Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers
Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers—like Hansen, the New Kids on the Block, the Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder after them—all had smash pop music singles before they could legally drive. However, Frankie Lymon was, as Cub Koda stated in the All Music Guide, Volume 1, “the first black teenage star.” From the streets corners of Harlem to the London Palladium stage, Frankie Lymon and The Teeagers, as noted in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, were a doo-wop vocal group whose “saga... might be called a Cinderella story without a happy ending” as well as a song without an answer to this eternal question: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
In the 1950s, a sweet-sounding musical craze swept across America—doo wop. In 1955, one group, the Ermines—school friends Herman Santiago, Joe Negroni, Sherman Games, and Jimmy Merchant stood on West 165th Street in New York City and harmonized because, as Merchant said in the New Yorker, “It was a fad at the time to be a vocal group. It wasn’t just like roller skating. It was a higher-class fad—a quality fad. It tied in to being known, and getting girls.” Yet, it was not until another voice, the soprano boy voice of Frankie Lymo, joined the group that the Ermines, now renamed the Coupe de Villes, became more than a fad. Lymon, had already stepped into the public spotlight by singing with the Harlemaires, his father’s gospel group, but how Lymon joined the Coupe de Villes is unclear. One version suggested by reporter Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker, was that Lymon, passing the group on the street, overheard Santiago struggling to hit some high notes. Lymon, as Santiago told Trillin, who was “extremely talented and bright and very cocky,” just jumped in with his “gospel tenor—a high strong voice of remarkable clarity.”
By late 1955, the once Ermines and Coupe de Villes, changed their name again—to the Premiers. Richard Barrett, a member of another vocal group, the Valentines and a part-time record company employee, heard the Premiers singing “Lily Maebelle”—a Valentine’s hit—outside his bedroom window. Barrett liked what he heard and promised to praise the group to his boss, Gee Records producer/promoter George Goldner, if they would stop waking him up every morning. Goldner, awed by one song—“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”— asked Lymon, as quoted in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul, “You got any sheet music for it?” Lymon replied, “Nope, we don’t know anything about written-down music. This lack of “written-down music” knowledge would 30 years later create an intriguing court battle. However, on January 10, 1956, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” was released and as stated by Trillin in the New Yorker, “It was an instant, stupendous hit.”
Members includ Frankie Lymon (born September 30, 1942, died February 28, 1968, married Elizabeth Waters, Zola Tayor, and Emira Eagle, never divorced), soprano; Sherman Garnes (born June 8, 1940, died 1978), bass; Jimmy Merchant (born February 10, 1940), second tenor; Joe Negroni (born September 9, 1940, died 1978), baritone; Herman Santiago (born February 18, 1941), first tenor.
Group began as the Ermines, a New York street corner quartet in 1955; changed name to Coupe de Villes and added a new member, Frankie Lymon later that year; became the Premiers and recorded “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” 1956; released “Why do Fools Fall in Love,” under a new name: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers; starred in rock and roll radio disc jockey, Alan Freed’s rock concerts and movie, Rock, Rock, Rock singing, “Baby, Baby” and “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”; Lymon left group in late 1956 and failed at solo career while the Teenagers continued; Lymon died of a drug overdose, 1968; in the 1980s, Lymon’s three wives (whom he never divorced) sued and won lost royalties; Last two surviving Teenagers—Jimmy Merchant and Herman Santiagao—sued and won song writing credit and back royalties to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” 1993; released movie based on the group, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, 1998.
Awards: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1993.
With the success of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”—a gold record single—Frankie Lymon, at the age of 14, and The Teenagers, all under the age of 16, became pop music superstars. However, it was not just their smooth vocal harmonies that made them popular. In the 1950s, due to race discrimination, crossover success from the rhythm and blues charts to the pop charts by black recording artists was uncommon. Yet, as stated by Trillin in the New Yorker, “The Teenagers came in a squeaky-clean package—processed hair and the sort of clothes familiar from Hollywood campus movies of the forties, including letter sweaters.” And with their smash hit spending 16 weeks on the pop chart, Lymon and The Teenagers rode a wave of success onto Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark’s TV shows as well as onto rock ‘n roll deejay Alan Freed’s rock concerts and movies, such as Rock, Rock, Rock In that movie, Lymon and The Teenagers debuted two new, non-intimidating singles, “Baby, Baby, Baby” and “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.”
By the middle of 1956, four more singles from the group’s first album also hit the top ten: “I Promise to Remember,” “I Want You to be My Girl,” “I’m Not a Know-it-All,” and “Who Can Explain?” Trillin believed that, “the Teenagers were the model—the proof that a miracle could happen.” Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, five kids from the street corners of Harlem, played concerts at London, England’s Palladium theatre and cruised in luxury. Merchant told Trillin that “we [the group] were the first people to get out of long limousines with sneakers and jeans on.” Moreover, as Trillin further stated, the success of this vocal group was because “The Teenagers were not considered threatening to whites—probably because of Frankie, who came across as the sassy, pint-sized kid brother who would never grow up.”
Yet, the end of 1956, Lymon had grown up enough to catch a new wave—a solo wave. The Teenagers replaced Lymon but never again rode the high wave of success. Neither did Lymon, as quoted in People, “he [Lymon] got trapped in his child-like image”—but his voice had changed. Thus, Lymon was forced to lip-synch his hits at sock hops. Lymon also was not, as Jerry Blavat, a deejay, told Trillin, “the mischievous kid, whose idea of back stage entertainment was to hide Paul Anka’s shoes just before Anka had to be onstage”—Lymon had become a drug addict. Lymon, as quoted by People, admitted that the single, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” was far from autobiographical, “[I] … had been a pimp at age 10… [and] had been smoking marijuana when I was in grade school. But I didn’t start using [heroin] until I got into show business.” Lymon tried to get clean, but failed. As quoted in People, Lymon said, “I didn’t give a damn about drugs.”
However, Lymon despite a career cut short by his voice change and drugs, married three times—first, in 1964 to Elizabeth Waters, a woman with arrests for theft and prostitution; In 1965, to Zola Taylor, the Platters girl singer, and in 1967, after a brief stint in the Army to get out of jail time, to Emira Eagle, an elementary school teacher. In 1968, Lymon attempted a comeback and had been promised a singing job in New York. Yet, on February 28, 1968, Lymon was found dead on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. Lymon, only 25, had overdosed on heroin. Ten years later, two Teenagers— Garnes and Negroni also died—Garnes from a heart attack and Negronia from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Over the next 28 years, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, were a forgotten doo-wop quintet, however their hit single, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” was not. In 1973, the song was featured in the popular coming-of-age movie, American Graffiti, and in 1981, Diana Ross recorded her version of the song, and it once again became a Top 10 hit on the pop music charts. In 1984, George Goldner, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’ producer applied for an original copyright of the song to insure royalty money for Emira, Lymon’s third wife. However, two questions arose with this application—first, who was Lymon’s legal widow, and second, who wrote “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
Lymon’s three wives—Elizabeth Waters, Zola Taylor, and Emira Eagle—had never met. That fact changed in 1997, almost 30 years after Lymon’s death, when, at a Manhattan court house, the three women were called to testify. Because Lymon had never divorced Waters, Taylor, or Eagle, the question of who was Lymon’s legal widow had to be answered before any royalty money was awarded. Each woman had their own memories of Lymon. Waters, as quoted in the New Yorker, knew “Frankie at the time [in 1961] he was a very sad, lonely person.” Waters also stated that,” Frankie could fool you, he could fool me, Frankie could fool God.” However, Waters seemed to fool Lymon. In 1964, when Lymon and she were married, Waters was already married to someone else. Taylor, Lymon’s second wife, and the Platters girl singer, had dated Lymon when he was just 14, never produced a marriage license. Eagle, only married to Lymon for eight months, remembered, as quoted in People, that Frankie “treated me like I was his queen.”
The judge decided that only Waters, seeing that Lymon could not legally marry anyone else after marrying his first wife, and overlooking the fact that she was already married, named Waters Lymon’s legal widow. However, in 1990, this decision was overturned and Eagle was named Lymon’s new legal widow and therefore entitled to his estate of back royalties for “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” However, another question had to be answered before any money was awarded—who wrote that smash single?
