The startling story of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers by Spencer Leigh
2.NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO
The development of doo-wop music was largely in the poorer parts of the biggest American cities and the greatest concentration of groups was in New York. Franklin Joseph Lymon was born in the right place at the right time – in Washington Heights, New York on 30 September 1942. His father drove a truck and sang gospel locally with the Harlemaires. In time, three of his sons, Frankie, Lewis and Howie would sing as the Harlemaires Jr. In all, there were four sons and one daughter, but if you listen to the interview with Frankie Lymon with Red Robinson in Vancouver in September1957, he is unsure of the size of his family. I’d put that down to tiredness, but that in itself is telling: was this boy being worked too hard?
His mother worked as a cleaner in some white homes. From the age of 10, Frankie was working part-time at a grocery store, the Bodega, helping shoppers to carry their groceries home. Some of them were local prostitutes who placed their visiting cards in shop windows. They soon realised that this was a streetwise kid and so Frankie was finding clients for them, especially white men who were looking for black girls. In 1967, he told Ebony magazine: “Sometimes they’d pay me off with something extra. I learned everything there was to know about women before I was 12 years old.”
Frankie spent some of his earnings on drugs, only marijuana at this stage but of course a 12-year-old shouldn’t be smoking grass. He liked listening to the radio and the way that Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and Little Jimmy Scott phrased and sang their songs was soaking into his skin.
Frankie’s school, Stitt Junior High, encouraged extra-curricular activities, albeit not of the sort I’ve been describing. At Stitt Junior High, Frankie played bongos with his brother Howie on congas in a mambo band. He made his TV debut performing with Jimmy Marchant and Sherman Garnes as the Premiers on a talent show, Spotlight on Harlem. With the addition of two Puerto- Ricans, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni, the Premiers became multi-racial with Lymon – the youngest by two years – restricted to harmonies and occasional lead. He sang lead on their own song, ‘I Want You To Be My Girl’.
In true doo-wop fashion, the Premiers had been singing in stairwells and alley-ways. Another teenager Richard White asked them to set a poem by his girlfriend Dolores to music. The title line was “Why do birds sing so gay” and this was to develop into ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ Or, at least, that’s one of the stories. As neither Richard nor Dolores ever came forward to claim royalties, it is probably fiction.
Some local groups were having success and one of the most promising was the Valentines. They had recorded for Old Town, which was run by Hy Weiss, and then Rama, owned by George Goldner, operating from Times Square. One of their singers, Richie Barrett, was a decent songwriter and although they weren’t having hits, ‘Lily Maebelle’ and ‘The Woo Woo Train’, were fun records with a local following. Audiences would cheer when the Valentines came on stage in a line, making train sounds and singing ‘The Woo Woo Train’. The song’s opening could have inspired the theme music for 6.5 Special and “There goes the train moving down the line” must have influenced the Drifters’ ‘There Goes My Baby’. The group would rehearse at night in Stitt Junior High.
Richie Barrett lived in an apartment over the Bodega and the Premiers auditioned by singing underneath his window. He was amused by Herman singing R&B with a Spanish accent and he thought they had potential. Hy Weiss at Old Town wasn’t interested – he was overrun with groups and couldn’t take any more. Barrett tried to impress Bobby Robinson at Red Robin but Robinson was stuck at the New Jersey Turnpike and didn’t arrive, so he took them to George Goldner instead. They were singing current successes like ‘You Painted Pictures’ (Spaniels), ‘Why Don’t You Write Me’ (Jacks), ‘That’s What You’re Doing To Me’ (Dominoes and Capris) and ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (Spaniels) and Goldner told them he needed something original. He liked ‘I Want You To Be My Baby’ and ‘Please Be Mine’ and wanted more. Barrett was to supervise them and they would record in a couple of months, if all went well.
Goldner placed them with his new Gee label, which had been named after his crossover hit, ‘Gee’ by the Crows or possibly after himself. Goldner recorded Latin music and so he might have gone with Herman’s lead vocals but he realised that Frankie was sensational and he could see the potential of ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’. They had a new name, the Coupe de Villes, and they were backed by Jimmy Wright’s band and, as on ‘The Woo Woo Train’, Wright enhanced the record with his saxophone. When Goldner was telling the singers not to mess up the takes, Wright said, “Why don’t you leave those teenagers alone?” and so the Coupe de Villes were renamed the Teenagers.
