Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Mar 19th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
Thirteen-year-old Frankie Lymon was working in a grocery store and singing in the Harlemaire Juniors, an offshoot of his father's gospel group, when he was invited to join a Harlem vocal group called the Premiers. The group, featuring two more black kids, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Garnes, and two Puerto Rican kids, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni, was writing a song based on love letters a neighbor had given them for songwriting inspiration. It was called, 'Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?'
Lymon helped rewrite the tune, renamed 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love.' As the story goes, Santiago, the lead singer, was late for an audition, so Lymon stepped in. The bubbly song's immediate success -- it hit No. 6 in the US and was No. 1 in the UK -- gave Lymon the starring role. They were now known as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
In an era still marked by segregation, the Teenagers were marketed as squeaky-clean youngsters. They dressed in letterman's sweaters and were choreographed by Cholly Atkins, who went on to give the Temptations their moves. Though their commercial success lasted barely more than a year, it was a wild ride. The group put five more songs in the R&B Top Ten, shared stages with the Platters and Bill Haley & His Comets and made cameos in teen movies like 'Don't Knock the Rock.' Their impact would outlast the group by a long shot: Berry Gordy reportedly based many of his Motown acts, including the Jackson 5, on the Teenagers' model. With his boyish soprano, Lymon has been called the "father of the girl groups," with Ronnie Spector citing him as a primary role model on the Ronettes' sound.
In the youth-obsessed 1950s, one of the group's more popular songs was called 'I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent.' "It's easy to be good, it's hard to be bad/Stay out of trouble and you'll be glad," Lymon sang, presumably while holding his nose. In reality, however, he knew his way around the streets. Already sleeping with women twice his age, he was using drugs by 1958, when his career began to slip, in part because he no longer had his trademark high voice. An appearance on Alan Freed's TV show 'The Big Beat' created a scandal when the singer danced with a white girl. When sponsors complained, the show was canceled.
Lymon's solo career was in trouble, and the remaining Teenagers struggled without him. Both acts were released by infamous record executive Morris Levy in 1961. Lymon joined the army (to escape a drug rap, by some accounts) but was given a dishonorable discharge after going AWOL. In 1968, trying to resurrect his career as a torch singer, he was on the verge of signing with Roulette Records. To celebrate, he scored some heroin. He was found dead on the floor of his grandmother's bathroom, victim of an overdose at age 25.
Two more Teenagers never made it to middle age. By the end of the 1970s, founding members Garnes and Negroni were dead, one by heart attack, the other a cerebral hemorrhage.
Meanwhile, Lymon's estate was embroiled in a prolonged legal battle. Three women, including onetime Platters singer Zola Taylor, all claimed a stake as Lymon's purported wives. Lymon's marital woes were depicted in a 1998 biopic starring Halle Berry. The title? 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love.'