Saturday, May 26, 2007

Frankie Lyman: A Musical Biography

Frankie Lymon: A Musical Biography

Frank Joseph "Frankie" Lymon (September 30, 1942 – February 27, 1968) was an African-American rock and roll//R&B singer, best known as the boy soprano lead singer of a New York City-based early rock and roll group called The Teenagers. The group included five boys, all in their early to mid teens. The original lineup of the Teenagers, an integrated group, included three African-American members, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Garnes, and two Puerto Rican members, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni.

Together for only eighteen months, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers are nonetheless renowned for being one of rock music's earliest successes, presented to international audiences by DJ Alan Freed. The group is also noted for being rock's first all-teenaged act. Their first single, 1956's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", was also their biggest. After Lymon went solo in mid-1957, both his career and those of the Teenagers fell into decline. Lymon eventually fell into heroin addiction, and died in 1968 at the age of twenty-five.


Early years: joining the Teenagers

Frankie Lymon was born in Harlem, New York to a truck driver father and a domestic mother. Lymon's father, Howard Lymon, also sang in a gospel group known as the Harlemaires; Frankie Lymon and his brothers Louis and Howie sung with the Harlemaire Juniors (a forth Lymon brother, Timmy, was also a singer, but not with the Harlemaire Juniors). The Lymon family struggled to make ends meet, and Lymon began working as a grocery boy at age ten, augmenting his legitimate income with proceeds gained from hustling prositutes.

At the age of twelve, Lymon joined a local doo-wop group known as The Teenagers. The Teenagers had their origins in The Earth Angels, a group founded at Edward W. Stitt Junior High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan by second tenor Jimmy Merchant and bass Sherman Gaines. Eventually, Gaines and Merchant had added lead singer Herman Santiago and baritone Joe Negroni to their lineup and evolved into The Coupe De Villes. Twelve-year-old Frankie Lymon heard the Coupe De Villes at a school talent show, and, befriending Santiago, eventually became a member of the group, now calling itself both The Ermines and The Premiers.

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love": fame and success

One day in 1955, a neighbor gave The Premiers several love letters that had been written to him by his girlfriend, with the hopes that he could give the boys inspiration to write their own songs. Merchant and Santiago adapted one of the letters into a song called "Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?" With Lymon's input, the song became "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". The Premiers, now calling themselves The Teenagers, got their first shot at fame after impressing Richard Barrett, a singer with The Valentines. Barrett in turn got the group an audition with record producer George Goldner. However, on the day of the group's audition, Santiago was sick, and Lymon led the Teenagers through "Why Do Fools Fall in Love".

Goldner signed the quintet to Gee Records, and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" became their first single in January 1956. The single peaked at number-three on the Billboard pop singles chart, and at number-one on the Billboard R&B singles chart. Several other R&B top ten singles followed over the next year, among them "I Want You To Be My Girl", "I Promise To Remember", "Who Can Explain?", "Out in the Cold Again", and "The ABC's of Love", although no other Teenagers single entered the pop chart. "I Am Not A Juvenile Delinquent" and "Baby Baby" were also popular Teenagers releases. With the release of "I Want You to Be My Girl", the group's second single, The Teenagers became Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. A long-playing album, The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, was issued in December 1956.

The group's success made Frankie Lymon the first black teen idol. In March 1956, the Teenagers began appearing with pioneering rock and roll DJ Alan Freed's rock-and-roll revues, performing alongside acts such as Little Richard, The Platters, and Bill Haley and His Comets. The group also appeared in two of Freed's early rock and roll films, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and Mister Rock and Roll (1957), and performed on Freed's radio and television programs. While touring with the Platters, Lymon befriended that group's sole female singer, Zola Taylor, whom he later began a romantic relationship with.

Going solo

In early 1957, Lymon and the Teenagers split apart while on a tour of Europe. During an engagement at the London Palladium, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, giving him solo spots in the show. Lymon began performing with backing from pre-recorded tapes. The group's latest singles, "Out In The Cold Again" and "Goody Goody", retained the Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers credit, but were actually solo recordings (with backing on "Goody, Goody" and its b-side by session singers). Lymon had officially departed from the group by September 1957; an in-progress studio album called Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers at the London Pallladium was instead issued as a Lymon solo release.