Backed by an anguished ballad, ‘Please Be Mine’ with straightforward background harmonies, ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ was released in December 1955. The single credited to “The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon”, but within a few months, Lymon had top billing.
So who wrote the song? Judging by court evidence some 30 years later, the credit should have gone to Jimmy Merchant and Herman Santiago. George Goldner, sensing a hit, wanted a piece of the action and for some unknown reason, he dropped Merchant and added Lymon, this making the credit on the original pressing of the single, Lymon-Santiago-Goldner. However, when he registered the song’s copyright with the Library of Congress, he simply gave the names Lymon and Goldner. If he had been a complete thief instead of a 50% one, it is possible that a court order could have removed Goldner’s credit and put the song into public domain where nobody would have benefited.
When the group went to Hollywood for a live coast-to-coast appearance on Frankie Laine’s TV show, Laine asked Frankie about writing ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, but I think this is show-biz banter rather than a claim for authorship. Lymon tells Laine that the song was easy to write as he had been falling in love since he was five, clearly a scripted joke.
Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes loved the song but she wasn’t sure about its origins. “Frankie Lymon lived in Harlem and he was singing ‘Why do birds sing so gay?’ which surprised me. Had he really written that? You have to live in the country to think like that as we didn’t have birds in Harlem.” Similarly, would a 13-year-old, no matter how worldly-wise, come up with the line that “love is a losing game”?
The Billboard reviewer wrote, “The appealing ditty has a frantic arrangement, a solid beat and a sock lead vocal by 13-year-old Frankie Lymon.” This was the first time that a doo-wop record had been marketed so successfully to teenagers. Smokey Robinson summarised its appeal: “The blues is torment or some degrading kind of thing. Kids weren’t ready for that. I liked Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson – the plush pop singers whose music wasn’t hardcore blues.” It was a very commercial pop song, hence the cover versions.
Despite competition from heavily promoted cover versions, the single reached No.7 in the States and topped the R&B chart, selling two million copies in a matter of weeks. The other versions on the Hot 100 came from Gale Storm (9), the Diamonds (12) and Gloria Mann (59). How could the Diamonds, who were to sound so good on ‘Little Darlin’’, sound so insipid on ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’?
The EMI ad for the single’s UK release said that it was a record “for teenagers about teenagers”. Not that the New Musical Express was impressed. Its reviewer said, “Regretfully, this effort must be an inspiration to all writers of rubbish.”
Still, it was the first record to be purchased by Cilla Black. She said, “Frankie Lymon’s voice hadn’t broken so it was the nearest thing out there to my own vocals. In those days there weren’t many female pop singers.” Well, she could have bought Alma Cogan’s cover version which made No.22. Other local covers from Marion Ryan and the Big Ben Accordion Band missed out completely.
It would seem though that girl singers, like Cilla, were taken with Frankie’s voice. Ronnie Spector paid tribute to him at Glastonbury in 2016 and she has said, “I loved Frankie Lymon’s diction. I was a year younger than him. I was going through puberty and my hands would sweat and my toes would curl when I heard the record as it was a very sexy voice. I would play his records and try to sing and dance like him.” Diana Ross of the Supremes agreed, “Since I had such a high sound, we’d always pick singers to imitate like Frankie Lymon.”
The first rock’n’roll show proper for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers was at the Riviera Theatre, Detroit with the Jewels on 20 February 1956. They did okay but lacked stagecraft and moved onto the Hartford State Theatre to appear with Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and the Cadillacs in front of 4,000 fans. There Earl Wade of the Cadillacs recommended Cholly Atkins, a vaudeville performer who had helped the Cadillacs.
Cholly saw how agile they were and that both Herman and Frankie could do the splits. He built up a highly watchable act with interchange between the members, but concentrating on Frankie. The fact that Sherman was six foot four and Frankie four foot ten worked to their advantage. They looked smart and cool – note that publicity shot in their suits with velvet collars – actually the UK Teddy Boy look though they weren’t to know that. Cholly was to work with Tamla-Motown and those side to side movements of the Four Tops were his creation. He died, a dance legend, in 2003.
On 30 March 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers started a 10-day run with the Platters, the Cleftones and saxophonist Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor for Alan Freed at the Brooklyn Paramount. The Platters had the No.1 with ‘The Great Pretender’ and the Teenagers were in the Top 10 so the show was bound to do well. The fashion moment belongs to the Valentines who wore white suits with red hearts and had crazy, coloured shoes.
