It has been more than 25 years since Little Anthony and the Imperials released "Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop" -- "just about the first bubble-gum song," as 45-year-old Anthony Gourdine calls it today.
At least, that's what he calls it when he's being charitable.
"It's really the blight of my life," he says otherwise, only half joking. "Not long ago I was playing the Tropicana with a 17-piece orchestra. I'm out there in my classiest tuxedo, singing show tunes, Michel Legrand, 'Goin' Out of My Head,' and the biggest applause comes from 'Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop.' I'm doomed . . . I've even sung that song for congressmen and senators, and they love it. Can't get enough of it. These people are leading our country?"
Little Anthony, who will perform at an oldies show at the Warner Theatre tonight (along with Del Shannon, the Marcels and the Shirelles), admits he understands why the song became a smash hit for his group in 1960.
"Almost no one in the group really wanted to do it," recalls the singer, who now lives with his wife and four kids in Los Angeles. "But it tapped this new market -- 6- to 12-year-olds who asked their parents to buy it. That market was really unheard of back then, but now it's a big thing."
Still, the songs that followed are the ones that Gourdine really takes pride in -- a string of mid-'60s hits that included "I'm on the Outside Looking In," "Hurt So Bad," "Take Me Back" and a hit he regards as a pop masterpiece, "Goin Out of My Head."
There's no comparing these more sophisticated songs, made when the Imperials were working with arranger Don Costa and songwriter Teddy Randazzo, with the group's early hits, he says.
"People still think of the Imperials as a '50s group -- we weren't," he insists, pointing out that although the Imperials had their first big hit with "Tears on My Pillow" in 1958, followed by "Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop" two years later, it was only when the group re-formed in 1963 that things really began to click.
"We were all a lot wiser by then," he sighs. "When we were coming up in the Brooklyn [N.Y.] projects, we were just kids who'd do whatever we were told in the studio. It was a lot better than being on the streets."
Making records always seemed the logical thing to do for the 5-foot-6 singer who would eventually be dubbed Little Anthony by disc jockey Alan Freed. For starters, both Gourdine's mother, a gospel singer, and his father, a big-band saxophonist, encouraged his interest in music. And it didn't hurt that a couple of his childhood chums, who would later become members of the Imperials, loved to sing as well.
"I know they call it street corner harmony," Gourdine says, reflecting on the roots of doo-wop music. "But I can't recall singing on a street corner, not really. In the projects we'd sing in the hallways because you could get an echo there. You could get the same sound in the subways . . . the projects also had these parks with benches and we'd all congregate and sing."
The Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers and the Ravens were among Little Anthony's early vocal models, but he credits Sonny Til and the Orioles for updating the music, giving the R&B group sound a distinctive flavor. "They really revolutionized the sound, and you can still hear their influence in all kinds of music today."
Eager to join the entertainers he saw on stage at the nearby Paramount Theatre, Gourdine first recorded as a member of the Duponts, a group of high school buddies, before joining some of his childhood pals in the Chesters, which later changed its name to the Imperials.
Success came fast, and along with it money and troubles, he says. "If you take a kid off the streets and put him into something new like that -- I mean, no one knew what was happening to young people and music back then -- you're bound to have problems . . . I had all kinds of trouble, including drugs. But I had a spiritual grounding, something I think my mother gave to me, and that and time pulled me through."
Some of his friends, including teen singer Frankie Lyman, who died of a drug overdose, weren't so lucky. "But as hard as it was growing up then," says Gourdine, "it's a lot harder now. That's why it's important for the recording industry to police itself and not promote [drug use] in any way."
Since 1975, when Little Anthony went out on his own, convinced that the heyday of vocal groups had long passed, he's been playing concerts, casinos, private parties and the occasional rock 'n' roll reunion. "I'm very blessed in that I don't have to sing just at oldies shows to make a living. I sing in all kinds of places and for all kinds of people."
And wherever he goes, they want to hear "Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop.