The startling story of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers by Spencer Leigh
4.END OF THE LINE
In the autumn of 1957, Gee Records released a 10-inch album entitled Frankie Lymon At The London Palladium, although it was put out in the UK, more accurately, as Frankie Lymon In London, but even then some tracks had been cut in America. The sleeve note referred to teenagers, but Frankie was tackling standards with orchestral arrangements and going for an older market. ‘Goody Goody’ was a UK Top 30 hit and even though he performed it on American Bandstand, the US public ignored both the single and album: a shame because there were good performances and his scat singing on ‘Somebody Love Me’ was tremendous. The outtakes from the sessions which have now been issued are equally good.
Opening in September 1957 and filmed earlier, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers appeared in another Alan Freed film, Mr Rock and Roll, the time along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Brook Benton and Clyde McPhatter. The publicity proclaimed, “Young people: show your adults how terrific your music is! Take them to see this picture that explains all about the new exciting rhythm. They’ll love it as much as you do!”
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers performed ‘Fortunate Fellow’ and ‘Love Put Me Out Of My Head’, but their time had gone and no single was released. In December 1957, Frankie appeared solo on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing ‘Goody Goody’ and ‘It’s Christmas Once Again’.
Lymon had been transferred to the newly-founded Roulette label, formed by George Goldner and Alan Freed. Frankie recorded two good, up-tempo rockers, ‘Portable on My Shoulder’ and ‘Thumb Thumb’, but they didn’t sell.
As the album of standards hadn’t sold, Goldner wanted him back rocking and so he made Rockin’ with Frankie Lymon, which was titled Rock’n’Roll in the States. Issued in the summer of 1958, this comprised twelve chart favourites including ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Short Fat Fannie’ and ‘Diana’, which Paul Anka had offered to Frankie and to Little Anthony before he cut it himself.
One track, ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’, made No.58 as a single and he appeared on the nationwide show, Alan Freed’s Big Beat, his response to American Bandstand. His performance was fine but at the end he joined the other acts and the studio audience to groove to Marv Johnson’s ‘I’m Coming Home’. It was innocuous enough but Frankie danced with a white girl. The advertisers down south were furious and withdrew their support, causing the show to be cancelled.
Frankie was now 16 and his voice had changed as shown by the singles, the novelty ‘Up Jumped a Rabbit’ and the rockin’ ‘Melinda’. They were humdrum songs and the performances were not instantly recognisable as Lymon. Frankie was still dating older girls and one of them introduced him to heroin.
Meanwhile, the Teenagers were recording with a new lead singers, Billy Lobrano. ‘Flip Flop’, was a flip flop, but Lobrano had the wrong voice, sounding more like Frankie Avalon.
Coming from Jimmy Castor and the Juniors, Kenny Bobo joined them for a single early in 1960, and then came Johnny Houston, who sounded more like Jackie Wilson. A deal with Columbia yielded a very good A-side, ‘The Draw’, a western song written and produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, featuring Sherman Garnes as the sheriff, but the Teenagers were dropped shortly afterwards. They would never be considered chart potential again, although they performed on oldies shows.
In 1959 Frankie Lymon met Elizabeth Waters, who had done time for theft. They got on well and he did try to kick his drug addiction with the help of his road manager Bob Redcross, who had experienced similar problems with Charlie Parker. His mother was having treatment for cancer although the illness was kept from her and when she died in 1960, she was only 39. This put Lymon back on drugs.
The combination of heroin and alcohol made it impossible for Lymon to maintain his career and he was wrecking his voice. Things brightened up when they had a baby, Francine but she died after two days. They married illegally in 1964 as Elizabeth was not divorced and they moved to Philadelphia with Elizabeth becoming a prostitute to earn money for Frankie’s drugs.
Frank Allen of the Searchers was in for a shock. “On my first visit to America with the Searchers in September 1964, we played 42 shows at the Fox Theatre in Brooklyn over seven days I ended one night by calling in at Joey Dee`s Starliter Club in Manhattan. Mike Pender and myself went with Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley of the Ronettes and Larry Curzon, an executive from The William Morris Agency. The live act on stage, a girl trio called The Rag Dolls, had finished their spot and as we sat chatting, Nedra and Estelle got up to speak to a young man who had just come in. I was introduced to Frankie Lymon. He was into his twenties and had aged a lot. The atmosphere was not casual and he seemed unsettled and worried. I returned to our table and when the girls came back, they explained that he was on the scrounge for money and it was to get drugs. That shocked me as I knew nothing of his addictions. I was thrilled to have shaken his hand but this was so sad.”
There were occasional records but his work had the same desperate ring as his personal life, although the answer to ‘Who Put The Bomp’, ‘I Put The Bomp’ was surprisingly good – and true! Sessions for 20th Century Fox and Columbia came to naught. Frankie was relying on nostalgia to keep his flagging career alive and he would mime his early singles as he couldn’t perform them acceptably.
Frankie should have been receiving songwriting royalties for ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ from Morris Levy, especially as it had been recorded by the Beach Boys, but to quote Levy’s favourite saying, “You want royalties? Go to England!”
By 1965 George Goldner had lost the rights to his labels through his gambling debts being made good by Morris Levy. Levy also gave Lymon $1,500 for the rights to his half-share of ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ but as the agreement had been drawn up by Levy’s lawyer, it was later argued that it was null and void as he was acting for both sides.
As part of the deal, Goldner told the copyright office that Levy had written the song with Lymon, so Levy had complete control of the song and its publishing. In 1967, it was a US hit for the Happenings, and Lymon had been bought out.