The acts performed six shows a day in-between the showing of an Abbott and Costello movie and even though ticket prices were around $2, the gross for the ten days was $200,000. Expecting a riot, the police were patrolling the concert as though they were at Alcatraz. Freed had turned down $30,000 flat fee for hosting a rival package at another New York theatre, so you can sense how profitable this was.
Relatively little of that take got to the performers, especially the Teenagers. A Cash Box cover picture showed Goldner and Joe Kolsky with the Teenagers. Kolsky was the co-director of Gee with Goldner and he was a gangster and a front man for the infamous Morris Levy. Morris had got half-control of Goldner’s labels as he was covering his gambling debts.
Frankie Lymon was to say, “They bought me whatever I wanted. What would any kid of 13 want? I didn’t want bank accounts. They’d pat me on the head and tell me how great I was.”
Each of the Teenagers was given $10 a week, which was later increased to $25. If anyone asked, Goldner would say that their earnings were going into a trust fund which would be available when they were 21. Yeah, right.
The Brooklyn Paramount is where things started to go wrong. Already they were being swindled out of their royalties but here they were having to stay in a theatre day after day from 10 in the morning til 10 a night and the clue was in their name, the Teenagers. Frankie was 13: Herman, Sherman and Joe were 15: and Jimmy was 16. The school leaving age was 16 so what provisions were being made, especially for Frankie?
I know that child labour laws were strict in the UK as Helen Shapiro has told me that she still had to study in school terms. This was similar legislation in the US but with one unwritten proviso – Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were black.
The Supreme Court decision from 1954 outlawing racial segregation in public education took decades to implement and, shamefully, the welfare of black children outside their community was virtually non-existent. Frankie’s overseers could easily avoid fulfilling the law by allocating him a tutor who could state that a certain number of hours each day were being devoted to education and that he was not being overworked.
Would Morris Levy be the slightest bit concerned about Frankie Lymon’s education? Of course not. He didn’t even employ qualified teachers. He told girls from his night-clubs to go to the Paramount. They may well have taught him a few things but I doubt if they were in the syllabus.
The group was to enrol with the School for Young Professionals in New York City. They would attend if they were in the area but otherwise they would study by correspondence. The black magazine, Hue, ran a feature on Frankie in which he said he was concentrating on schoolwork. Nice PR if you can get it.
More important to Levy than schoolwork was having a strong follow-up. ‘I Want You To Be My Girl’. was written by Herman Santiago but suffered from being too similar to their debut. The song was in existence before the Teenagers met Goldner and probably Barrett and yet the songwriting credit is Goldner and Barrett. The single reached No.13 in the US and didn’t chart in the UK. My inclination would have been to go with the B-side, a doo-wop ballad, ‘I’m Not a Know-it-all’, written by Buddy Kaye, the composer of ‘A – You’re Adorable’ for Perry Como in 1949.
Maybe Frankie realised that something was wrong as when they appeared at the Apollo, he sang “I’m not Richie Barrett” instead of “I’m Not a Know-it-all”, a little touch of rebellion. Although Barrett has an impressive CV (discovering the Chantels and Little Anthony and the Imperials and recording the original of ‘Some Other Guy’), Barrett was another cruel, divisive figure, terrorising his most famous group, the Three Degrees.
On 20 April 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were an added attraction to a nationwide touring party, The Biggest Rock’n’Roll Show Of 1956, which ran through until early June and featured Bill Haley, the Platters, LaVern Baker, Bo Diddley and several others. This was a gruelling tour, travelling long distances by coach and occasionally by plane.
The Teenagers witnessed the segregation of audiences in the south and experienced racial tension. They saw that the Drifters and the Flamingos had guns close to hand: the Colts too but I suppose the clue was in their name. There was a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama from those who objected to a show featuring both black and white performers.
Bill Haley and his Comets had star treatment, regularly staying in Hilton and Sheridan Hotels, while the others were in fleabag digs or slept on the bus. Sometimes the white performers would eat in a restaurant and food would be brought out to the black artists.
Those troubles aside, Frankie was rather liking the night-club hostesses who were giving him their time. Although they were around 30, he had relationships with a couple of them and he would tell reporters that they were his mother. He was almost caught out when a reporter saw him with his ‘mother’ in New York and a different ‘mother’ in Chicago, but the reporter didn’t put two and two together.