In the early 1990s, another court battle began—this time to decide who were the true author’s of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” To answer this question, a time trip must be taken back through a maze of buyers and sellers (including Lymon himself). In 1956, the song’s registered copyright listed Lymon and The Teenager’s producer George Goldner as the hit song’s writers. However, as stated by Trillin in the New Yorker, it was a “common practice in the fifties for an R & B record producer to tell a group that he’d have to have a writing credit if it wanted its song recorded.” Richard Barrett, the man who brought Lymon and The Teenagers to the attention of Goldner further stated that, “we [doo-wop groups] had no idea of the value of a song then. We had no idea what the value of a copyright was. And they [record producers] weren’t going to tell any black people about that anyway.”
However, Goldner, after amassing too many gambling debts, left his partner, Morris Levy, with control of the copyright. In 1965, Lymon, by that time a heavy drug user, needed money. So he sold his rights to Levy for, as reported in the New Yorker, “a sum that was probably something like fifteen hundred dollars.” Thus, when “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” appeared in the 1973 movie, American Graffiti, and when Diana Ross covered the hit in 1981, only Levy received 100 per cent of the royalties. Yet, in the late 1980s, Jimmy Merchant and Henry Santiago—the last two surviving Teenagers— contested Levy’s claim. At the trial, as stated in People, “witnesses testified that Merchant and Santiago were 15-year-old street corner harmonizers who came up with the tune before Lymon joined them.” Merchant and Santiago also had, as reported in the New Yorker, an “interesting piece of evidence: the first 45-r.p.m. single of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” [which] listed as the song’s writers not just Frankie Lymon and George Goldner but also Herman Santiago.”
Furthermore, Santiago and Merchant stated in the New Yorker that the idea for the song came when they picked through a groupie’s letters to “get ideas, just to see what we could come up with…. That’s basically what we had the idea from.” Yet, another version of the song’s origin, as reported by Trillin, was that one of the groupie’s letters included a poem. That poem had “one of its [“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”] main lines: “Why do birds sing so gay?” [and] Santiago and Merchant… worked the sentiments of the letters into a song lyric and then Frankie Lymon helped with the tune.”
However, Lymon himself told three versions of how he wrote the song. The first version, as remembered by Emira Lymon in the New Yorker, said that Lymon “had written the song at twelve because he had fallen in love with a teacher and she told him that he was nothing but a kid, he was too young for her. And that is why he wrote ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’.” Another version, as cited in the New Yorker, was that the song was “inspired by Lymon’s seventh grade essay.” Yet, Elizabeth Waters, Lymon’s first wife, offered that the song was just “off the top of his [Lymon’s] head.” Finally, in 1992, over 30 years after “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” hit the charts, Santiago and Merchant, along with Frankie Lymon were named the writers of the song. Merchant told People, “Thirty-six years is a long, long, long time. But they [record producers] never really do get away with it.” However, this verdict was later overturned.
In the late 1990s, Santiago, Merchant, and Lymon’s brother Louis still performed as The Teenagers. Yet, it was in September of 1998, when Hollywood released Why Do Fools Fall in Love, a movie based on the life of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, that the group’s doo-wop sound and hit single rose again. However, the movie, as stated in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “missed its mark … and never notes Frankie’s voice changing… [nor how Frankie] lost his looks and charm.” Bobby Jay, the Teenagers current bassist, further commented that Lymon “was begging on the street. The drugs took a huge toll. He was missing teeth. He looked bad. It was tragic.”
Even though the movie misrepresented Lymon and The Teenagers life, it had reminded the public of their sweet-sounding melodies. Moreover, as stated in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame’s online biography of the group, “The song [“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”] has attained the status of a vocal-group classic owing to Lymon’s agile, ingenuous and utterly charming performance.” Thus, perhaps the saga of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers and the eternal question: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” was a fairy tale, albeit one without a happily-ever-after ending for Lymon—or as Santiago told People, “a natural superstar. There was nobody like Frankie.”
Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Gee Records, 1956.
At The London Palladium, 1956.
The Teenagers For Collectors Only [Box Set], Collectables Records, 1994.
The Very Best of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Wea/Atlantic/Rhino, 1998.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music Volume Three, L-Q, Mac-Millan Press Limited, 1986.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, & Soul, St. Martin’s Press, 1974.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 6, 1998, page 8.
New Yorker, February 25, 1991.
People, December 7, 1992; September 14, 1998.
“Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http:www.rockhall.com.
Additional information was provided by Music Boulevard Online Newsstand [Cub Koda’s short biography].
—Ann M. Schwalboski
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