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Backstage with Ron Onesti:

Little Anthony & the Imperials

As a “rock ‘n’ roller” myself, I love the hard-edge guitar solos, arm-swinging drum acrobatics and the deep thumping bass of the Seventies classic rock era and the hair-band era of the Eighties. But as a true lover of the music and its rich history, the doo-wop groups of the Fifties have a special place in the inner-amplifier of my heart.

As I began my career in this business in the early ’80s, I have been fortunate enough to have worked with many of those legendary groups and individuals who are credited with being a part of the beginnings of the rock ‘n’ roll movement of 1954/1955/1956. Legends including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Danny & the Juniors, the Flamingos, Joey Dee & the Starlighters, Dion, the Tokens, Chubby Checker, the Drifters, Jay & the Americans and a few others have graced our stage. Appearing with them are their colorful, coordinating costumes, choreographed spins and smooth hand gestures — all performed in unison, with bright harmonies and rich falsettos in the foreground, and deep, basso vocals in the background.

One group I have had the privilege of working with on several occasions is Little Anthony & the Imperials. They were part of that wave of super groups of the late ’50s who emerged from the East Coast doo-wop explosion taking place in New York and Philadelphia.

Having the Imperials for the first time at The Arcada a few years ago was another of those situations where I thought I knew all about the group, their hits and their stage show, but was actually blown away because I never realized just how many hits there were, and how dynamic their show could be. But after witnessing their show first hand, I could not believe how much their songs have influenced popular music, even today.

Their break out hit, “Tears On My Pillow,” was an immediate million-seller in 1958, with pioneer disc jockey-slash-concert promoter Alan Freed — the guy who is credited with coining the moniker “rock ‘n’ roll” — becoming a huge fan. Freed even renamed the group’s young, small-statured lead singer, Anthony Gourdine, as “Little Anthony,” and the rest is rock history.

Because of this relationship, the Imperials became one of the few African-American doo-wop recording groups to have its success continue into the 1960s.

They had another smash with their next release in 1960, “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop,” but then their popularity began to wane. Little Anthony tried his hand at a solo career, but that was a short-lived endeavor. It wasn’t long before he rejoined the group, and their popularity once again began to soar.

After Anthony returned to the group, they joined forces with a childhood friend, Teddy Randazzo. Randazzo was a vocalist and played the accordion in a group called the Chuckles (named after the candy), but he was also a powerful songwriter. His work got the attention of Freed, who was looking for a “face” of rock ‘n’ roll to appear in movies he was to produce.

“He (Randazzo) was an absolute Adonis, and had the look Alan Freed needed,” said George Randazzo, a close personal friend of mine who is the founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago and Teddy’s second cousin. “He was from New York, but came through Chicago on occasion. One time, he came over to the house to visit my father, and my mother made pasta and meatballs for him. All the girls in our neighborhood of Ohio Street and Leavitt were going out of their minds!”

So even though Teddy Randazzo starred in several Freed movies, including “Rock, Rock, Rock” and “Hey, Let’s Twist,” his true forte was in songwriting. He wrote “Goin’ Out Of My Head” and “Hurt So Bad,” and Little Anthony and the Imperials appeared on every television and radio show across the country. Randazzo passed away at the age of 68 in 2003.

In 2013, I first had Little Anthony & the Imperials at The Arcada. When Anthony walked into the theater, I nearly flipped! He still had that unique, youthful look about him, with that unmistakable smile. His speaking voice was as soft and higher pitched than his singing voice on the hit records. “Man, this is going to be good,” I thought to myself. And “good” was a massive understatement! Every song was as magical it was on the radio, and the band’s charm was infectious. The show was a bit of a stories-behind-the-songs presentation, and the crowd responded with two standing ovations.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Teddy Randazzo’s passing, I wanted to bring in a surprise for Little Anthony that night in 2013. I found out Teddy Randazzo Jr. was a singer/songwriter living in California. I brought him in as a “special guest,” and it was incredible. Anthony took one look at Teddy Jr. and knew it was him. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your father,” Anthony said, as he teared up and started reminiscing about those days on the busses, going from city to city, with Teddy.

I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to bring acts such as Little Anthony & the Imperials to The Arcada. They return this Sunday at 5 p.m., and I couldn’t be more excited! This show is a true rock ‘n’ roll history lesson, draped within classic music and an overall fun time. It doesn’t matter if you are a rock fan, a country fan, even an opera fan, THIS is a show you must experience if you are a music fan!

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email [email protected].