It could be argued that Lymon’s real parents should have been around, especially when they were in New York, but Levy and Freed discouraged that. In particular, questions might be raised about finances and working practices: no, far better to say only those involved in the show were allowed backstage. It does seem amazing that children were being treated so callously, especially after all the scandal regarding the drugs being given to Judy Garland a few years earlier.
But that’s not all. Zola Taylor of the Platters, who was known as ‘The Dish’, was a sophisticated 18-year-old. She was attracted to the young Frankie and, on and off, she had a sexual relationship with him for some years. You might think that no woman would ever admit to this and thereby incriminate herself, but after his death, she was one of three claimants for his future royalties and she staked her claim by revealing their sexual history.
This definitely happened. There is on You Tube a 2014 interview with Jimmy and Herman by the DJ Tom Meros. He is a hopeless interviewer, packing his questions with the information that he should be drawing from them, so that very often all they can say is ‘Yes’. To make matters worse, he doesn’t listen to what they saying and so doesn’t respond as he should. When he asks about Frankie marrying Zola Taylor, they start laughing about things that were happening in the back of the bus on the early tours. Okay, they were kids themselves back then and probably thought “Good luck, Frankie” but what about the other performers including the rest of the Platters. Didn’t anyone think this was appalling? What would the adults have thought if it was the other way round, that is, if Frankie was a young girl and Zola a top male singer?
To the general public, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were innocence personified. By their sheer example, they encouraged others to start their own groups. There is a division of doo-wop, kiddie doo-wop featuring groups like Tiny Tim and the Hits with ‘Wedding Bells’ and the Students with ‘I’m So Young’, both with soaring lead voices.
Naturally, rival record companies wanted their own Frankie Lymon. Like the Teenagers, the Schoolboys recorded with Jimmy Wright and his Orchestra and the double-sided single of ‘Please Say You Want Me’/‘Shirley’ for OKeh is well up to the Teenagers’ standard. Best of all is their nonsensical ‘Ding A Ling Coo Mop’ from 1957. The Schoolboys didn’t have hits but they too got involved with drugs and older women. One of their number, Roger Hayes, died while serving a life sentence for murder.
The Kodaks from New Jersey were snapped up by Bobby Robinson’s Fury label and recorded ‘Oh Gee, Oh Gosh!’ The song is like the Solitaires’ ‘Walkin’ Along’ and is developed along the Teenagers’ template, right down to the sax break. The lead singer, 15-year-old Pearl McKinnon, was strongly influenced by Frankie Lymon and she briefly sang with the Teenagers after Frankie left, becoming a soul singer in the 70s.
The Six Teens from Los Angeles had a 12-year-old in the line-up but ‘A Casual Look’ is about someone getting both married and conscripted. There was Little Jimmy Rivers and the Tops with ‘Puppy Love’, but special mention goes to the Channels with ‘The Closer You Are’ with its excellent, five-part harmonies. It is a superb song written by 15-year-old Earl Lewis and the controlled way he glides in and out of falsetto is impressive.
Jimmy Castor and the Juniors knew the Teenagers and if Frankie were ill, Jimmy would deputise. Jimmy wrote and recorded ‘I Promise To Remember’ for Mercury, which was very much in the Teenagers’ vein. George Goldner thought the song ideal for Frankie so he rush-released a rival version which climbed to No.33 in the US charts in June. Lymon delivers a great, soaring lead and Sherman, the bass singer, has fun with his “holly-pop-a-cow-cow”.
Jimmy Castor had missed out on a hit record but not to worry. He wasn’t cheated out of his songwriting royalties and he used his $2,500 to move his family from the area. Later he played sax on Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez’s ‘Rinky Dink’ and he became a chart name with soul records, especially ‘Troglodyte (Cave Man)’, in the 70s.
Frankie’s flipside, ‘Who Can Explain’ was another attempt at rewriting ‘Fools’, featuring a mumbling start and a powerful sax break. It was written by Brill Building veterans – Roy Alfred (‘Lean Baby’, ‘Rock And Roll Waltz’) and Abner Silver (‘Wisdom of a Fool’, ‘Young And Beautiful’). They were writing to a formula and they could have done it better.
