Lymon, Frankie 1942–1968
Frankie Lymon 1942–1968
Frankie Lymon’s short and tragic life took him from modest beginnings, to international stardom at the age of thirteen, to a long descent into the nightmare of drug addiction and an early death. He was the first African American teen heartthrob and inspired a host of other young musicians, such as Michael Jackson. Lymon’s career was born at the very beginning of the rock and roll era and the song with which he remains identified, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, is considered a classic. However, Lymon was an ill-fated pioneer who could not cope with his sudden fame and who spent the final years of his life battling drug addiction.
Lymon was born in Harlem on September 30, 1942. His father sang gospel music in a group called the Harlemaires, and Lymon became a talented singer of the street-corner harmony known as doo-wop. During the early 1950s, Lymon and his friends sang for donations on New York’s streets and Lymon’s distinctive, high-pitched voice led to the creation of a quartet known at various times as the Ermines, the Coupe de Villes, and the Premiers. The group was eventually dubbed the Teenagers and its other members, Sherman Games, Joe Negroni, Herman Santiago, and Jimmy Merchant, were all about a year or two older than Lymon.
In 1955, a chance encounter propelled Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to a higher level. Richard Barrett, a member of the successful vocal group, the Valentines, heard Lymon’s group performing on the street. The Valentines had recorded for Gee Records, a small independent label that had cashed in on the rapidly growing popularity of doo-wop music. Barrett brought Lymon and his group to the attention of the label’s executives. Upon hearing Lymon and the Teenagers perform, they rushed the group into the recording studio. The executives were particularly impressed with a song entitled “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and asked Lymon for the sheet music to the song. According to an account in Irwin Stambler’s Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, Lymon replied, “Nope, we don’t know anything about written-down music.”.
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” was released in January of 1956 and shared the upper levels of the charts with such luminaries as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. The song
At a Glance …
Career: Teenage vocal star; most noted for the song “Why Do Fools Fail in Love?”; sang with school friends in street-corner doo-wop harmony groups, early 1950s; joined group, the Coupe de Villes; group later renamed the Teenagers; recorded for Gee Records, 1955; released “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” 1956; appeared in films Rock Rock Rock and Mr, Rock and Roll, 1956–57; toured Britain with the Teenagers, 1957; left the Teenagers, 1957; entered drug rehabilitation program, 1961; reunited briefly with the Teenagers, 1965.
reached Number One on the R&B charts and Number Six on the pop charts. It became a hit in England as well, reaching Number One there. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” exemplified the best in doo-wop music, with its graceful vocal line from Lymon and its rhythmic and precise harmonies. Although the group is said to have worked to perfect some of their songs in rehearsals, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” coalesced spontaneously—Lymon filled in on lead vocals for the ailing Santiago, who had been scheduled to perform.
Despite competition from cover versions by white singers, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” topped the charts for several weeks. Gee Records crafted an innocent, old-fashioned image for Lymon and the Teenagers—they were often seen wearing collegiate-style school letter sweaters—and the song’s durability worked to prolong the group’s moment in the spotlight. They appeared in two movies, Rock Rock Rock (which included a song called “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” that hit both American and British charts) in 1956 and Mr. Rock and Roll in 1957. Their debut album, The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, included several other hit singles, such as “I Want You To Be My Girl,” “I Promise to Remember,” and “The ABCs of Love.”
Due to the success of their recordings in England, Lymon and the Teenagers were invited to tour the country and appeared at London’s famed Palladium. During this time, Lymon began to distance himself from the Teenagers. He recorded a solo single while in England, “Goody Goody,” which enjoyed moderate success. Lymon split from the group when they returned to the United States and attempted to launch a solo career. However, his distinctively youthful voice was changing and his popularity soon vanished. While the Teenagers struggled to survive with a succession of new lead vocalists, Lymon began experimenting with drugs and eventually entered a drug rehabilitation program at Manhattan’s General Hospital in 1961.
Lymon worked hard to resurrect his career. He took drumming lessons, and reunited briefly with the Teenagers in 1965. However, his attempts at a musical comeback continued to be overshadowed by his abuse of drugs. In 1964, he was arrested on drug charges. Lymon married Emira Eagle, a Georgia schoolteacher, in 1967 and it appeared that the marriage had offered Lymon another opportunity to get his life back on track. He began playing in small Southern clubs, and planned to embark on a European tour with other 1950s music stars. In February of 1968, Lymon departed for New York to make a quick publicity appearance. When his wife tried to contact him in New York, she was unsuccessful. On February 28th, Lymon was found dead of a heroin overdose in his grandmother’s Harlem apartment.
Following Lymon’s death, a bitter court battle ensued to determine ownership rights to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” All of the Teenagers filed suit and two of the members, Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant, eventually won the case. At the same time, two women who claimed to have been married to Lymon battled his widow, Emira, for rights to his estate. The court determined that Emira was the sole heir to Lymon’s fortune. Following resolution of the case, Emira Lymon’s attorney William McCracken told Ebony, “You could teach a class in domestic law on nothing but this case. It’s just been a battle royaie all the way.”
Despite Lymon’s troubled life and tragic death, the popularity of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” has not diminished. It is considered a rock and roll standard and many artists, including Diana Ross, have recorded versions of the song. The song also appeared on the soundtrack of George Lucas’s 1973 hit film American Graffiti. A host of doo-wop high tenors emulated Lymon throughout the 1950s, and the sweet-voiced male vocalists who recorded for Berry Gordy’s Motown label owed much to Lymon’s style. In 1993, the Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1998, Lymon’s life became the subject of a movie, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” which showcased both his years of stardom and the mysteries of his later life.
The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, Gee, 1957.
The Teenagers at the London Palladium, Gee, 1958.
Rock ’n’Roll Party with Frankie Lymon, Guest, 1959.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers: For Collectors Only, Murray Hill, 1987.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Other Hits, Rhino, 1989.
The Best of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Roulette, 1990.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers: Complete Recordings, Bear Family, 1994.
Erlewine, Michael, et al, eds., The All-Music Guide to Rock, Miller/Freeman, 1998.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze U.K., 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, eds., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Ebony, December 1998, p. 68.
—James M. Manheim