As a solo artist, Lymon was not a success. Beginning with his first solo release, "My Girl", Lymon was moved to Roulette Records. On a July 19, 1957 episode of Freed's live ABC TV show The Big Beat, Lymon began dancing with a white teenage girl while performing. His actions caused a scandal, particularly among Southern TV station owners, and The Big Beat was subsequently canceled.

Lymon's slowly tapering sales fell sharply after his voice changed and he lost his signature soprano voice. Adopting a falsetto, Lymon carried on. His highest charting solo hit was a cover of Thurston Harris' "Little Bitty Pretty One", which peaked at number 58 on the R&B charts in 1960. Having been addicted to heroin since age 16, Lymon fell further into his habit, and his performing career went into decline. In 1961, Roulette, now run by Morris Levy, ended their contract with Lymon and the singer entered a drug rehabilitation program.

After losing Lymon, the Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, the first of whom was Lymon's immediate successor Billy Lobrano. By 1959, Howard Kenny Bobo was the lead singer of the Teenagers; a year later, Johnny Houston was on lead. The Teenagers, who had been moved by Morris Levy onto End Records, were released from their contract in 1961. The Teenagers briefly reunited with Lymon in 1965, without success.

Later years and death

Over the next four years, Lymon struggled through short-lived deals with 20th Century Fox Records and Columbia Records. Lymon began a relationship with Elizabeth Waters, who became his first wife in January 1964. Lymon's marriage failed, and he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, where he began a romantic relationship with Zola Taylor. He appeared at the Apollo as part of a revue, adding an extended tap dance number. His final television performance was on Hollywood a Go-Go in 1965, where the then twenty-two year old singer lip-synched to the recording of his thirteen-year-old self singing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". Taylor claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico in 1965, although their relationship ended several months later because of Lymon's drug habits.

The same year, Lymon was drafted into the United States Army, and stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia near Augusta, Georgia for training. While in the Augusta area, Lymon met and fell in love with Elmira Eagle, a schoolteacher at Hornsby Elementary in Augusta. The two were wed in June 1967, and Lymon repeatedly went AWOL to secure club dates at small Southern clubs. Dishonorably discharged from the Army, Lymon moved into his wife's Augusta home and continued to perform sporadically.

Traveling to New York in 1968, manager Sam Bray signed Lymon to his Big Apple label, and the singer returned to recording. Roulette expressed interest in releasing Lymon's records in conjunction with Big Apple and scheduled a recording session for February 28. Lymon, staying at his grandmother's house in Harlem where he had grown up, celebrated his good fortune by taking heroin -- he had remained clean ever since entering the Army three years prior. On February 27, 1968, Lymon was found dead from a heroin overdose. He was twenty-five years old. He was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx in New York. "I'm Sorry" and "Seabreeze", the two sides Lymon had recorded for Big Apple before his death, were released later in the year.

By 1973, the Teenagers had resorted to using a female singer to imitate Lymon's prepubescent voice; the last of their lead singers was Pearl McKinnon. The Teenagers disbanded in 1973. Sherman Garnes died of a heart attack in 1977, while Joe Negroni passed away a year later due to a cerebral hemorrhage. Santiago and Merchant have carried on since, touring at various times with three other performers as The Teenagers.

Legal issues

Lymon's troubles did not end with his death. After R&B singer Diana Ross returned "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" to the Top Ten in 1981, a major controversy concerning Lymon's estate ensued. Zola Taylor, Elizabeth Waters, and Elmira Eagle each approached Morris Levy, who retained possession of Lymon's copyrights and his royalties, claiming to be Lymon's rightful widow - Lymon had neglected to divorce both Taylor and Waters. The complex issue resulted in lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, and in 1986, the first of several court cases concerning the ownership of Lymon's estate began.

