Frankie Lymon: Why Do Fools Fall In Love?

Black vocal groups once sang for enjoyment on street-corners throughout ghettos in each of the big American cities. Late into the night they harmonised together, sublimating a frustration which exploded by day.

Zip-gun safely stored in the cistern, a Harlem teenager could leave his decaying tenement and join others for an acapella session in a dingy pool-hall or on a deserted subway platform. Street-corner talent-spotting became the normal way for a group to obtain a record contract. An audition from the guy who crossed the road to listen might mean gifts for all the folks and a shiny Cadillac. As groups proliferated the age at which they turned professional took a nosedive. They called themselves The Classmates, The Juniors, The Sixteens, establishing a solidarity between themselves and their audience. Many were too young to sign contracts and their parents, scarcely knowing what it was all about, signed for them. A million-seller or a string of dismal failures could follow. Either way, the group was soon back in the ghetto, tossed aside like an empty cigarette packet. The Teenagers made a greater impact than most but their case-history was typical of the era and their origins were not unusual.

Seventy per cent of America’s two million Puerto Ricans live in New York; long before the boogaloo, salsa and Spanish soul, teenage blacks and young Latinos had shared musical enthusiasms, particularly mambo and heavy doowop. Two Puerto Ricans, lead vocalist Herman Santiago (born 18th February 1941) and baritone Joe Negroni (born 9th September 1940), met up with Jimmy Merchant (born 10th February 1940), a tenor from South Bronx, and Sherman Garnes (born 8th June 1940), a bass singer from Washington Heights. This quarter, variously known as The Couple de Villes or The Premiers, exercised their vocal chords among the hallways of the drab, five-storey monoliths on 165th Street. They also attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High where Frankie Lymon first asked to sing with them.

Born in Washington Heights on 30th September 1942, Lymon was raised in a ramshackle apartment with half a dozen relatives including a sister and three brothers. Their father sang with The Harlemaires and encouraged his sons to sing in a junior gospel group of the same name. Louie, Timothy and Howie sang very much like Frankie and all three joined vocal groups – The Teenchords (on Fire, Juanita and Fury) The Fascinators (unissued demos) and The Lovenotes – in the wake of their brother’s success. Howie died of pneumonia before he could record and while Frankie learned to play bongos in a family mambo group he was quickly brutalised by his environment – hustling at six, working in grocery stores at ten and smoking reefers before he started grade school. In 1954 he encountered The Premiers who were practising their harmonies in the Stitt auditorium where Lymon also went to school. Richard Barrett, leader of The Valentines and talent scout for George Goldner’s Rama and Gee labels, heard the group’s rehearsals and took them to his employer, a one-time dance instructor who’d recorded Latin music prior to exploiting the teeming vocal talent on New York’s streets. Santiago switched to first tenor at the insistence of Goldner who preferred Lymon’s voice and in 1955 the group were taken to Manhattan’s Bell Sound studios to record ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’, a song of obscure authorship originally titled ‘Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?’. Merchant and Garnes invented the diverting bass introduction while Lymon came up with the melody.

‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ by The Teenagers, a name bestowed on them by the record’s saxophonist, Jimmy Wright, was held over until 10th January 1956 when its release coincided with the initial mass acceptance of rock’n’roll. Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Carl Perkins had their first top-twenty records; The Teenagers joined these stalwarts at the top of the ladder, remained in the Hot 100 for five months, topped the British hit parade (and the R&B charts) and sold two million copies throughout the world.

Lymon was snatched out of high school without a diploma and the group embarked on a continual whirlwind of TV dates, dee-jay hops and package tours. For a brief period, eighteen months at the most, it was impossible to live in America without hearing The Teenagers. ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ (no. 7), ‘I Want You To Be My Girl’ (no. 17), ‘I Promise To Remember’ – a cover of Jimmy Castor and the Juniors’ ‘I Promise’ (Wing 90078) which peaked at no. 57 – and ‘ABCs Of Love’ (no. 77) established a short-lived musical revolution. Barely influenced by the blues or Tin Pan Alley (none of the group was older than sixteen), they pioneered a fresh and distinctive variety of rock’n’roll, a boisterous sub-division of doowop less sophisticated than its predecessors. The kiddie-lead syndrome, with its juxtaposition of high tenor and dark brown bass, was instant fun. Anyone could do it and almost anyone did; Bim Bam Boom No. 12 lists over seventy groups who featured a black soprano voice on the threshold of puberty. Wordless noises (oom ba bah doom, bah bah doom, ba bah durb durb) assumed a poetry of their own while the lyrics, set in a high-school context, often descended into pre-natal goo:

