Paul Simon once said, "Little Anthony Gourdine has one of the purest voices to come out of the New York doo-wop scene. [The Imperials] will be remembered as great musicians from the streets of my hometown." Bob Dylan was also a fan: "The Beatles weren't rock and roll, nor were The Rolling Stones. Rock and roll ended with Little Anthony and the Imperials." But by 1973, the group was ready for a new direction, or a "new street," as it were. The group first worked with then-budding producer Thom Bell a few years earlier on the single "Help Me Find a Way (To Say I Love You)" b/w "If I Love You" for the United Artists label. In 1971, Little Anthony, Harold Jenkins, Clarence Collins and Bobby Wade signed with Avco Records, for whom Bell was recording The Stylistics. In 1973, Bell finally got around to producing an album for Little Anthony and the Imperials, but one with a twist: he would produce and arrange Side One, but on Side Two, those duties would be performed by Teddy Randazzo. Randazzo was a major influence on Bell, and had a long history with The Imperials, too. He wrote the group's Top 10 hits "Going Out of My Head" and "Hurt So Bad." Yet On a New Street and its ultra-rare, Philadelphia-recorded follow-up, Hold On, languished for years without a CD release. Cherry Red's SoulMusic imprint has recently reissued both albums with bonus tracks on a new 2-CD set.
On a New Street might be the ne plus ultra of the group's post-1960s achievements. A "lost" album from the sweetest period of Thom Bell's storied career, the Bell side captures producer and vocalists at the peak of their powers. Gourdine's recognizably pinched vocal tones contrast with those of, say, Philippe Wynne of The Spinners or Russell Thompkins, Jr. of The Stylistics, but Bell instinctively knew how to surround that voice with a soft cushion of soulful accompaniment provided by MFSB. Throughout the five songs on "The Thom Bell Side" of On a New Street, Gourdine has ample chance to fly solo, with The Imperials contributing their impeccable harmonies at just the right moments.
The album was a rare instance of Bell working his magic on an established act. His wholly original orchestral voice supported William "Poogie" Hart on The Delfonics' first long-player and Russell Thompkins, Jr. on The Stylistics', and Bell even saw that a long-running act like The Spinners was essentially reborn when he took their production reins. Little Anthony was the most established voice Bell built his pocket symphonies around at that point, but Bell's abiding affection for Randazzo's work with the group made On a New Street consistent with their past triumphs.
Naturally, the ballads stand out. Only Thom Bell could have made "The Loneliest House on the Block," written by fellow Philly legends Norman Harris and Allan Felder, seem like the place you'd most like to be. Bell lushly orchestrated Harris and Felder's wistful tale of a place "where the windows are closed and the doors are always locked." The songwriters also made a nice lyrical doff off the hat to The Imperials' 1964 hit "I'm on the Outside (Looking In)," written by...Teddy Randazzo! ("Loneliest House" later appeared on Thirteen Blue Magic Lane by Blue Magic in 1975.) Though most of the up-tempo tracks could have been suitable for The Spinners, the opening "Falling in Love with You" was straight out of Bell's playbook for The Stylistics. The entire song is one longing musical sigh, with baroque flourishes, majestically sweeping strings and stately backing vocals plus an insistent keyboard riff that lodges itself in the brain.
Another, much-heralded influence on Bell's distinctive style was Burt Bacharach, and indeed, that stylistic touchstone is heard via the horns on Bruce Hawes' swaggering "I Won't Have Time to Worry" and James Grant's "La La La (At the End)" but even more subtly on "Loneliest House." Vince Montana's (?) burbling vibes make their reassuring presence felt on "Loneliest House" and lend a tropical air as they wash over "La La La." James Grant's song, built around a tasty lyrical conceit, is also presented in an alternate mix with brief studio chatter.