In June Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers found themselves with LaVern Baker, the Johnny Burnette Trio and Lonnie Donegan. Donegan had come to the US for The Perry Como Show on TV and a succession of concert dates. “It was ridiculous and I felt like a human sacrifice,” he recalled of the opening show at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, “All the black acts were backed by an orchestra but I had no parts as I’d come from a jazz band. I was alone with a little Martin guitar and I had to sing ‘Rock Island Line’. We would do five shows a day, the audience would sit down with a bunch of sandwiches, put their feet on their stage and sit there for 12 hours. In between the performances, they screened a terrible English thriller to get people to leave.”
The group’s fourth single, ‘The ABC’s Of Love’, had originally been scheduled as the follow-up to ‘I Want You To Be My Girl’. It was a fun song but a nonsense one, attributed to George Goldner and Richie Barrett. It only reached No.43 but that was still good for a black group on a minor label and the Teenagers had had four Top 50 hits within a year. The B-side, a plaintive ballad ‘Share’ boasted a terrific performance from Frankie but the Teenagers were doing too much: this would have worked better as a solo recording.
Throughout July 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were appearing on the Top Record Tour with Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry, and they were back on the road in September in The Biggest Show of 56 with Bill Haley and the Platters, which ran through until November. They had to contend with a snowstorm in Denver but no doubt Zola kept Frankie warm.
The group had filmed their contribution to Rock! Rock! Rock! in a day, but the whole film can’t have taken much longer. The Teenagers perform ‘Baby Baby’ and ‘I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent’ very professionally. At the end of ‘Delinquent’, Lymon clasps his hands in prayer and looks heavenward, a glorious moment.
‘I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent’ had been given to the Teenagers by Bobby Spencer of the Cadillacs, but George Goldner took the credit. It was a response to critics who said that rock’n’roll was about delinquency so maybe Frankie Lymon was the wrong person to deliver this message, although his performance was tremendous.
At the time, I loved ‘Baby, Baby’ and I still do. It is a cheerful song with a teasing stop/start rhythm. Frankie shouts “Stop!” for no apparent reason between the verses, and the song ends with him going, “That’s all, bye-bye!” That ending is cribbed from Little Richard’s ‘Every Hour’ (1951). The film’s producer Milton Subotsky was listed as the composer, alongside Glen T Moore, who wrote for Bing Crosby.
Prior to the film’s release, ‘I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent’, was chosen as the group’s next 45. Strangely, it did not chart in America. It reached No.12 in the UK, followed a few weeks later by the B-side,’ Baby Baby’, which peaked at No.4.
Rock! Rock! Rock! opened in 400 cinemas in the US including 80 in the New York area on 5 December 1956. At the same time, their debut LP, The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, appeared on Gee and comprised the ten single tracks, plus ‘Love Is A Clown’ and ‘Am I Fooling Myself Again’, the first attributed to George Goldner and the other to Morris Levy. ‘Love Is A Clown’ has a pleasant enough performance but the song is unmemorable. The bluesy ‘Am I Fooling Myself Again’ is a strong track and I would have liked to have heard Lymon on some real blues. The album made No.19 on the US album charts.
Although it wasn’t released at the time, the group had a session with a band led by the swing drummer Panama Francis and tried a jazz standard, ‘Little White Lies’ as Goldner was widening their repertoire. Lymon is fine but the Teenagers are lifeless.
At the start of 1957, Gee issued the EPs, Go Rockin’ and Go Romantic, although they only contained two new cuts. These were coupled for the group’s next single, ‘Teenage Love’ and ‘Paper Castles’ – the last single on which Frankie would work with the Teenagers. ‘Teenage Love’ is an underrated track with Frankie in command, a fine sax break, a refrain of “Rundy-rundy-papa-too-run-run” and the whole thing ending on a shouted “Hey!” What’s not to like?
‘Teenage Love’ is attributed to Al Cooper, who wrote some minor successes, but did he really write this with Morris Levy? The more legitimate songwriting team of Aaron Schroeder and Ben Weisman wrote the B-side, the ballad ‘Paper Castles’. This song has been ignored but if the likes of Tony Bennett had gone for it, it could have been a standard. It’s another terrific performance from Frankie.
In February 1957 the film Don’t Knock The Rock was shown at the Times Square Paramount with a live show from the Teenagers and the Platters, though neither act was in the film. After two weeks, the Teenagers went to the annual carnival in Panama and performed for a week. A show in Colòn attracted 13,000 and a newspaper report said they were paid $7,500 for the week. If the Teenagers read that, what did they think?