With his $1,500, Lymon left Elizabeth and moved to Los Angeles where he was reunited with Zola Taylor from the Platters. She was to claim that they married in Tijuana in 1965, but there was no documentary evidence of this. His addiction continued with heroin costing him $75 a day.
In December 1965 Zola was going with the Platters to Japan for three months. In an unbelievably foolish move, she left Frankie in charge of her house and gave him the money to pay the bills and the mortgage. When she returned, the money had gone, Frankie had gone, and the bills were unpaid.
Frankie met up with another singer with the same problems – Dion. Dion told The Guardian in 2006, “It was the bleakest, darkest and most emotional period of my life. It was hell on earth and I could see that I was at death’s door. I used to get high with Frankie Lymon. We used to share needles. It was pretty grim.” At one stage, Frankie was even begging on the streets.
Frankie was interested in playing the drums and he stole a set from a recording studio, but he ended up selling them to pay for his habit. He was arrested and his pitiful plight was outlined in court. The court came to a remarkable decision. Frankie would undergo rehabilitation and then join the army instead of jail. He was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Coming out of rehab in July 1966, Frankie said, “I’m not ashamed to let people know I took the cure. Maybe my story will stop someone from going wrong.”
Thinking that his recovery would aid recruitment, the army agreed to a feature, Comeback Of An Ex-Star for the black magazine, Ebony. He explained how fit he was, how much he enjoyed the army and that when he returned to performing, he would be much improved because of all the traumas he had faced – “This realisation will add depth to my capacity as an artist.”
Frankie befriended a schoolteacher Emira Eagle whom he met at a benefit concert. They wanted to get married on 30 June 1967, but Frankie wasn’t allowed to leave the base. He went AWOL for three days and then returned to Fort Gordon to face the discipline. There were further disciplinary issues and he came out of the army on 22 December 1967, said to be unable to adjust to army life. He planned to settle down with Emira in Augusta, Georgia.
In January 1968 he was back in the studio in New York and cut ‘Sea Breeze’ and ‘I’m Sorry’ with a view to a Roulette release, an indication that Levy still had some hold on him. ‘I’m Sorry’ is a good, Motown-styled record that later became popular on the northern soul scene. In ‘Sea Breeze’, he is singing about a magical place, but is it about finding paradise in drugs or going to heaven? It’s a strong plaintive ballad and the echo on Lymon’s voice makes him sound like Paul Anka. A tribute song, ‘Harlem Roulette’ by the Mountain Goats, released in 2012, mentions this track,
By February 1968 his voice was fine and he knew what he wanted to do with it. He had befriended the producer Sam Bray and he was going to make a new album: “Sinatra is where it’s at and I’d rather do a fine ballad or a swinging jazz tune. I’ve grown up a lot. I was merely a pawn in a big chess game.”
Frankie flew from Georgia to New York for a recording session the following afternoon. On 27 February 1968, he spent the night at his grandmother’s house while she was visiting a relative. It would appear that he took some heroin to celebrate his comeback and he was found dead in the bathroom the following day. He is buried in St Raymond’s cemetery in the Bronx.
And what of the Teenagers? Sherman Garnes died after open-heart surgery in 1977 and Joe Negroni died of a stroke in 1978. Both Lewis Lymon and Jimmy Castor have at different times (and together) fronted a reformed Teenagers with Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant. Most of the time Herman was an odd job man and Jimmy was driving a cab. The Teenagers have appeared three times in the UK since 1957 – Herman and Jimmy were joined by Lewis and Delores Alston for Wembley in 1991; with Lewis, Jimmy Castor and Bobby Jay for Hemsby in 1993; and with Tommy Lockhart and Timothy Wilson for Camber Sands in 2013.
‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ was used in the 1973 films, American Graffiti and That’ll Be the Day. In 1981, Diana Ross’ revival was a worldwide hit and the song was part of a Hallmark advertising campaign. Emira asked Morris Levy for Frankie’s share of the proceeds, which was contested by Elizabeth and Zola who both claimed to be Frankie’s legal wife. This came as a surprise to Emira who thought she was legally married and had no idea that Frankie might be committing bigamy. Whoever won would still have to extract the money from Morris Levy. At first the court decided that Elizabeth was entitled to the money but this was reversed and the decision went Emira’s way.
In 1986 Herman and Jimmy submitted a counterclaim to say that they had written ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’. Levy contended that this was nonsense and told the court that he had written the song, but “I would be misleading you if I said I wrote songs like Chopin.” Herman and Jimmy’s authorship was accepted but the claim for royalties was reversed because of the statute of limitations. The court ruled that they should have made their claim earlier, but as they pointed out, they were dealing with Morris Levy and feared for their lives. So, as it stands, the songwriting credit remains as Morris Levy and Frankie Lymon.
A TV documentary, The Many Wives of Frankie Lymon, inspired the cinema release, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, which is looking back to the fight for Lymon’s music by his three wives – a prostitute, a Platter and a schoolteacher. It’s entertaining but they miss the main ingredient of the story by having 24-year-old Larenz Tate play the young Lymon and under age sex isn’t even mentioned.
In 1993 Boyz II Men inducted Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Deservedly so. Their career was short – effectively as short as Buddy Holly’s but they had a strong influence on what happened next. They brought doo-wop to a teenage audience and they influenced Little Anthony and the Imperials, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Ronettes. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Manhattan Transfer. Even Eamon, famous for his No1 with 33 f-words, sang his praises. “He had a killer voice but people said, ‘Go on your own’ and he never had another hit. He was in the spotlight too early.”
There had been child protégés before, but for aspiring black teenagers, there was only one role model – Frankie Lymon. If he had lived longer and sorted himself out, he could have written about the horrors of his life and campaigned for legislation to ensure that nothing like this could happen to a child star again.