make is to strike down the term “doo-wop,” which many listeners would associate with your style of music.
I always knock down these myths. I tell people, there was no such thing as doo-wop; we’d never heard it. Doo-wop didn’t exist in our day. It was R&B. We were street-corner singers. That word came in 1973, and I did some research and found out it was Gus Gossert — a disc jockey, I think it was — who was trying to explain that era. But he was seeing it from the side of how the white groups sang as opposed to how the black groups sang. The black groups sang a lot of soul; the white groups couldn’t do it, so they developed their own sound. And obviously some of them, like the Duprees, the Elegants, all those groups out of New York, they used to make up their own sound; they didn’t know how to do it. So they would come up with things like “ba-ba-ba, ba-Barbara Ann,” you know, “doo-wok a doo-wok a doo-wok a doo-wok a,” see?
So this guy, he broadscoped us, he put us all in the same category. And I’m not against anybody wanting to be a doo-wopper, but that’s not who we are. We started out on the street singing. You can’t put “Going Out of My Head,” “Hurts So Bad,” “Take Me Back,” “I’m On the Outside Looking In” in that category.
I always say to people, when we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we weren’t inducted as a doo-wop group! There was no category for doo-wop. You can look it up; there is none. So we’re in there because we’re a contemporary R&B group! So I just want to set the record straight. That’s why I wrote the book: I’m trying to tell people that your perception is not reality; that may be how we live and how we see, but I want you to get deep inside who I am, and then you’ll realize what I’m saying is accurate.
“Doo-wop” is, obviously, sort of a colloquial term now, and it’s not, like you said, super accurate for the time, but the interesting thing about the Imperials, I think, is that you started with one sound, then you left the group, came back, and it turned into this beautiful, lush, arranged production with “Hurts So Bad” and “Going Out of My Head.” Your sound certainly grew up in only about two years
We crossed that bridge, and many of the kids that came out of my era didn’t. The closest to me, to crossing that bridge, was Frankie Lymon with “Out In the Cold Again.” We were so hard to label; nobody knew what we were because we had so many different eras and different sounds. I had the era of the street-corner music, I had a song called “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop” — how do you label that? That’s called a novelty song.
You can’t nail me down. That’s all I’m saying. You can’t do that because of the brilliance of the people that I worked with and the growth that we had. Maybe that’s why a lot of cats and ladies that I knew in that era are still stuck in that era. And I gotta tell you this, I’ve seen a lot of them so unhappy, it’s unbelievable. And they’ll say, “How do you do this?”
You’ve been on the road now for over 50 years; when you step onstage, does it ever feel like it’s been 50 years?
You know what? Inside of me is a 30-year-old kid. A 30-year-old kid in a 70-year-old body. I know I’m 74, because when I get up in the morning [my body] tells me I’m 74, but in me is this kid who still lives, trying to get out. He’s alive and well, and he wants to do things. So when I go onstage, my acting ability kicks in, and I can sing “Hurts So Bad.” It’s never the same way, only people would know, suddenly, I would change something because that when I feel it that time. So every time I go onstage, it’s actual fun. That’s not the same with a lot of my contemporaries; they’re like, miserable. It’s hard work because they’re stuck. They’re stuck and labeled and that label carries with them for the rest of their careers. So a lot of them are very unhappy. And they look at me and they admire me and the Imperials, what they did and who we are. It’s just amazing.
When people say “you’re this,” I go no, no, no, no, no! (laughs) No, I’m too complicated. You know what I mean? It’s easy to label — especially Americans, we have a tendency to pull down a beautiful work of art and make it a parking space if it makes money. You know, we like to label things we don’t understand. If we don’t have a name for it, we give it a name. You know the kids were doing, today’s music… I don’t know who gave it the name hip hop. I bet you if you asked them, they don’t know where it came from. That’s okay, it’s okay. It’s okay as long as that’s who you are. If you’re labeled properly, that’s beautiful. If you’re mislabeled, that’s not good.
One of the interesting term you use — because a lot of people have different ways of referring to artists of your generation, like “legacy acts” and even the dreaded “oldies band” — is a “survivor group,” which I thought was a really great way of putting it. It seems especially apt in your case.
Yeah, we were kids in Brooklyn — street kids — and we survived. Maybe that mentality stayed. We stayed together longer than just about any group in the history of that part. Up until 2003, we had all the Imperials, the actual original guys: Sammy, Ernest, Clarence, and myself. Sammy left in 2003, and then Clarence left in 2012. So now there’s really only one guy left from the original kids on the street, original kids, [and that’s] Ernest Wright. And he’s still with me. I do a lot of single shows; more and more, you’ll probably see me as a solo act more than anything else in the future. Because it’s not the same anymore. It’s just not the same anymore without Clarence and Sammy. You know what I’m saying?
Yeah, I’m sure. You expect to see certain faces with you and they’re not there, and it’s different.
One of things we stressed in the past was that we were the originals. About 90% of other people weren’t. So I sit there and I go, “My goodness, I’m still here.” You know, I oftentimes think of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway wrote a book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he says, “For whom does the bell toll? The bell tolls for thee.” So that day will come when I’m not going to be here anymore. That’s how it goes.
I remember a story that George Burns said. He used to play canasta with his friends in the Hollywood days, the ’30s. I can’t remember all of them. And he said as the years went by, first there were seven, and then there were five, and then there were four, and then there were two, and then, he said, there was him. And you can’t play canasta by yourself.
I’m very blessed to be able to even write that book. I didn’t write that book to get a bestseller or anything — I wouldn’t go that far. But I did it, Arlene and I, because it was a chance to explain to everybody this journey that I’m still on. And the people that have impressed on me their wisdom, you know? A lot of people don’t get that opportunity, they just don’t. And I did.
So many people don’t write it down, and it’s a tragedy for writers like me and historians coming up; we want to know those stories. It’s such a joy to live through those experiences with you and with other people who’ve written their memoirs. It’s invaluable, really.
It is, it is. Hopefully I did that. I was saying to my team of people who work with me and help me with this journey, “This book is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” [laughs] You know? It’s not going to break all the records in the world, but it should be out there for a while.
Maybe it could help some young artist coming after me who’s going through that — they’ll see, “Oh my goodness, he went through the same kind of changes I’m going through. He did it. How did he get out? Oh, that’s how he did it!” I hope that’s something that will help.