Remembering Frankie Lymon

Fifty-two years ago today, one of our youngest chart-topping artists passed away. Franklin Joseph ‘Frankie’ Lymon, the voice of The Teenagers.

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(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.

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(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.

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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

Remembering Bobby Darin

Named after a faulty sign outside a Chinese restaurant (the letters M-A-N were blacked out, leaving only D-A-R-I-N), today we remember perhaps the most underrated of the big fifties stars…

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Underrated, perhaps, because nobody knew where to fit him in. He didn’t look much like a teen-idol. He could sing rock ‘n’ roll, as well as more old-fashioned swing and jazz. His hit singles include both self-penned songs, like his debut ‘Splish Splash’, and modern interpretations of standards, such as his 1961 Top 10, ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’.

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1936, into a family of low-level mobsters and vaudeville singers, his mother was actually his grandma and his sister his biological mother  – a fact he didn’t find out until he was in his thirties. He was a sickly child, with recurring bouts of rheumatic fever, and always knew that he was not expected to live to an old age.

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(The sheet music for Darin’s first big hit.)

Which perhaps explains why he crammed so much into his short life. Songwriter, singer, actor, presenter, political campaigner, chess player… His two UK chart toppers perhaps best sum up his approach to life and music. In the space of four months in 1959 he hit #1 with the swaying rock ‘n’ roll ballad ‘Dream Lover’

And then with a cover of ‘Mack the Knife’, a German musical number from the 1920s, about a murdering, thieving, raping ‘shark’ called MacHeath…

Two number ones of the highest quality. ‘Mack the Knife’ stands out in particular – it doesn’t sound much like any of the other hits of the time, and the lyrics are pretty niche. It’s simply a record that got to #1 because it’s really, really good. Darin continued to have hits through the early sixties, including karaoke standard ‘Beyond the Sea’ and one of my personal faves, ‘Things’.

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(Bobby Darin with Connie Francis – whom he wrote songs for and had a relationship with – and Ed Sullivan in 1960.)

As the sixties progressed he moved into films, then TV and political campaigning. Darin was heavily involved in Robert F. Kennedy’s career, and he went into a deep depression when Kennedy was assassinated, having been present when it happened.

He continued to perform right up until his death, and by the end was on oxygen before and after each performance. Bobby Darin passed away during an operation on his heart, aged just thirty seven.

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Bobby Darin, May 14th 1936 – December 20th 1973

 

Remembering Kay Starr

On this day three years ago, one of our earliest chart-toppers passed away: Kay Starr, smoky voiced pre-rock chanteuse.

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Born in 1922, on a Native-American Reservation, Katherine Laverne Starks parents were a sprinkler fitter and a chicken raiser, and she was singing with bands in Texas from the age of ten, to earn a few extra dollars for her family. (Sounds like the sort of story you might invent, were you challenged to invent a story from Depression-era America…) She sang with big bands through the thirties and forties, before going solo and recording two of my favourite pre-rock n roll #1 singles.

Back when I was working my way through the first fifty or so UK chart-toppers, before Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee et al came along, I did find it a bit of a slog at times. Painfully earnest crooners (Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield), irritating novelties (‘That Doggie in the Window’, ‘I See the Moon’) and staid instrumentals (Eddie Calvert, Mantovani) plodded by, one after the other. It was the hidden gems, such as Kay Starr, that made the journey more bearable.

She popped up as early as chart-topper number three, in January 1953, with the sprightly, sassy ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’ – a record that was a whole lot of fun, and one that proved a lot of my preconceptions about the pre-rock era wrong.

And then we had to wait a while for her second, and final, #1. A record that Starr was, apparently not too keen on, but that gave her a hugely unexpected hit: ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’. The story of a teenager (though Starr was thirty-two when she recorded it) who comes home to find her parents trying to waltz to one of those new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll discs. It hit the top in the spring of 1956, just before Elvis went stratospheric with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and can perhaps be counted as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers, even if it is poking slight fun at the genre…

(I’ve linked to an 1980s TV performance, as it’s a lot of fun and shows Ms Starr still swinging in her sixties. Follow the link above to hear the original.)

