Fifty-two years ago today, one of our youngest chart-topping artists passed away. Franklin Joseph ‘Frankie’ Lymon, the voice of The Teenagers.
(The Teenagers, with Frankie Lymon in the centre.)
He barely was – a teenager that is – when their debut hit ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ made #1. Lymon was thirteen when it was recorded, and he sounds his age as you listen to it now, sixty-four years later. His unbroken voice flits like a sparrow around a doo-wop song about heartache, like a choir boy gone rogue. Listen to it below, and read my original post on it here.
(Performing the song on national TV, and bantering with Frankie Laine – a man not short of #1 singles by 1956.)\
Note how early ‘Why Do Fools…’ hit #1. Mid-1956. Only the 2nd ever rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper, after ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (not counting Kay Starr’s in-name-only ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’.) The Teenagers were knocked from the top by Doris Day, after they themselves had deposed Pat Boone. That’s where we were, when five kids from Harlem shook things up. In nearly every one of their songs – which do all sound a bit similar – a saxophone solo comes charging along, sounding as if it is hell-bent on blowing codgers like Boone away for good.
Their only other UK chart hit was the brilliantly titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’, which made #12 and sounds like the theme song to a misguided government campaign aimed at errant youths. The Teenagers still tour today, Herman Santiago being the only surviving member. But this is not their story. This is Frankie Lymon’s, and he had already left the band by 1957.
(Lymon with Little Richard)
His first solo release, a cover of the thirties hit ‘Goody Goody’, was fine, but didn’t catch on. And by then, aged fifteen, Lymon was already addicted to heroin. He hadn’t had much of a childhood, he would relate in an ‘Ebony’ magazine interview in 1967, growing up in Harlem around prostitutes and pimps, smoking weed and ‘knowing’ women, all before he even joined The Teenagers. Watching him perform, you can definitely see the street-kid swagger behind the suits and the polished smiles.
(I think this is a genuinely live performance and, if so, then wow! I’m out of breath just from listening.)
The hits dried up as the fifties drew to a close, and the drugs started to take their toll. There was a steady stream of women – fake marriages, then scam marriages in Mexico, making the title of his biggest hit sound ever more prescient. His managers and label offered no help, and there clearly wasn’t much of a support network around him. Eventually he got caught up in drug charges and, rather than go to jail, he was drafted into the army.
In the forces he went clean, and sober, and every-so-often AWOL to perform tiny, low-key gigs, by this point near forgotten amongst the British Invasion acts that were dominating the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. He left the army, recorded a few demos, and by 1968 was preparing a comeback with Roulette Records.
Unfortunately, and in a tragic Hollywood ending, the day before his first recording session with his new label, Lymon was found dead on his grandmother’s bathroom floor, a needle in his arm. He was twenty-five.
You could say this about any child star that goes off the rails, but there’s it’s almost painful to watch Frankie Lymon performing with The Teenagers, the proto-boyband that brought some New York swagger to the staid singles chart of the mid-fifties, and to think what was to come.
Frankie Lymon, September 30th 1942 – February 27th 1968