Trying to determine who was indeed the lawful Mrs. Frankie Lymon was complicated by more issues. Waters was already married when she married Lymon; she had separated from her first husband, but their divorce was finalized in 1965, after she had married Lymon. Taylor claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico in 1965, but could produce no acceptable evidence of their union. Lymon's marriage to Eagle, on the other hand, was properly documented as having taken place at the Beulah Grove Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia in 1967; however, the singer was still apparently twice-married and never divorced when he married Eagle. The first decision was made in Waters' favor; Eagle appealed, and in 1990, the New York State Supreme Court reversed the original decision and awarded Eagle Lymon's estate.

However, the details of the case brought about another issue: whether Morris Levy was deserving of the co-credit on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". Although early vinyl single releases of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" credit Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, and Jimmy Merchant as co-writers of the song, later releases and cover versions were attributed to Lymon and George Goldner. When Goldner sold his music companies to Morris Levy in 1959, Levy's name began appearing as co-writer of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in place of Goldner's. Lymon was never paid his songwriters' royalties during his lifetime; one result of Elmira Eagle's legal victory was that Lymon's estate would finally begin receiving monetary compensation from his hit song's success. In 1987, Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant, both then poor, sued Morris Levy for their songwriters' credits.

In December 1992, the United States federal courts ruled that Santiago and Merchant were co-authors of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". However, in 1996 the ruling was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on the basis of the statute of limitations: copyright cases must be brought before a court within three years of the alleged civil violation, and Merchant and Santiago's lawsuit was not filed until 30 years later. Authorship of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" currently remains in the names of Frankie Lymon and Morris Levy.


Although their period of success was brief, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' string of hits were highly influential on the rock and R&B performers who followed them. Lymon's high-voiced sound is said to be a direct predecessor of the girl group sound, and the list of performers who name him as an influence include Ronnie Spector, The Chantels, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and Len Barry, among others. The performers most inspired by and derivative of Lymon and the Teenagers' style are The Jackson 5 and its lead singer and future superstar Michael Jackson. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. based much of the Jackson 5's sound on Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' recordings, and the Teenagers are believed to be the original model for many of the other Motown groups he cultivated.

Lymon's music and story were re-introduced to modern audiences with Why Do Fools Fall in Love, a 1998 biographical film directed by Gregory Nava, also the director of the Selena biopic. Why Do Fools Fall in Love tells a comedic, fictionalized version of Lymon's story from the points of view of his three wives as they battle in court for the rights to his estate. The film stars Larenz Tate as Frankie Lymon, Halle Berry as Zola Taylor, Vivica A. Fox as Elizabeth Waters, and Lela Rochon as Elmira Eagle. Why Do Fools Fall in Love was not a commercial success: although it met with mixed reviews, the film grossed a total of $12,461,773 during its original theatrical run.

Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.

Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers discography

Gee releases
1956: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" / "Please Be Mine" 1
1956: "I Want You To Be My Girl" / "I'm Not A Know It All" 2
1956: "I Promise To Remember" / "Who Can Explain"
1956: "The ABC's Of Love" / "Share"
1956: "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent" / "Baby, Baby"
1957: "Paper Castles" / "Teenage Love"
1957: "Out In The Cold Again" / "Miracle In The Rain" 1
1957: "Goody Goody" / "Creation Of Love" 3

1 Released as by "The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon"
2 Early copies released as by "The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon"; billing on later pressings changed to "Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers"
3 Both sides of these releases are actually Frankie Lymon solo recordings.

1956: The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon

Frankie Lymon solo discography

Roulette releases
1957: "My Girl" / "So Goes My Love"
1957: "Little Girl" / "It's Christmas Once Again"
1958: "Thumb Thumb" / "Footsteps"
1958: "Portable On My Shoulder" / "Mama Don't Allow It" — 4/58
1958: "Only Way To Love" / "Melinda"
1959: "Up Jumped A Rabbit" / "No Matter What You've Done"
1959: "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" /" Before I Fall Asleep"
Gee release
1959: "Goody Good Girl" / "I'm Not Too Young To Dream"
Roulette releases
1960: "Little Bitty Pretty One" / "Creation Of Love"
1960: "Buzz Buzz Buzz" / "Waitin' In School"
1961: "Jailhouse Rock" / "Silhouettes"
1961: "Change Partners" /" So Young (And So In Love)"
1961: "Young" / "I Put The Bomp"
Later releases
1964: "To Each His Own" / "Teacher, Teacher" (20th Century Fox)
1964: "Somewhere" / "Sweet And Lovely" (Columbia)
1968: "I'm Sorry" / "Seabreeze" (Big Apple)