The time went by so very slow
I wanted to see that girlie so
We had a Coke and furthermore
I carried her books up to the door
She said "I’ll see you later"
Then my heart skipped a beat
Chills ran from my spine to my feet
I kissed her under the moon above
And that was the start of a 
Teenage Love

‘I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent’, from the film Rock Rock Rock, broke the formula. Written by Bobby Spencer of The Cadillacs (he also wrote ‘My Boy Lollipop’), this twee and moralising slab of social comment failed to register in the States but reached the top dozen here. By then Spencer had sold his song to publisher Morris Levy who helped inaugurate Roulette records.

If The Teenagers’ sound was largely unsusceptible to successful white cover versions, the absence of these was no guarantee to economic survival; like most of their contemporaries, the group was ultimately destined for the reject pile. After seven singles – the A-sides of each are included here together with ‘Baby Baby’, another tune which bombed in the US but climbed to no. 4 on British charts – George Goldner promoted dissension by recording Lymon on his own or issuing records without crediting the group. His first solo hit, the horrendous ‘Goody Goody’ (no. 22 in 1957), was recorded during The Teenagers’ tour of England and it featured a home-grown vocal group under the direction of Bill Shepherd and Norrie Paramor. Much disgusted, The Teenagers recorded with new lead singers including Billy Lobrano who appeared on ‘Flip Flop’ (Gee 1046) and ‘Momma Wanna Rock’ (Roulette 4086). Despite further sides on End and Columbia (Leiber and Stoller’s western spoof ‘The Draw’) they returned to obscurity. Minus their internationally famous child prodigy, they’d no potential and very little work. Joe Negroni recorded with The Diablos on Jubilee in 1966 and, in the Seventies, The Teenagers re-grouped for rock-revival shows with Pearl McKinnon of The Kodoks imitating Lymon’s lead; following imprisonment and heart surgery, the bass singer Sherman Garnes died during 1977.

Roulette, who had absorbed George Goldner’s labels, persevered with Frankie Lymon but, as the barely recognisable vocal on ‘I Put The Bomp’ reveals, his voice had broken and he wasn’t a novelty anymore. Apart from ‘Thumb Thumb’ most of his solo singles were stamped "Not commercial", before they were in the shops. The Roulette album, Rock’n’Roll With Frankie Lymon, was, nonetheless, delicious and the best of its twelve tracks appear on side two. Mature and confident, he storms through ten classics of the Fifties previously popularised by Thurston Harris, The Hollywood Flames, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, The Rays, Little Junior Parker, Nat King Cole, Annie Laurie, The Coasters and Larry Williams (we’ve omitted his versions of ‘Diana’ and ‘Wake Up Little Susie’). As revivals go they’re just fine; compared to the adolescent doowop for which he’s generally best known, they’re plainly astounding. ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’, taken from the album, was a minor hit two years after it was recorded (no. 58 in 1960) but nothing else sold and Roulette chose not to renew his contract.

In 1961 Lymon was literally picked up out of the gutter and made to undergo a drug cure in Manhattan General Hospital. New managers, Bob Redcross and Sammy Bray, tried to reconstruct a career and, with guidance from Dizzy Gillespie, Lymon took dancing lessons, learned to sing in six languages and became a jazz drummer. His efforts, including solitary singles on Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia, went unnoticed. The world didn’t hear from Lymon again until 1964 when he was convicted on a narcotics charge. Now mainlining, the habit was costing him $75 a day. In February 1968 he was in the news again. With a recording session lined up, he flew into New York from Augusta, Georgia where he was stationed at Camp Gordon with the US Army. The following morning, 28th February, his body was discovered on the bathroom floor of his grandmother’s apartment. A syringe lay nearby and the West 153rd Street precinct confirmed that death had been caused by a heroin overdose. Thrice-married Frankie Lymon – an international celebrity commanding $5,000 a week at the age of 13 – was dead at 26. His last disc, ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Sea Breeze’ on Big Apple, was released posthumously.

This album, which includes many tracks generally unavailable for twenty years, is a belated memorial to both sides of a remarkably precocious talent.

© Bill Millar, 1972

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