Spinners fans will savor the appearance here of "Lazy Susan." When Bell recorded it with that group in 1974, he gave it a new, slowed-down arrangement, but it cooks in The Imperials' hands. Linda Creed supplied a typically empathetic lyric about a girl whose "daddy died when she was four/Her mama works the mill the whole day long/But Lazy Susan never worked the mill/She just sings her song, strumming with a guitar pick..." There's an innocence and sincerity when Anthony vows he "won't let them laugh at her no more...gonna make people look at her like they never did before!"
Thom Bell once said of Teddy Randazzo and his frequent co-writer Bobby Weinstein: "I love their writing. And I love the arranging that Don Costa does for Little Anthony and the Imperials! That was the first guy that turned me on - Don Costa! They had "I'm on the Outside (Looking In)", "Hurt So Bad," "Goin' Out Of My Head"... After that came Burt Bacharach, another one I loved. They were applying their classical training, I believe, to so-called R&B, modern music. I didn't know anything about the so-called R&B music at all, until I was about seventeen, eighteen, because that's not where my family was leaning me. I come from the classical end of it." He paid Randazzo and Weinstein the ultimate tribute when he co-produced with Deniece Williams the vocalist's hit recording of their "Gonna Take a Miracle," originally recorded by The Royalettes.
After the jump: we're taking a listen to "The Teddy Randazzo Side," and to the Imperials' second Avco album, Hold On!.
Yes, there's a marked sonic change on the original Side Two of On a New Street, "The Teddy Randazzo Side." But as Bell applied and personalized some of Randazzo's pop hallmarks in his own style, the transition isn't as jarring as it could have been. In addition to producing, Randazzo also co-wrote most of the tracks with Victoria Pike. He keeps Gourdine's voice out front on these six classy recordings, and lets the singer cut loose on the ad libs. "That's What Love is All About" is driving pop-soul, and "I'll Be Loving You Sooner or Later" transforms from a doo-wop homage to a showcase for Gourdine's fiery vocals. He excitingly stretches his pipes to the breaking point; there wasn't too much room for such explosions in Bell's tightly-arranged opuses on Side One.
On the emotional "What Good Am I Without You," one can hear Frankie Valli in the song's pathos. And sure enough, the Four Seasons leader recorded the song in 1976 on Valli alongside three other Randazzo compositions. The catchy "Loving You Won't Hurt as Much Tomorrow" is sleek yet funky, with a big beat, but the dreamy and dramatic "Heartaches Never Entered My Mind" slightly recalls both Bell and Bacharach with its dynamically-shifting melody. Randazzo clearly wasn't content to rest on his laurels for On a New Street; "Easier Said Than Done" fuses soaring doo-wop vocals with a lush yet contemporary backing.
The Bell-produced single "I'm Falling in Love with You" became a minor R&B hit at No. 25 (with a No. 86 Pop showing) but it couldn't compete with, among other songs, Bell's own Spinners tracks. When the time came for Little Anthony and The Imperials to record a sophomore effort for Avco, the busy Bell recommended his brother Tony Bell and frequent collaborator Phil Hurtt of The Young Professionals team. Though (the no-longer-Little) Anthony and the Imperials' vocals were recorded in Los Angeles, the younger Bell and Hurtt held the instrumental sessions at Sigma Sound, of course. Bobby Eli returned from On a New Street on guitar. The rest of the line-up included Richie Rome on keyboards, Charles Collins and guest Steve Gadd on drums, Larry Washington on congas, the recently-relocated Detroit expatriate Bob Babbitt on bass, and Bell on guitar and Hurtt on percussion. Don Renaldo's Horns and Strings appeared, as did Philly arranger Jack Faith on flute and piccolo. Hold On, as the album was titled, de-emphasized the quartet's classic New York-style balladry and embraced a more modern sound circa 1975, close in spirit to what Tony's brother Thom was conjuring for The Spinners.