1957: Frankie Lymon at the London Palladium
1958: Rock & Roll with Frankie Lymon

The Teenagers discography (without Lymon)
1957: "Flip-Flop" / "Everything To Me" (Gee)
1958: "My Broken Heart" / "Momma Wanna Rock" (Roulette)
1960: "Crying" / "Tonight's The Night" (End)
1960: "Can You Tell Me?" / "A Little Wiser Now" (End)
1961: "What's On Your Mind?" / "The Draw" (Joey & the Teenagers, Columbia)

Fotenot, Robert. "Profile: Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers."
Fotenot, Robert. "Profile: Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers."
Koda, Cub. "Frankie Lymon". All Music Guide. Retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
Quebec, Michael (May 2002). "Alan Freed". Retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
Bennett, Joy. "The Real Story of Why Do Fools Fall in Love"
Goldberg, Marc. "Marc Goldberg's R&B Notebook: The Teenagers".
Bennett, Joy. "The Real Story of Why Do Fools Fall in Love"
Bennett, Joy. "The Real Story of Why Do Fools Fall in Love" The 1998 Frankie Lymon biographical film colludes with a post-script comical note, stating that Elmira Eagle (now legally Elmira Eagle-Lymon) received only $15,000 from winning Lymon's estate, after legal and other expenses were paid off. An excerpt from this article states otherwise: "A major discrepancy in the movie left the impression that [Elmira Eagle-Lymon] only received a $15,000 settlement. After Diana Ross re-recorded Frankie's song, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," his estate was worth more than $1 million. Attorney [William] McCracken confirms that 'the settlement was well over seven figures.'"
Jimmy Merchant and Herman Santiago v. Morris Levy, Big Seven Music Corp, and Roulette Records, Inc. Appeal decided August 7, 1996. Text available from
Peneny, D.K. (1998). "Frankie Lymon".
Williams, Otis and Romanowski, Patricia (1988, 2002). Temptations [2nd edition]. New York: Cooper Square Press. Pg. 120-21
Koda, Cub. "Frankie Lymon". All Music Guide. Retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
Koda, Cub. "Frankie Lymon". All Music Guide.
Fotenot, Robert. "Profile: Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers."
Reviews weighed on give Why Do Fools Fall in Love a rating of 55%. See
Box Office Mojo entry for Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Retrieved from on November 19, 2006.

Bennett, Joy (December 1998). "The Real Story of Why Do Fools Fall in Love - entertainer Frankie Lymon and his widow Emira Lymon". Ebony magazine. Electronic version retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
"Doo Wop: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers." The Entertainers We Love. Retreived from on November 19, 2006.
Fotentot, Robert. "Profile: Frankie Lymon & the Teenager." Retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
Goldberg, Marc (2001). "Marc Goldberg's R&B Notebook: The Teenagers". Retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
Grossman, Wendy (Sept 3, 1998). "Widow of singer claims film phony." Augusta CHronicle. Electronic version retrieved from on November 19, 2006.
Nava, Gregory, Andrews, Tina, and Hall, Paul (1998). Audio commentary track from Why Do Fools Fall in Love [DVD release]. Los Angeles: Warner Bros.
Peneny, D.K. (1998). "Frankie Lymon". Retrieved from on November 19, 2006. Gernishia Taum and Frankie got married on
2/12/1952, They had five kids: Terry, Marj Sue, May, and katie.

1 comment:

John Ask said...

Hat's Off to Frankie, Alan Freed, The Teenagers, Motown.

To hell with the wives, heroin, prejudice, and Phil Spector. John Ask Texas