As lead vocalist with the Teenagers, Frankie Lymon (1942-1968) became the first black teenage singing idol. The group’s success inspired the formation of a number of youthful black vocal groups, from the Students in the late ’50s to the Jackson Five in the ’60s. The group’s sound influenced young singers such as Ronnie Bennett and Diana Ross, and served as prototype for both the girl groups and early Motown groups of the ’60s.
His wise-beyond-his-years vocal and performing abilities not only made the Teenagers a group several notches above the competition but made Lymon the first black teenage pop star. Though only together for a brief 18-month period, Lymon & the Teenagers exerted an enormous influence, spawning several “kid” vocal groups and providing initial inspiration to Berry Gordy to model his entire Motown production approach around Lymon’s original vocal style.
Formed in the Washington Heights section of New York, the half-black, half-Puerto Rican Teenagers began as an assemblage of schoolmates and neighbors practicing popular R&B in the hallways of their respective apartment buildings. A performance at Edward W. Stitt Junior High School got the attention of 12-year-old Frankie Lymon, there to play bongos in his brothers’ mambo band. His seemingly innocent falsetto was a perfect fit, and he was soon singing with the group — but not always as lead. They called themselves the Premiers and hoped some day to make a record.
An apartment neighbor gave the group some poems his girlfriend had written to him as letters — partly in an attempt to get them to practice something new. One poem was worked into a song called “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay,” and when a member of the doo-wop group The Valentines got the Teenagers an audition with the Rama label, it was further morphed into “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” featuring Lymon on lead. It was a smash, and the group followed up with hits like “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.”
Unfortunately, despite the squeaky-clean image of the group, they were no innocents — Harlem native Lymon had been a pimp at ten.
The Valentines were under contract to Rama Records owned by George Goldner. Barrett a talent scout for Goldner arranged an audition. Goldner was impressed. At subsequent recording sessions bandleader Jimmy Wright suggested a name change to the Teenagers to reflect the members ages.
Early February, 1956 “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was released. With Lymon on boyish soprano lead, the song became an instant smash on Gee Records. The song was subsequently covered by the Diamonds and Gale Storm, but unlike most songs rendered by white artists, the original proved to be the biggest hit. The Teenagers were on their way. Lymon was credited with writing this, their first big hit, However, in the early ’90s, a federal judge ruled after a lengthy trial that Lymon hadn’t written the song — another member of the Teenagers had.
Sporting a clean-cut wholesome image, the appeal of the Teenagers was their youth. On stage they were very energetic. The group was well choreographed by Cholly Atkins who would go onto greater fame with the Temptations. The Teenagers were packaged so as not to upset middle lass American parents. They even appeared in letter sweaters.
March, 1956 they were booked by Alan Freed in one of his rock and roll reviews at the Brooklyn Paramount. They appeared with the Platters and Bill Haley and His Comets. A second single “I Want You To Be My Girl” was released in April. A week later they appeared on CBS-TV’s Shower of Stars. By the end of April they were touring with “The Biggest Rock and Roll Show of 1956”
In August production was begun on a movie called Rock. Rock, Rock in which the Teenagers made a cameo appearance. In September they appeared on Alan Freed’s radio show. While headlining the Apollo “ABC’s of Love” was released. After that they went back to Hollywood to film a cameo for Don’t Knock the Rock. In late September they began a tour with Bill Haley that lasted until late November. In November their fifth single “Baby, Baby” was released and their first album Meet the Teenagers was released in December. The Teenagers were enrolled in the School for Professionals. and on the road they took correspondence courses and had traveling tutors. However, they were falling behind in their education and the group stayed at home the first of months of 1957. During this time “Paper Castles” was released.
After appearing in a carnival in Panama in March they began a three month tour of England beginning at the London Palladium. While in London, the Teenagers recorded a second album Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers at the London Palladium.
George Goldner had been trying to convince Lymon to go solo and after the success in Great Britain he agreed to do so. On Alan Freed’s weekly television show in July, Lymon appeared solo. “Goody Goody,” his the last record with the Teenager was released in July.
In September Lymon began an 80 day tour with the Biggest Show Stars for 1957 as a solo act. His first record without the Teenagers, “My Girl” was released.. In November Lymon’s “Little Girl” appeared on Roulette and the Teenagers “Flip-Flop” on Gee
January 1958 Lymon released “Thumb, Thumb” Lymon and the Teenagers reunited to sing “Goody Goody” on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand. In June he appeared with the Coasters at the Apollo Theater.
Losing his youthful soprano voice, at the age of fifteen Lymon’s career was in decline. After the initial success of the first two records sales had slipped with each release. “Goody, Goody” was the last record by Lymon or the Teenagers to have any significant sales.
Lymon had experimented with drugs since 1958. On June 21, 1966 he was arrested on a heroin charge. Lymon entered the army in lieu of a jail sentence but, received a less then honorable discharge a short time later. He moved to Fort Gordon, Georgia where he married a local school teacher Emira Eagle and stayed in the Augusta area appearing at a local lounge. In mid-February he told his wife he had a weekend job in New York. On February 27, 1968 he died in the same house he had grown up in with an empty syringe by his side.
As with most young performers of the era, the Teenagers lost rights to their material. Goldner’s publishing firm had handled the song, taking fifty percent off the top. Originally Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago and George Goldner were listed as “Why Do fools Fall In Love” composers. Santiago’s name was soon dropped and in the mid-sixties Lymon and Goldner sold off their rights to the song.
In 1984, on behalf of Emira Lymon, a lawyer and artist’s agent sued to wrest the copyright away from the current owner. The case became confused when it looked like Lymon had a second and possibly a third widow. Elizabeth Waters claimed to have married Lymon in 1964 in Virginia. However, it turned out she had been married to someone else at the time. As Water’s claim went to court, Zola Taylor ex-member of the Platters, claimed that she had been sexually active with Lymon as early as the “Biggest Rock “n” Roll Show of 1956″ tour. She claimed to have married Lymon in Tijuana about 1965, but could produce no certificate. The first hearing, held in Philadelphia, was decided in favor of Miss Waters being Lymon’s first wife. Emira appealed and won a reversal based on her claim that she was Lymon’s last wife.
Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant also pursued their claim to the songs rights in federal court. In December, 1992, the two singers and Emira Lymon, received complete rights to the song.
By 1980, Sherman Garnes (heart attack) and Joe Negroni (cerebral hemmrage) had both died when the remaining Teenagers decided to rebuild the group. Santiago and Merchant performed with Garnes’ brother, while the high tenor parts were handled by Pearl McKinnon of the Kodiaks, and later by Frankie’s brother, Lewis Lymon
Frankie Lymon has been called the “father” of the girl group sound. He was a direct influence on Arlene Smith of the Chantels, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and the Isley Brothers, all who recorded for George Goldner.