September 30, 1942 –Franklin Joseph “Frankie” Lymon
Doo-Wop music is a genre of Rhythm and Blues that developed in the 1940s by young Black Americans in the large cities of the upper East Coast, especially New York city and Philadelphia. It features close vocal group harmony that carries the melodic line to a simple beat with little or no instrumentation. Lyrics are simple and ornamented with nonsense syllables, and often featuring, in the bridge, a heartfelt recitative addressed to a beloved. Doo-Wop had its apex in the late 1950s/early 1960s, but continues to influence performers in other genres to this day
Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers were five kids from Washington Heights, the neighborhood north of Harlem. The original lineup included three Black members, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Merchant, and Sherman Garnes; and two Puerto Ricans, Joe Negroni and Herman Santiago. In the evenings, they sang Doo-Wop at the corner of 165th and Amsterdam. They were discovered by Richie Barnett, lead singer of The Valentines while the boys were singing on a stoop. The Valentines were one of the most highly regarded Doo-Wop groups from the mid-1950s This was in 1956, and within weeks they had a recording contract and two months later they released their first record, Why Do Fools Fall In Love?, which went to the top of the national charts.
Seemingly overnight, Lymon was the hottest singer in America, soon to go out on a world tour. He was 13 years old and the first Black teenage pop star. He was adorable; a gap-toothed, angel-voiced epitome of showbiz ambition, and a camera-friendly example of the new American postwar youth movement. All this, even before his voice had changed. That voice and that style influenced the next generations of Rock, Soul and R&B artists.
His clear high tenor sounded like something out of Renaissance church music, and you can hear its influence in the sound of The Temptations, The Beach Boys and Earth, Wind & Fire. Diana Ross had a hit with a cover of Why Do Fools Fall in Love? 25 years after its release. Despite the urban myth, Motown impresario Berry Gordy didn’t mold The Jackson 5 on Frankie Lymon And the Teenagers, but they sure sound like it. Like Michael Jackson, Lymon grew up too fast in every imaginable way. Lymon told Ebony magazine in 1967:
”I never was a child, although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a ‘child star’. I was a man when I was 11 years old, doing everything that men do. In the neighborhood where I lived, there was no time to be a child. There were five children in my family and my folks had to scuffle to make ends meet. My father was a truck driver and my mother worked as a domestic in white folks’ homes. While kids my age were playing stickball and marbles, I was working in the corner grocery store carrying orders to help pay the rent.”
A few days before Frankie Lyman And The Teenagers recorded the song that made them famous, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Two years later, Lymon danced with a white girl on a national television show. The show was then canceled. But America was changing, and music was playing a major role in the upheaval of the norms.
In America, beginning in the 1930s, The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots popularized the intricate harmonies and rhythms that morphed into Rock ‘n’ Roll. Doo-Wop spring from that sound also, and groups popped up: The Five Satins, The Drifters, The Fleetwoods, The Moonglows, The Coasters, The Platters. In the 1950s, high school stairwells were filled with the sound of four-part acapella singing.
”We harmonized every night on the street corner until the neighbors would call the cops to run us away.”
Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers were different from those other groups because they had a star member. Lymon’s producers and managers decided that he‘d make more money as a solo act. He had another hit with Goody Goody, which had been recorded first by Ella Fitzgerald. He left behind his friends and his neighborhood, and then things started to go terribly wrong. The loss of his falsetto and the lack of hits sent him into a spiral of despair.
As any addict will tell you, chasing the feeling they got the first time they got high is what it is all about. But that first-time can never be recaptured; not with heroin or cigarettes or hit records. Lymon became a heroin addict at 15 years old. He got clean for a while, but then his mother died, and he fell hard. Heroin was everywhere in New York City by then, and city run methadone clinics were in neighborhoods in all five boroughs.
”I looked twice my age. I was thin as a shadow and I didn’t give a damn. My only concern was in getting relief. You know, an addict is the most pathetic creature on earth. He knows that every time he sticks a needle in his arm, he’s gambling with death and, yet, he’s got to have it. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with a spike. There’s always the danger that some peddler will sell him a poisoned batch. I was lucky. God must have been watching over me.’‘
By his late-teens, Lymon had already been married three times, each in quick succession, and there was confusion about the paperwork. He may have been married to more than one at a time, or not entirely married to one of the three. One of them may have still been married to someone else. In the 1980s, they all met in court, to settle Lymon’s estate and to find out who was entitled to songwriting royalties from the hits, especially Why Do Fools Fall in Love?. Emira Eagle, wife number three received an undisclosed settlement. In the 1998 film Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, Halle Barry, Lela Rochon and Vivica A. Fox play the three women claiming to be the legal wife of Lymon and heir to his recording royalties.
In 1955 Lymon was singing Why Do Fools Fall In Love? for Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium and touring around the world. A decade later, he was wearing an Army uniform as a private at Fort Gordon. Lymon:
”While growing up in New York City, I never had much discipline. As a child star, however, I was subjected to discipline from agents, managers and lawyers, but it was a discipline that protected me from myself so to speak. Army discipline, I think, teaches a man how to protect himself. It teaches him responsibility and how to stand on his own two feet. It makes him not only a good soldier, but a better individual. I know it’s been good for me.”
In 1966, and out of rehab at Manhattan General Hospital, Lymon appeared at a block party organized by a group of nuns at a Catholic settlement house in the Bronx. He told an audience of 2,000 teenagers:
”I have been born again. I’m not ashamed to let the public know I took the cure. Maybe my story will keep some other kid from going wrong.”
On a morning in February 1968, he was booked for a recording session to mark the start of his big comeback. Instead, he was found dead on his grandmother’s bathroom floor in Harlem. Lymon was just 25 years old.
Joni Mitchell performs Why Do Fools Fall In Love on her album Shadows and Light (1979).