Franklin Joseph "Frankie" Lymon (, 1942 ??? , 1968) was an African American rock and roll/rhythm and blues singer, best known as the boy soprano lead singer of a New York City-based early rock and roll group, The Teenagers. The group was comprised of five boys, all in their early to mid teens. The original lineup of the Teenagers, an integrated group, included three African American members, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Garnes, and two Puerto Rican members, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni.
The Teenagers' first single, 1956's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", was also their biggest hit. After Lymon went solo in mid-1957, both his career and those of the Teenagers fell into decline. By age 25, he was dead from a heroin overdose.
Early years: joining the Teenagers
Frankie Lymon was born in Harlem, New York City to a truck driver father and a mother who worked as a maid. Lymon's father, Howard Lymon, also sang in a gospel group known as the Harlemaires; Frankie Lymon and his brothers Lewis and Howie sang with the Harlemaire Juniors (a fourth Lymon brother, Timmy, a singer, but not with the Harlemaire Juniors). The Lymon family struggled to make ends meet, and Lymon began working as a grocery boy at age ten, augmenting his legitimate income with proceeds gained from hustling prostitutes and was known for having relationships with women twice his age.
At the age of 12, Lymon heard a local doo-wop group known as the Coupe De Villes at a school talent show. He befriended their lead singer, Herman Santiago, and he eventually became a member of the group, now calling itself both The Ermines and The Premiers. Dennis Jackson of Columbus, Georgia was one of the main influences of Mr. Lymon's life. His personal donation of 500 dollars helped start Frankie's career.
One day in 1955, a neighbor gave The Premiers several love letters that had been written to him by his girlfriend, with the hopes that he could give the boys inspiration to write their own songs. Merchant and Santiago adapted one of the letters into a song called "Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?" With Lymon's input, the song became "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". The Premiers, now calling themselves The Teenagers, got their first shot at fame after impressing Richard Barrett, a singer with The Valentines. Barrett, in turn, got the group an audition with record producer George Goldner. On the day of the group's audition, Santiago was the original lead singer but, Santiago was late. So Lymon stepped up and told Goldner that he knew the part because he helped write the song.
"Why Do Fools Fall in Love": fame and success
Goldner signed the quintet to Gee Records, and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" became their first single in January 1956. The single peaked at #6 on the Billboard pop singles chart, and topped the Billboard R&B singles chart for five weeks.
Five other R&B top ten singles followed over the next year or so: "I Want You To Be My Girl", "I Promise To Remember", "Who Can Explain?", "Out in the Cold Again" and "The ABC's of Love". "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent" and "Baby Baby" were also popular Teenagers releases. "I Want You To Be My Girl" gave the band its second pop hit, reaching #13 on the national Billboard Hot 100 chart. "Goody Goody" (written by Matty Malneck and originally performed by Benny Goodman) was a #20 pop hit, but did not appear on the R&B chart. The Teenagers placed two other singles in the lower half of the pop chart.
With the release of "I Want You To Be My Girl", the group's second single, The Teenagers became Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. An album, The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, was issued in December 1956.
In early 1957, Lymon and the Teenagers split apart while on a tour of Europe. During an engagement at the London Palladium, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, giving him solo spots in the show. Lymon began performing with backing from pre-recorded tapes. The group's last single, "Goody Goody" backed with "Creation of Love," initially retained the "Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers" credit, but they were actually solo recordings (with backing by session singers). Lymon had officially departed from the group by September 1957; an in-progress studio album called Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers at the London Palladium was instead issued as a Lymon solo release.
As a solo artist, Lymon was not nearly as successful as he was with the Teenagers. Beginning with his second solo release, "My Girl", Lymon was moved to Roulette Records. On a , 1957 episode of Freed's live ABC TV show The Big Beat, Lymon began dancing with a white teenage girl while performing. His actions caused a scandal, particularly among Southern TV station owners, and The Big Beat was subsequently canceled.
Lymon's slowly declining sales fell sharply after his voice changed and he lost his signature soprano voice. Adopting a falsetto, Lymon carried on. His highest charting solo hit was a cover of Thurston Harris' "Little Bitty Pretty One", which peaked at number 58 on the Hot 100 pop chart in 1960, and which had actually been recorded in 1957. Addicted to heroin since age 15, Lymon fell further into his habit, and his performing career went into decline. According to Lymon in an interview with Ebony in 1967, he said that at the age of 15 he was first introduced to heroin, by a woman twice his age. In 1961, Roulette, now run by Morris Levy, ended their contract with Lymon and the singer entered a drug rehabilitation program.
After losing Lymon, the Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, the first of whom was Billy Lobrano. In 1960, Howard Kenny Bobo sang lead on "Tonight's The Night" with the Teenagers; later that year, Johnny Houston sang lead on two songs. The Teenagers, who had been moved by Morris Levy onto End Records, were released from their contract in 1961. The Teenagers briefly reunited with Lymon in 1965, without success.