And that was that for Kay Starr on the UK charts. She only ever charted five singles here, though she would have presumably had more had the charts begun before November 1952. In the US she was much more prolific, with fifteen Top 10 hits between 1949 and 1957. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was the biggest, but she also had big duets with fellow UK chart-topper Tennessee Ernie Ford. In later years she toured with Pat Boone, and Tony Bennett.

I think the reason that Kay Starr stood out amongst the other pre-rock stars is that there is such a sparkle in her voice – it flirts, flitters and then suddenly goes all husky-sexy. Billie Holiday apparently claimed that Starr was the only ‘white woman who could sing the blues’. It’s a great voice, but not ‘proper’ like her cut-glass contemporaries. She could have succeeded as a rock ‘n’ roll singer like Connie Francis or Brenda Lee, had she been born a decade later.

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Kay Starr, July 21st 1922 – November 3rd 2016

Remembering Eddie Fisher

I’m starting out a new feature today, remembering some of the biggest stars that we have met so far. The only requirements needed to feature here are that we have already covered your chart-topping careers on this countdown, and that you are dead…

On this day, then, nine years ago, Eddie Fisher – the King of pre-rock ‘n’ roll – passed away, aged 82. The first artist to score multiple #1 singles in the UK. An artist whose two chart-toppers came in the blink of an eye, in the first eight months of the singles chart’s existence. Numbers 4 and 10.

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First came the sombre ‘Outside of Heaven’, in which he stood outside the house of the girl he once loved. You can read my original post here. It’s sedate, proper… traditional.

Then came the equally sombre ‘I’m Walking Behind You’ – a duet with Sally Sweetland – in which he followed his ex to church on her wedding day. Again it’s sedate, proper, traditional… and pretty darn creepy when you listen carefully.

I struggled to really get his chart-topping singles when I originally wrote about them, and still do. He had a good voice, they were well-constructed songs… They were just so old-fashioned. Old-fashioned sounding even among their contemporaries, and incredibly old-fashioned when compared to where we are now in the countdown – slap bang in the middle of the swinging sixties (amazingly, given the way pop music has changed, we’re only actually thirteen years down the line in real time…)

What the songs do offer is an interesting glimpse into how music sounded before rock ‘n’ roll came along, and Fisher – along with Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Johnnie Ray – was one of the biggest male stars of the late forties / early fifties. Only one of his singles failed to make the UK Top 10, while he enjoyed 25 (!) US Top 10s, including 4 #1s.

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He had quite the life outside of the recording studio, too. That is, yes, him with Elizabeth Taylor, his second wife (he was number four of eight for her). He left his first wife, Debbie Reynolds – Taylor’s best friend! – for her. It was quite the scandal, and proof that misbehaving pop stars weren’t a rock ‘n’ roll invention. He was married five times in total, and had four children over the course of them. The oldest of whom was the late, Star Wars great, Carrie Fisher.

So, if you can, take a moment out of your day, click on the links, and transport yourself back to 1953, when Eddie Fisher was crooning his way to the top of the charts and was, for a short time, the man with the most UK #1 singles in history.

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Eddie Fisher, August 10th 1928 – September 22nd 2010

Remembering Doris Day

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With the sad news that Doris Day has passed away, at the grand old age of ninety-seven, I thought it would be fitting to remember her two UK chart-toppers. I covered them in my countdown last year, but they are always worth a re-listen (follow the links below to read the original posts…)

Her first was one of the longest running #1 hits in British chart history – ‘Secret Love’, from the soundtrack to her hit movie ‘Calamity Jane’, which spent a whole 9 weeks on top in the spring/summer of 1954.

She followed this up two years later, with possibly one of the best-known songs to ever  have topped the charts, ‘Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)’

Of course, Day’s musical success went far beyond her two chart-toppers. She scored hits throughout the fifties, and she would have had several more had the charts begun before 1952. My favourite of hers, though, is her final UK Top 10, from 1964… ‘Move Over Darling’.

And it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t mention the fact that she got one of the most famous name-checks in one of the most successful movies ever… ‘Grease’ (which is probably where I first heard of her!) She most certainly was not brought up that way… Which was a big part of her charm, and her longevity. In 2011, for example, she became the oldest artist to score a UK Top 10 album featuring new material, aged eighty-nine.

RIP.