Though it only reached No. 79 R&B/No. 109 Pop, opening track "Hold On (Just a Little Bit Longer)" deserved much better. It's prototypical Philly soul at its finest, with a fantastic hook. Sweeping strings collide with searing electric guitar and a non-stop dance-ready beat. Even more excitingly for longtime listeners to the group, Bell and Hurtt hit on the idea of having Gourdine share lead vocals with Bobby Wade on this affirmative anthem. So "Hold On" (along with two other tracks on which Wade shared the lead) is unique in the Imperials' catalogue. Tenor Gourdine blends sublimely with baritone Wade on this pure burst of adrenaline which matches the quality of the tracks produced by the elder Bell on On a New Street. ("Hold On" was also recorded by The Persuaders.)
They might have been Young, but the Professionals were well-versed in the skills that well-served Thom Bell, Norman Harris, Bobby Martin, Bobby Eli, Vince Montana, and the other Philly soul greats. The musical backings are typically sophisticated and diverse, and there are plenty of flourishes that are pure TSOP, like the electric sitar solo on "My Baby's Back." If the remaining songs on Hold On don't exceed the title song, however, they're still a strong set of songs well-suited to Gourdine's voice and persona.
Little Anthony's yearning voice shines on the sumptuous ballads "You are the World to Me" and "Back Where You Belong." He takes the older-and-wiser route warning himself against a "Young Girl" in a song that plays on the age-old trope covered in so many previous pop songs: "I must control myself/Though she may not be as fine as you, I've got to find someone else/You should have told me you're a young girl..." The group gets funky on cuts like "Promise Me" - which also has an extended a cappella section - and keeps the groove in the pocket on the infectious and oddly sweet kiss-off "I've Got to Let You Go." You'll notice the Spinners-style call-and-response group vocals employed very well here. (It's interesting, too, that the album's two strongest songs, respectively, have Anthony holding on and letting go!)
Hold On met an ignominious fate: after a relatively small amount of LPs were released in the U.S., Japan and Europe, it was withdrawn from retail and all but disappeared. Like On a New Street, SoulMusic's reissue is its very first appearance on CD. Unfortunately, stereo master tapes couldn't be located by Avco successor Amherst Records for Hold On, so the original album is presented in mono. Four bonus tracks have been added to Hold On, however: the stereo singles of "Hold On" and "I've Got to Let You Go," the stereo album mix of "I've Got to Let You Go," and the mono edit of that song, as well. Kevin Goins nicely summarizes the band's history and goes into detail about both albums in his new liner notes, quoting extensively from a new interview with songwriter Victoria Pike and Little Anthony himself.
As of 2012, Anthony Gourdine and Clarence Collins were still touring as Little Anthony and The Imperials, and the group shows no signs of slowing down despite Gourdine's promise of a farewell tour. (He clarifies in Goins' notes: "We're not breaking up per se. I'm just gonna focus on other projects.") In recent years, they've opened concerts in New York for Paul Simon, recorded new albums, and have appeared on Late Show with David Letterman and on PBS specials. The reissue of On a New Street and Hold On fills in a lost chapter of this great vocal group's history and also stands as a hidden gem of the entire Philadelphia soul genre.
CD 1: On a New Street (Avco AV-11012, 1973)
- I'm Falling in Love with You
- Lazy Susan
- The Loneliest House on the Block
- I Don't Have Time to Worry
- La La La At the End
- That's What Love is All About
- What Good Am I Without You
- I'll Be Loving You Sooner or Later
- Loving You Won't Hurt as Much Tomorrow
- Heartaches Never Entered My Mind
- Easier Said Than Done
- La La La At the End (Alternate Mix)
CD 2: Hold On (Avco SWX-6263, 1975)
- Hold On (Just a Little Bit Longer)
- You Are the World to Me
- I Can Feel the Need
- Young Girl
- My Baby's Back
- If You Can't Think of Anything Else
- Promise Me
- Back Where You Belong
- I've Got to Let You Go
- Hold On (Just a Little Bit Longer) (U.S. Avco stereo single) (Avco 45-4651, 1975)
- I've Got to Let You Go (U.S. Avco stereo single) (Avco 45-4651, 1975)
- I've Got to Let You Go (Stereo Mix)
- I've Got to Let You Go (Mono Short Version)