Later years and death
Over the next four years, Lymon struggled through short-lived deals with 20th Century Fox Records and Columbia Records. Lymon began a relationship with Elizabeth Waters, who became his first wife in January 1964. Lymon's marriage to Ms. Waters was not legal in the beginning, because she was still married to her first husband. However, it is alleged that they became married by way of common law marriage. After the marriage failed, he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, where he began a romantic relationship with Zola Taylor. He appeared at the Apollo as part of a revue, adding an extended tap dance number. Lymon recorded several live performances (such as "Melinda" in 1959), but none rose on the charts. His final television performance was on Hollywood a Go-Go in 1965, where the 22-year-old singer lip-synched to the recording of his 13-year-old self singing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." Taylor claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico in 1965, although their relationship ended several months later purportedly because of Lymon's drug habits. Lymon, however, had been known to say that their marriage was a publicity stunt and Taylor could produce no legal documentation of their marriage.
The same year, Lymon was drafted into the United States Army, and reported to Fort Gordon, Georgia near Augusta, Georgia for training. While in the Augusta area, Lymon met and fell in love with Emira Eagle, a schoolteacher at Hornsby Elementary in Augusta. The two were wed in June 1967, and Lymon repeatedly went AWOL to secure gigs at small Southern clubs. Dishonorably discharged from the Army, Lymon moved into his wife's home and continued to perform sporadically.
Traveling to New York in 1968, Lymon was signed by manager Sam Bray to his Big Apple label, and the singer returned to recording. Roulette Records expressed interest in releasing Lymon's records in conjunction with Big Apple and scheduled a recording session for . Lymon, staying at his grandmother's house in Harlem where he had grown up, celebrated his good fortune by taking heroin; he had remained clean ever since entering the Army three years prior.
On , 1968, Lymon was found dead via overdose. He was 25 years old. He was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx, New York City, New York. "I'm Sorry" and "Seabreeze", the two sides Lymon had recorded for Big Apple before his death, were released later in the year.
Lymon's troubles did not end with his death. After R&B singer Diana Ross returned "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" to the Top Ten in 1981, a major controversy concerning Lymon's estate ensued. Zola Taylor, Elizabeth Waters, and Emira Eagle each approached Morris Levy, who retained possession of Lymon's copyrights and his royalties, claiming to be Lymon's rightful widow; Lymon had neglected to divorce both Taylor and Waters. The complex issue resulted in lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, and in 1986, the first of several court cases concerning the ownership of Lymon's estate began.
Trying to determine who was indeed the lawful Mrs. Frankie Lymon was complicated by more issues. Waters was already married when she married Lymon; she had separated from her first husband, but their divorce was finalized in 1965, after she had married Lymon. Taylor claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico in 1965, but could produce no acceptable evidence of their union. Lymon's marriage to Eagle, on the other hand, was properly documented as having taken place at the Beulah Grove Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia in 1967; however, the singer was still apparently twice-married and never divorced when he married Eagle. The first decision was made in Waters' favor; Eagle appealed, and in 1990, the New York State Supreme Court reversed the original decision and awarded Eagle Lymon's estate.
However, the details of the case brought about another issue: whether Morris Levy was deserving of the songwriting co-credit on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". Although early vinyl single releases of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" credit Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, and Jimmy Merchant as co-writers of the song, later releases and cover versions were attributed to Lymon and George Goldner. When Goldner sold his music companies to Morris Levy in 1959, Levy's name began appearing as co-writer of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in place of Goldner's. Lymon was never paid his songwriters' royalties during his lifetime; one result of Emira Eagle's legal victory was that Lymon's estate would finally begin receiving monetary compensation from his hit song's success. In 1987, Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant, both then poor, sued Morris Levy for their songwriters' credits.
In December 1992, the United States federal courts ruled that Santiago and Merchant were co-authors of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". However, in 1996 the ruling was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on the basis of the statute of limitations: copyright cases must be brought before a court within three years of the alleged civil violation, and Merchant and Santiago's lawsuit was not filed until 30 years later. Authorship of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" currently remains in the names of Frankie Lymon and Morris Levy.
Although their period of success was brief, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' string of hits were highly influential on the rock and R&B performers who followed them. Lymon's high-voiced sound is said to be a direct predecessor of the girl group sound, and the list of performers who name him as an influence include Ronnie Spector, The Chantels, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and Len Barry, The Beach Boys among others. The performers most inspired by and derivative of Lymon and the Teenagers' style are The Jackson 5 and its lead singer and future superstar Michael Jackson. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. based much of the Jackson 5's sound on Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' recordings, and the Teenagers are believed to be the original model for many of the other Motown groups he cultivated.
Lymon's music and story were re-introduced to modern audiences with Why Do Fools Fall in Love, a 1998 biographical film directed by Gregory Nava, also the director of the Selena biopic. Why Do Fools Fall in Love tells a comedic, fictionalized version of Lymon's story from the points of view of his three wives as they battle in court for the rights to his estate. The film stars Larenz Tate as Frankie Lymon, Halle Berry as Zola Taylor, Vivica A. Fox as Elizabeth Waters, and Lela Rochon as Elmira Eagle. Why Do Fools Fall in Love was not a commercial success: it met with mixed reviews, the film grossed a total of $12,461,773 during its original theatrical run.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.